Meet Kenny, Writer/Producer/Director
Kenny Smith, a D.C. native, is a Writer, Producer, Director living in Los Angeles. With over twenty years in the entertainment business, he’s worked on more than a few shows including Martin, The Jamie Foxx Show, The Game, Marlon, and is currently running ABC’s hit show Black-ish. If you can’t tell from his list of credit, Kenny has an affinity for comedy and is considered to be very funny by everyone, except his own kids.
Who/what influenced or inspired you to become a Writer/Producer/Director?
There were a lot of people who influenced me and things that inspired me along the way to become a television writer/producer/director. If I were to choose one inspiration, it would be the television show Seinfeld. I was still at Hampton University when I saw my first episode, “The Chinese Restaurant.” It was just four hilarious people waiting for their table at a restaurant. I’d never seen anything more simple, complex, brilliant, or special on television at that point and I watched tons of television growing up. Seeing that episode was a milestone for me on my path to my career.
One of the people who influenced me was my university professor Sheri Beam. I took the one screenwriting course they offered at the school and turned in my Seinfeld episode (of course). She raved about it. Initially, I took it as her just being kind, but later she told me if I wanted a career in the television business she truly believed I had a shot. Her confidence is what gave me confidence to start making plans towards that goal.
Tell us about your career story.
During my senior year of college I was able to make contact with Nancy Sprow who worked on Seinfeld. After graduation, she invited me to spend a week on set to get an idea of what production was like and to see if I wanted to make a career of it. I flew from my home in D.C. to Los Angeles and it was even more awe-inspiring than I expected. When my week was up I flew home, talked to my parents, gathered my things, and moved to Los Angeles to make a go of it. My professor (Beam) introduced me to an alumna working in the business who informed me that the CBS Page Program was pretty much always hiring. I worked as a page for a few weeks, then a contact I’d made at Seinfeld during my earlier visit was able to get me an interview for an assistant job at the television show Martin. I met with the producers, one of whom was Martin Lawrence’s brother Robert. It turned out that his family was from the D.C. area and he was so impressed with my work ethic in high school and college that he thought I deserved a shot at this entry level position. From that point on, I focused on working hard at my current job, as well as working hard towards the job I wanted to have. Because of that I was able to build relationships with even more people, which led to more opportunities.
What is a typical day for you?
I don’t really have a typical day. Some days start at 7am while others start at 10am but they all end when the work is done, which could be 6pm or 3am. You never know. A typical week usually consists of table reads, editing, casting, wardrobe, rewrites, and working with the cast, director (if I’m not directing), studio/network, department heads and writers to develop an episode of television while at the same time coming up with future episodes and wrapping up previous episodes. I know I’m not going into much detail, but it’s just a flood of things. Most enjoyable, some work.
What do you love most about your job?
The thing I love most about my job is laughing. I’m a fan of pretty much every genre of television and film, but comedy holds a special place for me. The writers all sit around a big conference table sharing funny stories with each other. We then root around in those stories for an episode of television. Once we’ve found what that episode is going to be, we dig into the jokes and moments that are going to make people laugh. But the first step in that is to make each other laugh. I love that that’s my job – to find the funny and make people laugh. I love that I get to spend a good part of my day laughing. As a director, I love working with the actors and crew to make a script come to life. And if I can find a few comedic moments that weren’t thought of before, that’s great, too.
What are its biggest challenges?
One of my biggest challenges is not to become complacent. I’ve worked a long time in the entertainment business and I’ve made a full career of it. I came to Hollywood to be a writer for television, but as time went on, my work moved into writing for film, as well as producing and directing for television. The next thing I’d like to pursue is directing for film. I have to constantly push myself to keep learning from everyone around me, whether it’s writers, directors, executives, agents, my family, or my friends. Then I have to make sure I’m challenging myself and taking chances. At this point in my career it would be easy to just coast. But I never want to get too comfortable. Where’s the fun in that?
Are there certain things/events that happened in your life that have informed who you are or what you are doing in your life/career?
I was a latchkey kid in elementary and high school growing up. That means I’d spend hours home alone, while my parents worked. It was a different world back then. During my time alone, I immersed myself in television and movies. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the business, but I knew on some level I wanted to be a part of it. Yep, I’ve faced barriers of people making assumptions that I’m not good enough because I’m Black. I’ve pushed through with the help of other minorities believing in me and by always working hard and doing my best. It sounds like a generic answer, but for me it’s worked time and time again. And when someone was trying to hold me back, someone else saw the benefit of working with me and I’d keep moving forward.
What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of work?
That’s the great thing about my job – television and film are my biggest interests, so most of the time it doesn’t feel like work. I’m also a huge fan of comic books and I love traveling around America and the rest of the world. While on my travels I try to experience as many things as possible outside my comfort zone to give me more to write about and more to tap into when I’m directing.
Do you have any words of advice?
I always say work hard at everything you do. You never know what’s going to lead you to the next step and if you do a raggedy job at one thing it doesn’t inspire people to want to work with you or for you. Don’t give anyone an easy excuse to hold you back.
Two things. One, my family and friends supported me from day one. It makes a difference. But I also earned their support by doing what I needed to do in high school, in college, and in my career.
Two, I’ve had a long successful career, so from the outside it looks either unattainable or so easy. I’d like for people to know that there were plenty of setbacks and failures along the way. Things aren’t always going to work in your favor. They didn’t for me. But I tried to learn from each disappointment no matter how frustrating or heartbreaking it was. I just dusted myself off and kept pushing forward. It’s no mystery formula. It’s just life.