A photo of Rickey Smiley smiling
Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

How Rickey Smiley Keeps Laughing Through the Pain

After all these years, the comedy legend still got jokes

Rickey Smiley has been bringing jokes to the world for more than three decades—and he’s not letting up off the laugh gas. The former host of BET’s ComicView and personality behind his own namesake TV and radio shows is still working as if he never made it in the first place. And with a newfound perspective, the Birmingham, Ala., native has been in a space to appreciate it all.

“I'm in a really good place in life,” says Smiley, speaking to LEVEL via Zoom, in a self-described state of being relaxed. Still reeling from the tragic death of his son Brandon in January, the 55-year-old comic admits he’s adjusting to his family's new normal. But through the good and bad days, he’s remained grateful. “What kind of cuts my tears is when I think about the mothers that have lost kids at 17," he explains. “My son was 32, so it gives me perspective. I'm sad that he's no longer with us but I'm still grateful… I just have to keep pushing.”

Staying busy has been paramount. As someone who stands tall on a stage of accomplishments that includes starring his eponymous TV One sitcom, acting alongside Ice Cube in movies like Friday After Next, and, of course, establishing himself as a high-grade radio personality with commentary and prank calls that birthed famed installments like “Buried Alive”—which he stamps as his favorite—Rickey is still working towards new endeavors. For starters, he’s currently headlining his own Rickey Smiley & Friends tour, overseeing The Ricky Smiley Morning Show every weekday, and prepping his upcoming Netflix special that will be produced and directed by David E. Talbert. (“That’s gonna be huge,” he teases. “So get ready for that.”)

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Pressing pause on all of his projects to check in from his home studio, Rickey carved out some time to reflect on the past, present, and future of his life and career, dropping keys to his success and lessons he’s learned along the way.

I've been attracted to comedy my whole life. I used to sneak and listen to Richard Pryor albums. My grandparents were funny—even when they were mad, they were hilarious. Some funny-ass people. I picked up a lot of that energy from them.

In sixth grade, we had a tough teacher. She was funny, but she was mean. That's when it all started for me—the roasting and all that crazy stuff.

The first time I walked on stage in a comedy club was Nov. 13, 1989, in Birmingham. I looked at the comedians that were there that night, like, I want to be that. I did open mic nights for four months until they had me opening up and hosting shows. I was getting paid $100 for the whole weekend.

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Being a Que gave me brothers. I didn't have no brothers. Didn't have a dad. In the frat, I’ve found fathers, brothers, nephews, sons. I've had prominent people pledge after me [who said] I had something to do with their process. I love everything the [Omega Psi Phi] founders stood for. We got deep legacy and history as well. It definitely changed my life for the better and brought me closer to God.

What it takes to host ComicView is being funny as hell. It wasn't that I was funnier than anybody else. In Birmingham, I had two shows every Friday, two shows Saturday, two shows Sunday. Every weekend. For two years. You can't be nothing but funny as hell, [learn to say] stuff off the top of your head, and develop how to perform.

The key to a great prank call is allowing the person you're calling to get their words in and to keep them irritated. That's it. Keep them irritated. Threaten they kids. Tell ’em “Shut up or I'ma come over there and kick your ass.”

The funniest thing about aging is that you get set in your ways. You get irritated. You don't want nobody touching your TV. You get mad if somebody drive their car in your grass. You be out there talking about, “Your ass can’t park!”

The problem with today's generation is it's a lot of entitlement. We had to work for it. We weren't corrected. We got cursed out and we weren't sensitive. That's one reason why comedians from the ’90s are super strong on stage.

The Rickey Smiley Show was hard work because I would leave, get on the radio, and do another TV show, Dish Nation, which is still on. I'll never work that hard again. Hell to the no. That's not a life. Yeah, you made some money but you don't have nothing to yourself. You're just running. You'll die doing stuff like that.

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Be careful about who you do business with. If anybody can tell you about an investment or business [opportunity] but can’t tell you nothing bad about it, run. Don’t trust ’em. I don't play them games. When they come in smiling with them damn big-ass veneers and expensive shirt on they got from Neiman Marcus, I get so turned off. I already know they ain't s**t.

Things that I did back then, you can't pay me to do now: go to a strip club or a nightclub. I'll go see Frankie Beverly and Maze, with all of the old players, with they gray chest hair out and ladies with bouffant wigs. But I'm not going to anything less because when folks get to drinking, we don't act right all the time. And I can't die. Not on no humbug.

Don't let people use you and take advantage of your success. What God has for you is for you. If God puts it on your heart to bless somebody, then do so.