Elliott Smith is delighted to be alive. The Tampa by way of Ottawa comedian and magician has built a steady career over the past four plus decades, entertaining crowds from Canada to the Caribbean, the Friar’s Club to the National Comedy Hall of Fame Museum in Holiday, Florida, and he wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. In fact it’s all he ever wanted to do since he was six years old. Being able to help people, if only for a little while, forget their problems is the goal, he said. “If I can take them out of reality for a short period of time? What more do I want than that?”
Also the laughs. He loves the laughs.
Admittedly I would have never heard of this particular Elliott Smith if not for a tweet I saw the other day that I found just delightful. Yes I am very easily amused.
Long time readers of this newsletter will know I am something of a Big Elliott Smith Guy, which I’ve written about a few times in here.
From that second one:
I’ve made an asshole of myself in front of beloved bands too many times to count over the past twenty years or so but one I often think about was in like 1998 or 1999 or whenever it was he was touring with Quasi as his band when I saw Elliott Smith standing by the bar at the Troubador in L.A. I was wearing a yellow knit cap in the California heat just like he did all the time because young people don’t know what they’re doing the world is like a dressing room and you’re trying things on constantly going does this work how do I look in this until you settle on something disappointing. He was standing alone and I went up to him nervously and explained how great I thought he was and the entire exchange seemed to really bum him out but I suppose in retrospect things that bum out Elliott Smith isn’t exactly a high bar to cross.
The first time I ever saw him play was a year or so before that at Lupo’s in Providence and we borrowed my college girlfriend’s nice car to drive down there from Worcester and he played Ballad of Big Nothing and I cried standing right there in the middle of the crowd and it had never occurred to me before that point in my life that crying at a show was something that could happen and then we went and got a falafel over at that place on Thayer St. and it was a really good falafel I remember that.
Here’s a podcast I did on one of his records earlier this year if you want to listen to that.
Anyway, and I’m sorry, I simply found the idea of a comedian magician named Elliott Smith very funny. So I wanted to talk to him — at first just to ask if he ever had anyone show up to one of his gigs very, very confused — but then I remembered that sometimes I interview people in here about whatever it is their job is, and especially how those jobs have been impacted during Covid, and a comedian magician is a job as much as anything else, in fact one weirder than most, so it all sort of worked out in the end.
If you want to read previous pieces about working as a pharmacist, or at a water park, or as a sanitation worker, or in coffee shops, or in restaurants (here and here too), or in super markets, or a record store, or as a nurse, or in palliative care, or as a public defender (here too), or as a farmer, there’s a lot more to choose from in the archives.
Most of those you’ll need to be a paying subscriber to read.
So here’s me and Elliott Smith. We talked about some of the highlights of his career, the differences between Canada and Florida, the importance of following your dreams, whether or not audiences are too sensitive nowadays, and, yes, about how he got a number of very confusing phone calls on a really sad day back in 2003.
How long have you been doing this?
I’m going into about forty five years I’ve been doing this. It started when I was six years old. I grew up watching a program on TV called the Mark Wilson Magic Hour on Saturday afternoons. I’d rush home on my bicycle to watch. For my sixth birthday my parents asked what I wanted and I said I want a magic set. I want to be a magician. And they go, that’s nice. Go to school. Get an education. Get a real job. But, here, we’ll get you a magic set. Throughout my career I’ve met a lot of people who when they were kids had a magic set at one point in time. They just didn’t realize how much time and work and effort and patience and diligence and repetition went into it, but I just totally gravitated toward this. I used to come home from school, do my homework, then sequester in my bedroom and practice magic.
A lot of kids are interested in magic. But how do you get from there to realizing it could be a viable career?
Like I said my parents said get an education, get a real job. So, you know, you listen to your parents and I did that. I went to Carleton University. I worked for the Canadian government for a number of years. I worked with restaurants for a long time. My family in the city of Ottawa were very high profile restaurateurs, so I grew up in the restaurant industry. I tried working for my family a number of times but it didn’t work out. From that I went to work at an ad agency. But magic always followed me as part of my life. Even though I had real jobs, as most people would put it, on the weekends I was out doing magic shows. Growing up you listen to your peers. I was hearing from everyone that that’s nice for a hobby, but you have to do what I do. You find a job, you work that job for forty years, then when you're retired you can do what you want. As a young person you’re very influenced. So I listened to them and never thought about pursuing it as a real job.
I was working at an ad agency, and I was on commission doing really well, but at the time there was an economic decline, and I found out I was making more money part time in my magic, something that I loved doing, than what I was doing for a job. So I quit my job and pursued magic full time. A lot of people I was working with were jealous. They said you’re going out and doing what we want to do but don’t have the guts to do. Complacency sets in. You’re working at a job, making a good salary, getting health benefits, vacation, sick leave.1 People get stuck in that. But I saw outside that box. I wasn’t happy working for someone else.
Maybe it’s not quite as fanciful as magician, but similarly, growing up, I didn’t want to be anything else but a writer. For a lot of years I had to work other jobs while writing on the side here and there, until finally I was able to make a living at it. Now look at me.
100%. My attitude was if it didn’t work out and I needed to get a regular job I could do it. I was in sales, marketing, promotions, there was a lot I learned about business. But my career took off. Based on the fact that I did learn about marketing and sales and everything that helped me propel my business as a magician.
You Live in Tampa now?
I live in Ottawa and also the Tampa area. When I was living in Ottawa, I had to go through winters, which I’m sure you know about. As an entertainer, once you get through the Christmas and New Year season, especially if you come from a cold climate, everybody goes on holiday. Where do they go? The warmer climate. Business drops off. Everybody has gone through their holiday parties. Until spring time there’s not much happening. So I thought I should go where the business is and I started working in the Caribbean for three or four months in the winter season. St. Lucia, Cancun, Bahamas, Barbados, Puerto Rico. It was easy to find work because a lot of the hotels were looking for entertainment for the guests. For thirteen or fourteen years I was down in the Caribbean. Then, back in 2018, I had a major contract in Barbados, and they contacted me and said we don’t know if we’ll be able to honor the contract. That kind of sucked. A friend of ours had a place in Florida she wasn’t going to be using and she said you can just go use my place. I say cool! I’m always looking for marketing opportunities, so I thought, hm, look at all the venues here, hotels, resorts. It’s warm here. The climate is exactly what I’m looking for. My wife, her dad was alive at the time, but he was getting up there in years. We always thought if we had to get back for a medical emergency for her dad from the Caribbean, sometimes there’s only a couple flights a week. So if you miss the flight you have to maybe wait a few days. We were thinking, hm, Florida, we can hop a plane. It’s drivable in 24 hours. It’s not as expensive to live here as the Caribbean, so we got our work visas and started working in Florida. Now we spend more time in Florida than Canada because there’s so many opportunities. Especially compared to Ottawa.
I don’t know if you know much about Ottawa, aside from being the capital of Canada. It’s predominantly high tech and government. Over the years there were major cutbacks and things like that, the volume of shows just wasn’t the same. Companies that were having Christmas parties in the past, there was a transition where the companies would say to their staff if you want a party you have to raise your own money. If they had any money leftover from the DJ and hall rental and food and all that, then maybe they’d bring in some entertainment. Here in Florida, I’m on the Gulf coast, so to get to the other coast it’s just a couple of hours. It opens up so many different venues to perform here. It’s crazy. It’s a lot more profitable to be here.
The reason I asked is, coming from Canada, the Tampa area, and Florida in general, is a bit different I imagine. It’s kind of our Most American Place. How do you find the contrast?
Oh yeah. Tampa over the last number of years, taking Covid out of the picture here, has been doing a lot of marketing to a lot of the other states to attract businesses to give them a lot of tax breaks and business incentives. People are moving their head offices to Tampa. The influx of companies and the number of people moving to the Tampa area, Clearwater, St. Pete… I saw something in the Tampa Bay Times the other day projecting the growth of the number of people moving into the area and Florida general and the numbers were crazy.
I can imagine. And now you have Tom Brady down there.
You mentioned Covid. I assume that must have screwed you up for a while there. Although that’s probably another benefit to being in Florida where they haven’t really ever shut down.
100% it was devastating to anyone in the entertainment industry. It was crazy. Who would’ve thunk? I’ve seen highs and lows over the years. I remember in 2000 in Ottawa, the high tech industry was a major source of my income, all these companies had money to burn. They would put on parties, boat cruises, fly in people to interview to work for their company. They had all this booze, entertainment, food. They were spending money like crazy. Then the crash came in 2000 and all of a sudden it was all dried up. It was like, oh my gosh. You know the sine wave, the up and down, up and down? I’ve seen it. But nothing like this, and nothing that’s lasted this long.
Besides performing I book out other entertainers. Prior to Covid I had magicians, hypnotists, impersonators, stand up comics, a whole array. A lot of these guys were… making a living doing their art form. But then Covid hit. Everything dried up. They have financial responsibilities, families. They had to go out and start finding jobs. I feel very blessed I was at a stage in my career when all of this hit where it wasn’t like I was starting out. Financially I’m ok. So I’ve been able to weather it, whereas a lot of these other guys had to find a job. Now that things are starting back up, I’m starting to get bookings for them, but now they’re not available during the week because they have a job. It’s been a crazy transition the last couple years.
I saw that you played at the Friar’s Club? What have been some of the pinnacles of your career so far?
There’s been a number of them. If I go back in my career, in 1976 I had the opportunity to perform for Liberace, which was amazing. As I mentioned, my family were very high profile in the restaurant industry. One of my uncles had a steakhouse, and he was close to one of the performing arts centers. So when any high profile artist came in they’d come over to my uncle’s steak house. He would wine and dine them. When you go in you see the pictures on the wall with my uncle and all these movie stars, you know, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, all of the people. My uncle would entertain in his home as well. So I get a call at 1 o’clock in the morning. I wake up, hello, and it’s my uncle Dave. He says Liberace is at my house and he really likes magic. I say I’ll be right there. You see his stage persona, obviously he was a very flamboyant type of guy. But in a social setting he was very down to earth, a next door type of guy. So I started doing some magic for him. He was eating it up. As a performer of any type, when you have a person or an audience that’s eating up everything you do, it’s like, what more do you want, right? So I did a little bit of magic for him. I didn’t want to wear out my welcome, so he goes, no, no do some more. I ended up doing maybe an hour worth of stuff. At that point in my career, just starting out, being able to perform for someone like Liberace... He took my business card and he signed it on the back, writing, you’re great, Liberace. And he signed it with his fancy signature and put the date. I still have that business card.
So then a few years ago I had the opportunity to perform at the Friar’s Club. Do you know what that is?
Yeah, legendary comedy club, with the roasts…
Exactly. I was the first Canadian comedy magician to ever perform at the Friar’s Club. It's not like you can just get a gig there, so the fact I was invited to perform was awesome. To meet some of the people that were there… Jerry Lewis was there that evening. He was the one that introduced me actually. I grew up watching Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, and the Three Stooges, and all of these types of guys, which influenced my transition in magic from just going up on stage and doing magic to music, to now doing more audience participation involving comedy and humor. So I was heavily influenced by these comics of the day I grew up. So that was totally amazing. Then in May of last year, in Florida, there’s the National Comedy Hall of Fame Museum, and I was the first comedy magician to be inducted into the museum. Those are just some things, like, wow, you don’t see them coming. But to be able to put it on your resume.
For sure. I actually saw that on your website about the museum. It said you’re in there with Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chapelle and Craig Ferguson. Good company. I’m assuming you’re not a political guy, but what do you think about the whole thing going on with Dave Chapelle?
Gosh. Well, it’s kind of an awkward thing to comment on. I find that people over the last number of years have become so overly sensitive to the extreme. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I remember years ago, I’m talking twenty five, thirty years ago, I did this little thing on stage where I made something appear in someone’s hand, but before I did it… You know what a Bang! gun is?
A fake toy gun?
It resembles a gun but it’s not really. When you pull the trigger a little flag drops down. You see it sometimes in cartoons. So I used this Bang! gun, and it always got a lot of laughs. And this lady comes up to me after the show, she said, I really enjoyed the show, however I needed to tell you I didn't appreciate the thing with the gun. Well what do you mean? She said I enjoyed everything, but to me that promotes violence. And I go, if you look at it close it doesn’t even look like a real gun. I go, it’s not a real gun, and it’s funny. Yeah but I found it offensive. So, to me, the way I look at it, I took it out of my show. Other people think, well, that was just one lady, why do you need to take it out of your show? I say how many people think that but don’t say anything? I don’t want to be one of those performers, where, behind your back... Bad news travels faster than good news, right? So I didn't want to be in a position where people say, yeah he’s pretty funny, but he does some violent things in his show, you know? It’s like telephone, where the story gets changed, right? So I took it out of my show.
There were a couple other things I did. One where you take off a lady’s bra, ok? I usually reserved that for adult audiences, or when you’re doing stag or stagette parties. I’m not going to do it for a mainstream kind of show. Whoever I did it on, it’s done very comical in nature. I always made sure I looked at the audience and picked the right person. I got a couple comments about that. So I took that out of my show. Now I have a guy come up, and I’m pulling his underwear out of his pants, but they’re like silk underwear. I can get away with that, doing it with a guy, but not with a woman. Anyways, there are certain things I’ve learned over the years, for my type of act, where I want to make sure everything is proper, politically correct. I’m highly sensitive to those kinds of things.
Fast forward to these days, where, oh my gosh, I don’t have to tell you about what type of restrictions there are on not only what you do but what you say. The little most innocent word can be misinterpreted by somebody. It’s tough to comment on. What I think is appropriate as an entertainer, what’s fun, you do and say things on stage which could maybe have a double entendre but don't really mean anything. People now are highly over sensitive about everything. It’s like, what are you gonna do?
I presume with your act you’re trying to be palatable for a general audience and not push the envelope with cutting edge stuff, pushing people’s buttons right?
Exactly. It’s my reputation. Especially now coming out of a time of Covid where every job you do is imperative to your success. You don’t want to get into this starting behind the 8 ball where people say, yeah, I’d like to hire him but I’ve heard some stories, he’s inappropriate. I play it squeaky clean, you know?
You’ve seen all sorts of audiences. What has it taught you, if anything, about the human condition in a way? You’re not a philosopher or whatever, but you've learned a lot about people. Is there something you’ve taken away you think is interesting?
Here’s the first thing that comes to mind when you say that. Because I do magic, which fools people, people like that kind of mystifying feeling, like, wow, that was great, I don’t know how you did that. By putting comedy to it, I think, more than ever, right now, with everything we’ve been through over the last couple of years, politics, and everything else, we need some comic relief. Being the type of job right now where I can be out entertaining and making people laugh and take them out of that mindset, whether it be for a half hour, an hour and a half, to be able to forget their problems, and just go out and have some fun and forget about what’s going on. If I can take them out of reality for a short period of time? What more do I want than that?
Recently I had a person come up to me and go, wow, I haven’t laughed this hard in a couple of years, with everything that’s going on. I go, wow, thank you very much. To hear a comment like that? Yes I fooled them, but they had fun being fooled. I had this guy a couple weeks ago come up to me. I’m standing on the stage so he’s lower than I am, and he goes, wow, I really had a great time. I laughed really hard. And I see he has white at the end of his nose. You’ll understand in a minute. I’m going, what is this?
Then he says — right? I’m like is this guy snorting coke at my show? — Then he says I laughed so hard I burst a blood vessel in my nose and I had to run to the bathroom and put Kleenex up my nose. But he says to me, he says, I promise I did it really quickly and didn’t miss a lot! He had Kleenex stuffed up his nose because he had a nose bleed! I said can I use that as a testimonial on my website? He said sure, gave me his name and all that….
That’s funny. That guy might want to go get that checked out all the same.
Right! But what more could I ask for? This is what it’s all about. Me going up and doing exactly what I wanted to do as a kid. Childhood dreams come true. I do motivational speaking now and that’s one of the things I talk about is being able to live your dream. We were talking earlier about people who become complacent in their jobs, hate what they do. They maybe want to do this other thing, whether it’s an art form, whatever it may be, but there’s that fear of failure. Oh my god what if I leave my job and it doesn’t work out? I talk about following your passion, living your dream. Every day that you get up in the morning you have a choice. Whether you want to be happy or not. If you’re not happy about what you’re doing, whether it’s your job or your relationship, whatever it is, you have the power of choice to change that.
Outside of the oppressive societal forces that keep us all down, sure, but by and large I agree… So as I mentioned in my email, I just found something very funny about you sharing the same name as Elliott Smith the musician, who is one of my favorites ever. He’s also widely known as a really depressing and sad type of guy. His songs are about addiction and things like that. I wondered if that’s something that’s ever come up for you. If people ever got confused after seeing your name in the listings of upcoming performances and were like what the hell is this?
I didn’t really know about him. That’s not really the genre of music I follow. I’m obviously not of the age group of the time. Unbeknownst to me, it was in the newspaper [that he died]. They used to deliver to your home as part of the newspaper the TV Guide. All of a sudden it was in the newspapers and the TV Guide that Elliott Smith passed away. I had shows that were booked anywhere from a week ahead of time to months ahead of time, small and large venues. I got a call from someone completely frantic. I answered, hi, Elliott Smith. They probably didn’t even hear me answer as Elliott Smith. They said well what am I gonna do about the show? What? Who is this? They said look I have a show booked. They don’t even know they’re talking to me. I go, don’t know what you’re talking about. The show I have booked on April 12, what’s going to happen? I go, hold on a second. I go to my book, I see I have a show booked, I said, yeah, I’m gonna be there. They go, well who am I speaking to? I thought you were dead. Meanwhile I have no idea what’s going on! I’m always playing practical jokes on my friends, so I thought that was what was going on here. I say, I’m fine. They say, did you not die? I say… no. They say well it was in the newspaper. We heard it on the radio, whatever it was. I go, what are you talking about?
Anyways, we figured it out. No, no, I’m Elliott Smith the magician. In the ensuing four to five days I was getting emails and my phone was ringing off the hook with people wondering what’s going to happen to the show they have booked because, evidently, I died. It was quite a… not a funny time, but an interesting time, having to call these people back and tell them I’m not dead. And I’m learning all about this guy Elliott Smith. And it’s the exact same spelling, which is kind of weird too… It was weird, because I was seeing the death notices, and I’m going, wow, this is freaky.
The dichotomy of, here’s two people with the same name, musician, magician, we always get confused anyway, at two different ends of the spectrum. I’m like this crazy magician making people laugh and doing stupid things, and here’s this musician on the other end of the scale, like you said, writing about dark stuff, depressing stuff, who commits suicide. It was really funny but not, you know what I mean?
Right. It’s certainly not funny that he died, but it is a silly little coincidence. Did you ever listen to the music?
Yeah. Obviously it piqued my interest, and I’m going, like, woh. It’s like, wow. It’s almost like… I love what I do. I’m passionate about what I do. I love being on stage. I love performing and making people laugh. Then in my own life I’m the same type of person I am on stage. I’m crazy. I do weird things. People always ask my wife how do you do it? You should be a saint! You know what I mean? It’s almost like I live in this little bubble. All of a sudden you find out about this other person and it’s like the exact opposite. It makes me feel even more blessed to be where I am and do what I do. Yeah, I get depressed sometimes. Things don’t work out, bla bla bla. But you bounce back pretty quickly. Now, when you look at what’s going on out there with, I mean, teen suicides are our new pandemic. All of the people now being diagnosed with various forms of mental illness and depression and things like that. I mean… woh. People should be booking me more to escape reality and have some laughs and fun!
Ok that’s all for today. If you missed yesterday’s Hell World it was “a good one.”
Editor’s note: In Canada perhaps. ↩