Funny how life worked out for a self-described curator of “joy ball” comedy shows around Philadelphia.
Betty J. Smithsonian grew up in the Jersey suburbs, and somehow along the way, found herself addicted to drugs and alcohol. She’s clean now (23 years!) and a tech expert consulting with businesses and nonprofits.
That’s by day.
By night, Smithsonian uses some of the lessons she learned in both tech and recovery to bring laughter and joy to others in the city she now calls home
At venues around town, Smithsonian invites friends and fellow performers to showcase their work. And she also takes the stage.
“I’m a curator, I’m a performer,” said Smithsonian, who goes exclusively in this metier by her stage name. “I want us to create this energy and spirit of the idiot” — the village idiot character, she explained, charged with both making us laugh and keeping us honest.
Coming up next is “The Feast,” Nov. 18 at Vox Populi in Callowhill, with three back-to-back comedy shows arranged by Smithsonian.
Sohrab Haghverdi caps the evening with his Philadelphia Fringe Festival hit “Ohnonononononoooo9/11MANComesREALLYreallyhardTONIGHT.”
In the middle is “Gummo 2” starring Andrew Shearer and Liam Paris. Up first is Smithsonian’s group, “Big Ass Bitties – the Stupidest Show You’ve Ever Seen,” with Philly clown Sarah Knittel, the Flannel Chucks, and others.
“I want to provoke my friends to come and take big risks so I can laugh at their joy balls,” Smithsonian said. If performers are staid, arrogant, or too comfortable, they won’t be included in the roster.
“The audience wants the performer to succeed,” she said. “We found parking. We got a babysitter. We took time out of our week to come and see you. It’s your obligation and your honor to make us laugh and entertain us.”
Haghverdi describes Smithsonian as the ultimate comic collaborator — a true connector who values the community comedy builds and who improves colleagues’ work over coffee and conversation.
For example, Haghverdi was just beginning to consider a piece about 9/11 when he first met Smithsonian for coffee earlier this year. Alongside his parents, he was a refugee from political turmoil in Iran, but it was with Smithsonian that he found the key to the charged bit.
“She actually gave me very much of what is the ending of my piece,” Haghverdi said. “In conversation — I just stole the idea. I felt we were both speaking the same language. We are both looking for the funny in the most mundane parts of our conversation.”
Later, he tested a version of the piece at a Smithsonian-arranged comedy night. “I performed it, and it kind of bombed,” he said. “But, if I couldn’t have experimented within the context that Betty offered, I would have never known how to explain” the character.
Smithsonian describes Haghverdi as a “sort of a genius performer” in “Ohnonononononoooo9/11MANComesREALLYreallyhardTONIGHT.”
“How the hell is he going to get the audience to love him as a fan of Osama Bin Laden? It’s a risk — a huge risk that he takes. I cannot see any bigger risk. It’s great, I love it,” she said. “He’s not trying to make [the audience] angry. He loves them. His art is much more nuanced.”
Smithsonian often combines her own standup with curating. On Dec. 21, for example, Punch Line Philly in Fishtown will present “Holigay, Holigay: A Holy Moly Night of Comedy,” inviting the audience to “join Betty and her non-denominational friends for a variety comedy show” that includes “skits, bits, and tits.” She also regularly arranges Tuesday’s Case Comedy shows at Abyssinia restaurant in West Philadelphia.
“All we want is to do is connect,” she said. “That’s all anybody wants on this planet. That’s what we are craving.”
The West Philly resident considers herself lucky that the project management and organizational skills she uses on her day job (where she is known as Beth), combined with the tenacity and willingness to ask for help in her recovery journey, have allowed her to build a joyful world of risk-takers and “idiots.”
“I break even by making good money during the day and losing money during the night,” she laughed.
Haghverdi, also of West Philadelphia, cobbles together work as a science performer at the Franklin Institute and a teaching artist at many high schools but finds his true happiness in performance.
In “Ohnonononononoooo9/11MANComesREALLYreallyhardTONIGHT,” there’s a trick that will catch the audience, touching both its humanity and its hypocrisy.
“You put on the show, you make them laugh. They applaud you, and they give you a standing ovation, and then right before they go to bed, they get so aware of their duality” that they rethink their most basic assumptions about terrorism and the Middle East.
The audience, Haghverdi said, comes to realize that terrorism exists in many forms, and all of us — even the so-called good people — are complicit.
“The Feast,” Nov. 18, Vox Populi, 319 N. 11th St., Phila. 215-238-1236,