Keri Smith, talent manager and producer, takes us on a journey through primate researching in Tanzania, the life of managing a comedian, and liberal gun views in America, to name just a few. This is a conversation that will make you think about the world around you...
Do you remember your first week in LA?
I remember some of the things I was feeling. I don’t remember specific events. I moved here after college in 2000 and it was overwhelming.
I moved from college at Duke, in North Carolina, but I had just finished a five-month semester in Tanzania. So I was coming from, not just my southern background and a town of less than a thousand people in South Carolina, but also coming from this place with completely new experiences for half a year. Then I came here, which was full of opulence and commercialization.
I felt assaulted by advertising here. I think I would have felt that way even if I hadn’t come from Africa. Compared to South Carolina, you see billboards everywhere here; they’re on the buses, they’re on benches, they’re on the sides of huge buildings. For me, I felt like I was constantly bombarded and assaulted by it. Too many things. Too much to look at.
Why did you move out here?
I moved for my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time. I followed a boy. [Laughs]
What were you doing in Tanzania?
My major was in biological anthropology and anatomy and I did a certificate in primatology. My senior year was spent studying colobus monkeys. I wanted to be Dian Fossey; that was my thing growing up. [Laughs]
I wanted to study primates. That’s all I wanted to do. I took four years of Swahili. I was on that path and then actually being in Tanzania is what changed my mind and shook things up for me and made me question whether I wanted to keep doing it or not.
There were a couple of things. One was that I always thought I had a purpose. I was into primates, I was going to study them and work in conservation. I worked at the primate center at Duke. That was my world, but when I got to Tanzania I felt like, at least at that time back in 1999, a lot of the western scientists were not including the local people as part of the ecosystem.
So I felt weird. I felt out of place as a white westerner coming in to study these primates, because they’re so important, meanwhile there’s all this poverty that you’re in the midst of and the local people are not allowed into these national parks that I’m getting to go into.
I was in a reserve where there were lots of problems with charcoal burning and illegal charcoal pits. These pits require a lot of the forests to be chopped down to dig, fill them with logs and burn them for a few days to produce charcoal. When you do that, the deforestation separates the monkey colonies from each other causing more inbreeding and the population over time dies off. Also just the fact that they had to jump larger distances between trees was a problem. I’d actually see monkeys falling.
It is heartbreaking. I guess I didn’t lose my interest and passion in primates but I felt a little disillusioned with the conservation efforts there.
To me, it seemed that the reason people were breaking the law, doing illegal charcoal burning, was because nobody had factored them into the conservation plan. So if you’re not allowed to go into the national forest that’s always been there next to your land and collect firewood that’s just on the ground… it’s like prohibition. If you’re not allowed to do anything then people are going to do things illegally. They’re not being respected and this is their land.
The other factor was finances. The idea of going into debt for grad school was something I didn’t want to face at that time. I thought, “Let’s put that off for a while, work for a bit and save up some money, and then go to grad school.” Then by accident I fell into entertainment.
That’s so crazy! Did you feel lost after coming back from Tanzania and having had this goal for so long and it feeling like it wasn’t going to happen?
Absolutely. I didn’t think it wasn’t going to happen I just felt like I wasn’t sure anymore if that’s what I wanted to keep pursuing and I wanted to take some time to think about it.
So I came out to LA and did a couple of odd jobs but my first long term position in entertainment was as a management assistant for Margaret Cho’s previous manager. She’s a personal manager so at any given time she would only have two clients, at most. So it was really focused around the business of that one comic. That’s how I got into it.
After a couple of years I moved to another management company and then my business partner, Emily, and I started Whitesmith Entertainment in 2008.
Was it totally random that you got the first assisting job?
No, it appealed to me because it was comedy with a message. I’ve always been a fan of comedy that makes you think about stuff. Margaret’s first film, “I’m the One That I Want” is still one of my favorite comedy concert films. In that film she tackled a lot of subjects: race, gender, sexuality, body image… and it’s hilarious and gut busting but it also makes you think. It makes you think in a way where you don’t feel like you’re being lectured.
Did you seek her out?
No, I saw a job posting on a feminist board. It was one of those early feminist discussion boards. You can’t find it now.
I went through a phase for a while where I wanted to manage comedians.
Really? [Laughs] I never wanted to be one.
So I’ve always been curious to know what the relationship between a manager and comedian is like…
Every relationship is different, like with any job, but in general what you’re doing for them is service oriented. My partner, Emily, works with musicians and I work with comics but it’s pretty similar in that you’re helping them build their team, build their brand, and a platform to get their art to a wider audience.
I think there’s a lot of overlap between musicians and comedians, more so than comedians and actors, because comedians are their own brand. Like a musician, they’re selling their own work. They’re putting together their own art, whether that’s putting out an album, or a DVD, or going on tour. Comedians and musicians write their own projects, whereas actors are stepping into other people’s roles.
That makes sense.
I sometimes get inquiries from actors and that just confuses me. I don’t understand what I would be doing all day besides reading scripts. That’s just a different world to me.
With my role I like to sit down with each artist and figure out where they want to be. I like to ask them where do they see themselves in a year, and in five years, and then you have to re-evaluate every year because those priorities change. Depending on what they want to do you build that team around them, whether that’s a TV agent, a literary agent, a publicist… then at times they need a business manager or a lawyer. That’s the team you’re putting around them. If the comedian is the brand then in some ways the manager is like the CEO. You are handling the business so they have more time for the art.
What’s the most rewarding or challenging part of the job?
My partner and I have been transitioning more into producing, which is the most rewarding. We’ve had our company for eight years now and for a small company where there’s just the two of us doing almost everything I think the most challenging thing is burnout.
What I like about production is that there is a beginning, middle, and an end. You can see something all the way through with the talent. My favorite part has always been the stuff we produce.
Being a manager or producer is like wearing a hundred hats. One day you’re doing research for a TV pitch and the next day you’re trying to figure out how to route a tour.
Sounds like you can do anything in the world after doing this job.
It’s a lot of different tasks at once. I love the work. I love figuring things out. You’re basically a creative strategist.
Just switching gears to you starting your own company with your business partner. The general theme for people who start their own business is that it’s difficult to find that work/life balance. How has it worked for you?
We’ve spent most of our eight years working around the clock. But I’ve gotten to a place in the past couple of years where I need to claim more space for myself, for health reasons and also so I can be more present in my job.
I’ve been thinking recently how everyone I’ve been talking to lately is saying how they’re always so busy, so stressed, overwhelmed… I was feeling the same way for a while and lately I’ve been doing meditation, which is new for me. My partner has always done meditation and yoga, and my stress-relievers have always been shooting. I’m a handgun instructor. That’s always been my happy place. [Laughs]
But in the past year I’ve started doing yoga and meditating. I’m starting to understand a little bit more about how you can turn your brain off and sit and be calm without having to go to the desert to shoot a gun. [Laughs]
How did you get into that??
My dad was Army, so I grew up shooting. In the south everybody shoots. In LA I went to a couple of firearms classes and met some shooters out here and my friend, Paula, opened up a Girl’s Gun Club a few years ago so I went and got my NRA handgun instructor license to help her out once a month. It’s all women, all female instructors. If you’re a woman and you want to learn how to shoot this is the best place to do it. I’ve taken all types of people with all types of skills levels there.
This is fascinating. Growing up in Australia where gun culture doesn’t really exist and then coming to the States where it’s a very big thing, I find it really difficult to understand and it gets a very negative rap from people who don’t come from this culture. What do you think about that?
I’m a liberal who shoots and there are actually a growing number of liberals who shoot. So much so that there’s an organization called the Liberal Gun Club that’s been providing an alternative for people who like to shoot but do not necessarily align with the political views of the NRA.
Lately I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends and progressives who don’t shoot about gun control and I feel like we’re approaching a point where it’s going to be up to people like myself, liberal gun owners, to come up with some common sense proposals for gun control.
Oftentimes I find that I’m in the middle of these two worlds, whether that’s in social media or sitting in conversations with friends, and I get to hear what people are saying on both sides. Sometimes I hear the gun control suggestions that non-gun owners propose and they aren’t necessarily realistic or going to have much of an impact.
For example, there was a big push to ban certain types of rifles but rifles only account for a small fraction of gun deaths per year. The more impactful thing would be to ban handguns but no one’s going to propose that because it’s not something that’s attainable. So I feel like going after rifles was more of a symbolic thing because a lot of people don’t realize that they’re not responsible for a lot of gun deaths. Cosmetically they look scary. If we ban rifles I think people can pat themselves on the back and say, “We’ve done something!” But it’s not going to impact the number of gun deaths significantly.
Why can’t we ban handguns? I clearly have no idea about this.
I’ve talked to some friends who disagree and think it’s something we can do and they point to places like Australia as an example but in the United States I feel like guns have been embedded in our history so much so that people get very emotional about the idea. You’ve heard the statement; “You can pry it from my cold dead hands…” I think there’s a reason that banning handguns wasn’t included in Obama’s proposal because it seems like too far of a reach.
Maybe in ten years we’ll be in a different place but at this point even putting that forward nobody would vote for that. I think you can do things that are going to have more of an impact than getting rid of cosmetically scary rifles.
For one thing, and this is something I don’t hear people talking about, the states are not required to provide their mental health records to NICS, the federal background check system. You’re not allowed to legally buy a gun if you’ve been mentally hospitalized or if a judge has deemed you mentally unfit. But the states provide those records on a volunteer basis. For example, Texas reports but Virginia doesn’t. Like the Virginia Tech shooter, who committed the biggest mass shooting in recent history, he used handguns first of all, and purchased them legally and if Virginia had been required to report their mental health records then he would have been flagged in the background check because a judge had deemed him mentally unfit in the past.
Why wouldn’t we want people to know that this person has been deemed mentally unfit to purchase a firearm? If it’s a law then they should be able to find out. It shouldn’t be a self-reporting thing.
That’s so crazy! It blows my mind that someone decides that that state won’t turn those records in. It just seems like common sense.
That’s a solution I think that both parties could agree to but it’s going to take liberal gun owners, or people who want to talk about gun control who are gun owners, to come up with those solutions.
If you think of the Charlton Heston, “Pry it from my cold dead hands,” type of gun owners, they’re not interested in talking about gun control. The NRA’s not interested in talking about gun control. But progressive gun owners are, and I think the solutions they propose make more sense than some of the ones I’ve heard by people who don’t know anything about guns.
In terms of state laws, that’s a no brainer, you have to pass a written and a practical test to get a driver’s license. You should have to pass a practical test and a written test to buy a gun but it varies by state. In California there’s a written test for a handgun but it’s a multiple choice, true or false, test so you could pass it today knowing nothing about guns.
The questions are like; “On the 4th July it’s a good idea to shoot my gun in the air. True or false?” Anybody can pass this test! [Laughs]
I’ve been talking to friends about what kind of ideas could make sense for gun control that both parties could agree on and I think there are a few out there, like standardizing the tests required to purchase.
Is this something you want to push forward?
When I have time. [Laughs] I’m very interested in it. I feel like the time is right to come out of the closet and say, “Hey I’m a liberal who shoots and here are some responsible gun measures we should do.”
That would be amazing. To switch gears a little, is there any advice you would give?
Yes. I would say recently something that has been resonating with me, and a lot of my friends, is this idea of not putting off your happiness. If you’re waiting until a certain event, or a certain relationship, or a certain job success, to be happy then when you get there it’s very unlikely that you will be happy.
I’ve seen it happen a few times now where someone gets this thing that they were delaying their happiness for and then it comes to them and it turns out to be the worst thing that’s ever happened to them because they’re still them. They’re still the same person. You know that saying, “Where ever you go, there you are.”
So if you’re waiting to be happy and you’re not focusing on being happy now, it’s probably not going to turn out the way you’re hoping it’s going to turn out.
I read something like that the other day that was saying it’s not about the “event,” it’s the working towards the event that’s the happiness part.
Have you read The Power of Now? I was skeptical, I had a lot of people recommend it, but it was so life changing for me. It shifted my perspective. It changes the way you think about life, the past, and the future.
One of the things he talks about is being in the present moment and he posits that any type of anxiety or stress you have is because your mind is worrying about the future, and any kind of depression or sadness is because your mind is too much in the past. His solution is to constantly draw yourself into the present moment and observe where your mind is.
It was an interesting exercise trying to read that book and be conscious and present the whole time I was reading it.
So you’re living in Westwood. What do you think about it?
I love Westwood. It’s one of the few places in LA where there are a lot of places within walking distance because it’s a college area. We’re right next to UCLA. There are a lot of great food options, a lot of great one-screen movie theatres.
In other parts of LA I feel like no one’s ever on the street, no one’s walking around but in Westwood I see people out a lot.
Do you have any favorite restaurants?
One of my favorites is not in Westwood but it’s called Western Doma Noodles and it’s in Koreatown. It’s homemade noodle soup and it’s delicious.
Where do you take people from out-of-town?
The Magic Castle is great.
I want to go there so bad! But you need to know someone.
I know a magician! I know two. It’s fun; it’s dinner and a show, lots of different shows. It’s unique.
I love the Getty. It’s just massive. There’s no way you can see it all in one day but it’s fun to check out.
We used to live near the La Brea Tar Pits Museum. If you like science then that’s a good one.
I’d also recommend you go to one of the big Korean spas downtown. It’s an all day thing. The floors are heated so people just lounge on the floors reading manga and eating bibimbap.
My friend, JP, does this thing called Craft Night in Silver Lake. She’s been running it for years and it’s every Wednesday night in Akbar. It’s $2 and she provides all the materials and plans the craft each week and then you just sit and talk to the most fun random people. It’s very queer, it’s very accepting, and you make kids crafts.
What does LA mean to you?
You know what, this is hard to answer because it took me about six years before I realized I liked LA. I didn’t like it at first. [Laughs]
LA to me means a lot of diversity and options. A lot of diversity in food, people, culture, community, and places to hang out… Coming from a really small town in the south there’s one culture, one kind of food… In LA the world is open to you.
I think part of the reason I didn’t like it when I first moved here is because I was only seeing the douchebag part of it. There are a lot of fake people in LA but there are also a lot of very real people here. There are a lot of artists here, there’s an amazing artist community.
Once I found Craft Night and started finding my tribe I felt like I could be comfortable here.
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©