Rickey Smiley uses myriad characters in his comedy skits, but it's just another way of keeping his routine fresh for fans.
In his latest persona, Smiley will perform as hefty gospel singer Joe Willie alongside his harmonizing backup singers the Deuteronomaires at the Orpheum Friday in "Rickey Smiley's Laugh & Shout Experience." The performance is a part of the Southern Heritage Classic series of events this weekend.
Smiley says the inspiration for the character came from his early days as a church musician in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.
"I always found the gospel quartet hilarious because they're so serious," says Smiley. "Nobody made light of them."
Throughout his 20-year career, his comedy has evolved, Smiley says. From his time in 2000 as a host for HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" to his appearances in movies such as "First Sunday" in 2007, he's watched how fans responded to his jokes, and adjusted his material accordingly.
"The formula has changed," he said. "You really have to stay on stage and grow with the audience."
On Sept. 18, Smiley will make his first foray into scripted television when his sitcom, "The Rickey Smiley Show," debuts on cable channel TV One. Co-starring comedians Ray J, Lil JJ, Roz Ryan and J. Anthony Brown, the show is based on Smiley's own experiences as an Atlanta deejay and single father of three.
And on Saturday morning, Smiley and his TV co-star Brown are slated to serve as grand marshals of the annual Classic Parade in Orange Mound, said Southern Heritage Classic promoter Fred Jones.
Comedy for Smiley is similar to exercising a muscle. The more one works it, the stronger it becomes.
Smiley says the time spent on his radio segment "The Rickey Smiley Morning Show" in Atlanta has helped to keep his comedy muscles in top form. And the personas help in his comedic exercise regimen, too.
In his prank call skits, Smiley transforms himself into an array of other quirky characters, such as Mrs. Bernice Jenkins, an elderly woman heckling a Church's Chicken restaurant employee by asking what time their church service starts.
"It's a little bit more than doing stand-up comedy when you bring some of the characters in the show," he says. "I think people have a lot more respect for you when you keep changing up. People appreciate it."
Smiley's character Joe Willie is a man of God, but it doesn't stop him from making snide comments in his songs, such as "Black Stockings White Shoes," in which Willie sings about how mismatched attire will keep church members from entering service.
Smiley says his clean humor has allowed him to reach a broader audience, spanning teenagers to grandmothers.
"There's other stuff to talk about — family-oriented stuff to talk about," Smiley says. "I don't have to go 'there'."
That same clean style is what he'll use when he visits Memphis this weekend.
"I just want people to laugh and enjoy themselves and forget about their problems," Smiley says. "If I can make them laugh and make the audience happy, then I've done my job."
Reporter Mark Jordan contributed to this story.
Classic Comedy Jam: Rickey Smiley’s Laugh & Shout Experience
Friday at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main. Tickets: $57.50 and $47.50 plus service charges at Ticketmaster outlets, Orpheum theater box office or at ticketmaster.com.