In October, he was in town for the Bentzen Ball, performing for the first time at the 9:30 Club — not far from Howard University, where he went to college.
“That 9:30 Club show almost brought tears to my eyes, how supportive they were,” Smith says. “I couldn’t even be that funny toward the end, I was just like ‘Y’all are just awesome, thanks for letting me be here.’ ”
The support made Smith nostalgic for his time in D.C.
“I miss the small community,” he says. “Doing shows seven days a week, people kept seeing me on the street and saying, ‘Oh, you funny.’ Bus drivers would stop their buses and say, ‘You funny!’ and drive off. You felt love in D.C.”
When he started, in 2003, D.C.’s comedy community was small but full of talented comics — Rory Scovel, Jermaine Fowler, Aparna Nancherla — who, like Smith, have found greater success in other cities.
On New Year’s Eve, Smith headlines the DC Improv for the first time. It’s a milestone for the 32-year-old comedian, who credits the venue for helping set him on the path to success. In 2011, the Improv booked Smith to open for John Mulaney, a writer for “Saturday Night Live” at the time, and the two hit it off backstage.
“I was just asking ‘SNL’ questions and [saying,] ‘You’re the greatest comic I’ve ever seen,’ just talking, like a nerd,” Smith says.
A couple years later, he auditioned for a role on a sitcom Mulaney created. “I emailed him and he remembered me,” Smith says.
The show bounced around in development, starting at NBC and winding up on Fox this fall. Smith plays Motif, a comedian who shares an apartment with Mulaney and a friend played by “SNL” alum Nasim Pedrad. The multicamera sitcom, which is filmed in front of a studio audience, premiered to low ratings and harsh reviews (see sidebar) but Smith credits the show with making him a better comic.
“My process before would be me getting onstage with a couple of ideas and just free-falling and hoping s— works out,” he says. “Doing the sitcom really taught me the value of rehearsal and practicing. Now that I rehearse, it feels like I’m an instrument. There’s not a lot of dead air in my act anymore.”
Smith moved to Los Angeles this year for “Mulaney,” but when production wrapped in October, he was in a rush to get back to New York.
“In November I was in L.A. and I was bored,” he says. “I don’t know how to relax. People are always saying, ‘Let’s go hiking!’ Constantly! I hiked the f— out of California and I still had 30 more days to kill in November.”
Now he’s subletting an apartment in New York and doing as many sets a night as he can, touring as Mulaney’s opening act and on his own. He hopes to record a special next year and to return for a second season of “Mulaney.”
“Right now, I don’t really have a plan,” Smith says. “I’m keeping my life flexible.”
DC Improv, 1140 Connecticut Ave. NW; Wed., 8 p.m. & 10:15 p.m., sold out.
The little kicks
Fox’s “Mulaney” (Sundays, 7 p.m.) hasn’t been the most critically or commercially successful sitcom — its episode order was reduced shortly after the premiere and it’s switched time slots — but Seaton Smith says the vibe on the set was always positive. The day after the premiere, creator and star John Mulaney got up during a meeting to read a review. “It said, ‘putrid, no voice, flat characters,’ ” Smith recalls. “And then he ended it with, ‘That was a review of the first season of “Seinfeld.” ’ It was one of those things where you go, OK, what are you going to do?”
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