Listen on Apple Podcasts || Spotify

Episode Summary

In this episode, Zach talks with Kirk Smith, a stand-up comedian and father to a 21-year old severely autistic son. They discuss the lack of certainty in a creative profession, how autism is challenging, but funny and why you have to adjust your expectations to find joy. Kirk also shares the permanence of loss and the secret to a successful career in comedy.

Episode Notes

Betting on Yourself is a Gamble

  • There is no built-in safety net, only the one you create
    • (1:50) “I’m a nerd. We’ve got kids so I’m always saving and planning so I’ll be fine. But it is unsettling to have nothing coming in because they’re like ‘oh, you’ll get a payroll tax holiday.’ Well, what’s payroll? No, I need money.”- Kirk
    • (3:24) “Nobody’s ever heard of me, or a 1,000 other comics, but we’re pretty good. But when everything shuts down, there’s no endorsement deals that I’m relying on, there’s no Seinfeld residuals. I need to actually work.”- Kirk
  • Comedy is a cutthroat business
    • (2:39) “There’s no middle class in comedy. You’re kind of either just getting by and then something kicks in one day, you get a break or something. Somebody discovers you quote on quote if you’ve been doing it for 20 years and then you’re a millionaire.”- Kirk
  • An extended shutdown would be devastating to the industry
    • (3:50) “If it’s a month that’s fine. If it’s two months, that’s not great. If it’s three months, then most comics are going to start to freak out a little bit.”- Kirk
  • During the pandemic, there’s not an obvious alternative
    • (4:44) “Just because I’m funny onstage doesn’t directly translate to making videos.”- Kirk

Comedy is a Lens to Discuss Important Issues

  • Disabilities like autism need to be discussed and understood by the public
  • You can find fulfillment by reframing your outlook on life
    • (6:32) “Your life’s not over, it’s different now. Choose happiness, it’s not about you. His dreams aren’t your dreams.”- Kirk
    • (7:42) “The new book is about starting over when things don’t turn out the way you want them to go. I feel like a lot of people go through these things silently. And comedians sometimes go through them and talk about them.”- Kirk
  • Kirk created his book, ‘Rice Krispies with Ketchup,’ as a way to process loss and change
    • (9:27) “Comedy is kind of about building tension and releasing tension. And so, with autism, or depression, or suicide, the joke isn’t the person. The punchline is not my son, or how his mom felt. I’m not making fun of her for being sad. But I can talk about how that makes me feel and how I’m powerless against it and you know, the socially awkward construct of somebody not understanding where I’m at.”- Kirk
  • Personal experience is impossible to steal
    • (10:20) “You want to steal 20 minutes on autism? Alright. Go have an autistic son first.”- Kirk

Autistic Individuals are just like Everyone Else

  • Habits like public nudity and nose picking can surface at any time
  • Communication is often a challenge
    • (13:03) “One of the tough parts about parenting a child that has a few challenges is trying to figure out what part of it is the autism, or his disability, and what part of it is just him being a normal little kid.”- Kirk
    • (14:23) “When you ask him something and he doesn’t answer anything, it’s hard to know why he’s not answering.”- Kirk
  • As humans, we’re all fundamentally the same
    • (13:44) “When he sticks a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the VCR, is that autism? Or, is that just him being a little crapper?”- Kirk
    • (14:31) “Someone who is autistic still has the characteristics of person. You can be an idiot, or an asshole, good person. You have the full spectrum personality at your disposal.”- Zach

Adjusting Expectations is a Lifelong Goal

  • Preconceived notions are easily formed and typically false
    • (15:11) “If you don’t have people that have autism in your life, you don’t really have any perspective on what that means outside of the things you see on TV, or you see on movies.”- Zach
    • (16:18) “Especially, nowadays in this coronavirus, that would be a very helpful thing if your 12-year old kid was also a doctor. So I think that holds the public’s imagination and fascination, but that’s not a normal experience for the average person with an autistic kid.”- Kirk
  • Joy is more important than accomplishment
    • (17:30) “It was a real tough lesson for me to learn that your dreams are not his dreams. He doesn’t care. He’s not upset that he’s not playing basketball. He’s happy.”- Kirk
    • (21:44) “It’s hard for me to push him when he’s very happy. And it’s hard to know the level of his intellectual capacities. I don’t want him to feel like his life is a failure because he did not get a job at McDonald’s. That might not be in the cards for him. He may not be mentally able to do that. And if he doesn’t, that doesn’t mean he’s a waste. It doesn’t mean his life is a waste.”- Kirk
  • Love should not be conditional on performance
    • (17:42) “We put all this pressure on our kids sometimes to do things we couldn’t do. You know, the fact that you didn’t make it in basketball, Kirk, doesn’t mean that he has to love basketball. And that lesson applies to neurotypical kids too, to regular kids. But even more so to him.”- Kirk
  • Unhealthy demands on a child can come from a good place, but are still unfair

Perspective Changes Everything

  • Having a child with a disability makes you value different things
    • (20:55) “I think it’s really hard to be self-aware. It’s hard for me to look at myself honestly and say ‘oh, you’re better than you could have been,’ or this or that. But I think it’s clear that I’m a much better person with a son with autism. It just makes me more compassionate towards people around me.”- Kirk
  • It’s pointless to worry about what you can’t control
  • Accumulating wealth should always take a backseat to your dreams
    • (21:27) “Life is short. You’ve got to take your shots and do the things that you’re passionate about. And the money should come, but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”- Kirk

Appearance Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

  • When you jump to conclusions, you dismiss a more complex reality
    • (23:15) “You can’t always tell if someone has autism just by looking at them.”- Zach
    • (23:52) “You never judge or tease people for what they look like and who they are.”- Kirk
  • Individuals with autism can have tactile issues and prefer to dress comfortably
  • What you see isn’t always what you get
    • (27:21) “He goes through stuff. He’s really hard on stuff. And when he gets really angry, he can grab his pants and rip them off kind of like tear away sweatpants you know in the NBA, but they’re not tear away.”- Kirk
    • (28:45) “The pants is scary because he refuses to wear underwear.”- Kirk
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover, but look for clues to inform your interaction
    • (31:44) “When an older adult has some sort of disability, or is a special person quote on quote, you can usually tell by the clothes, or the fanny pack, or the bag, the fact that they won’t let go of their headphones. That’s usually one of the giveaways.”- Kirk

No One Has to Apologize for Their Existence

  • Each individual bears the responsibility to learn
    • (30:19) “They either get it, or they don’t get it. I don’t consider it my job to educate everybody about it. You know, sometimes I’ll be like ‘my son is severely autistic,’ but they don’t get it. I’ll be like ‘well, Google is your friend. Look it up.’”- Kirk
    • (30:39) “He’s allowed to live. He’s a human being. And if it makes you uncomfortable you should probably do some research into it. But I just try to do it with kindness.”- Kirk
    • (34:06) “You can only control the information you give people and how you say it. And then beyond that, how much they want to learn or educate themselves or react to it is up to them.”- Zach
  • Your child’s value doesn’t hinge on other people’s opinions
    • (34:19) “It’s not your fault as a parent if somebody has no patience for disabled people. That’s terrible, but that’s not your responsibility. Just be kind to them. Be patient. Tell them. Tell them ‘oh, look it up. It’s on your phone.’ Then, walk away. You’ve got your own battles. You don’t have to worry about every ding-dong in the world. Focus on your kid.”- Kirk

Loss is Permanent and Life-Changing

  • Kirk has had to look outside himself to adjust to his son’s parenting needs
    • (34:51) “I’m not a natural caregiver. I feel like people have different personalities. I am patient with my son, and I love him very much obviously. But I’m not somebody who could dedicate my life to working with the disabled.”- Kirk
    • (35:25) “Since she’s gone, and I’m basically this only parent. Yeah, I try to be more patient with him. This is it. I’m Mom and Dad now.”- Kirk
  • Mental illness can be unpredictable and devastating
  • The absence of a parent is tangible and real
    • (36:19) “In Spanish when somebody loses a parent they call them an orphan. And I kind of like that because you’re missing one of the parents. There’s still something missing. Parents fill different roles.”- Kirk
    • (37:21) “As a human being, you can definitely feel a void. You know, you feel like there’s a void missing. He’s nonverbal and he doesn’t talk so I don’t know if he understands that his Mom’s died. Obviously, I talk to him about it. But he definitely knows she hasn’t visited him. He knows he definitely has seen her in years.”- Kirk

A Bright New Future Starts Now

  • Technology has given Kirk a window into his son’s thoughts and interests
  • Increased telecommuting creates the chance to erase endemic poverty
    • (42:32) “He’s obviously going to be poor if he doesn’t have a job.”- Kirk
    • (43:58) “I think this thing is going to show that there’s a real opportunity for physically disabled people to do a lot of jobs from home they’re not even being considered for. If you’re going to do this from home anyway, mobility is not an issue at all. I hope it’s going to really open a lot of doors for disabled people of all kinds.”- Kirk
  • Difficult situations, like a pandemic, lead to important discussions
    • (42:36) “What do you do with the people that are disabled, long term disability, and mentally impaired, physically impaired? As a society, how do you deal with the quote on quote the least of these?”- Kirk

Creativity is a Unified Process

  • Inventive efforts are not mutually exclusive
    • (46:38) “I feel like all of the creative stuff works together whether it’s music, or painting, or art or writing.”- Kirk
  • Artistic cross training leads to overall improvement
    • (47:08) “There are so many different angles to go at creativity that you may just stumble upon something that’s pressing a button in your brain in a certain way. Like music and stand-up comedy. Most people might not connect those.”- Zach
    • (47:43) “I’ve talked to a bunch of music artists on another podcast, but a lot of them when they’re in writer’s blocks will just turn on a movie and put it on silent and then just try to write music to the movie to get out of a musical funk.”- Zach
  • A calm mind is open to inspiration
    • (48:11) “Well, I do think there’s something about just relaxing and letting it come to you.”- Kirk

The Not-so Secret Key to a Successful Career in Comedy

  • Humor is a both a practiced and cultivated ability
    • (48:20) “Anything that you ever say to another funny person that makes them laugh, write it down.”- Kirk
    • (49:38) “Just being funny with your friends is a good start. You’re probably not going to be a stand-up if you’re not funny to begin with.”- Kirk
  • Hard work has no substitute in the industry
    • (49:50) “If you want to be a stand-up, you need to work on stand-up.”- Kirk
    • (50:44) “You’ve got to get the reps. How do you get reps? Mics, open mics. You’ve got to get on stage.”- Kirk

Final Thoughts on Life with Autism

  • Kirk’s ‘Autastic’ podcast provides a humorous look at relevant autism-related topics
  • Taking action is a crucial step in your family’s journey with disability
    • (52:23) “With about half the kids that get autism, early intervention is the difference between living a more productive life and a life closer to my son. And again, love my son very much, nothing wrong with him. But if I had the ability to teach him to speak and tell me ‘I love you’ and tell me what he needs, what he desires and his dreams, I would jump on that.”- Kirk
    • (52:56) “If you’re on the fence, do it. Some people are scared of the labels. Don’t worry about the labels. The labels always change.”- Kirk
  • You’re not alone
    • (55:44) “Be encouraged. I’m doing this with my son. If I’m doing it, you can do it.”- Kirk

Connect with Kirk

Official web site-




Listen to ‘Autastic- A Comedian’s Guide to Autism’-

Visit Kirk’s Youtube Channel for his dual language podcast, ‘¿ Como que? Wait what?’ about idioms and expressions-