It was while she was in college in Indiana, studying biology with the hopes of eventually becoming a doctor, that Chezik Smith first learned of Chicago’s famous improv spot, The Second City. Smith had done a little sketch comedy in high school for the student cable channel and was never able to shake the rush of making people laugh.
After staying up nights to watch Saturday Night Live, a popular destination for Second City alums, she packed her bags and moved to Illinois in January 2003.
“My parents didn’t really know what to think,” Smith said of abandoning the road to medical school. “I think they thought I would grow out of that.”
Several years later Smith was performing with The Second City’s Outreach and Diversity troupe, an offshoot of the main stage intended to nurture minority comics. Her parents made the trip to Chicago to see their daughter. In the lobby, she said, her parents bumped into actor Dennis Quaid. Seeing a Hollywood star in the same building as their daughter helped Smith’s parents realize that this could be a career.
“They understand I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel and I’m on the same path as many people before me,” Smith said.
Improvisational comedy doesn’t yet pay the bills for Smith, 29. For the last year she has worked behind the counter selling cigars at Casa de Puros on Madison. But being a part of the famed theater as it celebrates 50 years of from-the-hip performances helps to keep her inspired. Two days after the theater saw many of its biggest alums return to the stage on Dec. 17, Smith began weekly performances in Donny’s Skybox Theatre, a training center hosted by The Second City. Every Saturday night through March, Smith will perform as part of Twisty’s house ensemble.
In 2007, with the Outreach and Diversity crew, Smith co-starred in Presidential Race Riot on the same stage. Later that same year, Smith organized her own improv troupe that opened for house performers in the Skybox.
“I hate to say this – but I don’t hate to say this – but I think all my eggs are in this basket,” Smith said of acting. “I don’t really have a plan B.”
However unlikely, Smith said there are some parallels between her work on the stage at Piper’s Alley, 1608 N. Wells in Chicago, and clipping stogies at an over-the-top lounge in Forest Park. In both environments, people tend to make assumptions about the pretty, young black woman standing before them, she said.
In comedy, the taboos of race and politics and sex are easy fodder, but actors have a tendency to pigeonhole one another. Smith said it’s very satisfying to pass over the “token black” jokes that are volleyed her way and push the dialogue in another direction.
“I love when things are thrown at me from that angle and I spin it back,” she said. “I have a lot of fun with racial stereotypes.”
At Casa de Puros, 7410 Madison, Smith works largely with a male clientele. She said she turns more heads with her wit because people may assume she doesn’t have much to offer other than being easy on the eyes.
The most satisfying aspect of comedy, especially improvised comedy, is not having to work from a script, said Smith. How the story and the punch lines unfold is entirely in the actor’s hands. Overall, she finds that doing improv makes her a better actor and a better writer. But it doesn’t always work.
“When you have a good night, you know you’ve had a good night,” Smith said. “There’s been plenty of nights I’ve come off the stage and – ugh. There are also nights I’ve come off the stage and said, ‘yeah, I’m the next coming of Tina Fey.'”