Comedienne Susie Essman On Comedy And 'Curb'
Comedienne Susie Essman plays the sassy Susie Greene on HBO’s acclaimed “Curb Your Enthusiasm” series, bringing to it her own brand of biting sarcasm, pointed insults and no-nonsense panache.
Essman is also a veteran of late night comedy and the world of stand-up, where she made her mark.
Add to that her book (“What Would Susie Say”), her voicing of Mittens, a cat, in Disney’s animated “Bolt,” and its safe to say that there’s little in the comedy world that Essman has not done.
Essman is on tour and joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss her career.
One of her pet peeves is that people assume she is like the character she plays on “Curb.”
“I guess that just means I’m a good actress, but I’m not her!” Essman said. “I don’t dress like that, I’m not filled with rage — I get that all out on stage and when I’m acting.”
She will be performing at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston tonight.
Interview Highlights: Susie Essman
On the appeal of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”
“People always think that no one really relates to ‘Curb’ except on the coasts, and it’s not true.”
“I had a guy come up to me recently from Africa — he was an African immigrant in New York City — telling me when he sees me do my mother in my act, it’s exactly like his mother.”
“There’s a universalness about all the characters, and about what I talk about.”
On her depression and comedy
“The depression didn’t come from the stand up. The depression was there, which kind of forced me into the stand up. I was so deeply depressed I had nowhere to go but down.”
“Depression was almost the impetus to do the stand up. If I was happy, I don’t know that I would have gotten on stage in front of strangers and tried to make them laugh.”
On the contract between the comedian and the audience
My theory about the audience is that the audience wants to feel relaxed, and they want to feel like the comedian is in control. The contract you have with them is ‘I’m going to take care of you for this next hour.’”
“You know when you feel really uncomfortable when you see a bad comic or when you see a comic dying? That’s because the contract is broken. You, the audience member, has to take care of them.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well here in Boston tonight, comedian Susie Essman will be performing her standup act. She's on tour. You can find the schedule at hereandnow.org. And if you're not familiar with her standup act, you may know her from the HBO show "Curb Your Enthusiasm," in which she plays Susie Greene, the wife of Larry David's manager Jeff. And in the role she is angry, she often yells at Larry David, like in this scene, when she finds out he has taken the head off her daughter's doll.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")
SUSIE ESSMAN: (As Susie Greene) The kid is home hysterical because her doll Judy has been decapitated because you two sickos took the head for God knows what reason.
HOBSON: Actress and comedian Susie Essman joins us from the studios of WAMC Northeast Public Radio in Albany. Susie, welcome.
ESSMAN: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: Well, and I think the first thing many people are going to think of when they hear you on this show is your character Susie Greene from "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And I know you get asked about this in every single interview that you do. And it seems like your answer is always I love that character, I love doing that character, but I am not her.
ESSMAN: It's this little thing called acting.
HOBSON: But it feels like you're annoyed by that.
ESSMAN: Well, it's not that I'm annoyed, it's just that people assume I'm her, and I guess that just means that I'm a good actress, but I'm not her. It's a character I created. Who could be her? Who could live in her skin and wear those outfits?
HOBSON: Well, what should we know about you that we don't because we see you as Susie Greene on "Curb Your Enthusiasm?"
ESSMAN: Number one, I don't dress like that. Number two, I'm not screaming and - I'm not filled with rage. I get that all out onstage and when I'm acting. In real life I'm not filled with rage.
HOBSON: And you've actually tackled this on the show, not you but with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who faced with this her character from "Seinfeld," with Jason Alexander, who did the same. Let's listen to him talking with Larry David about that.
JASON ALEXANDER: I can't shake this George thing. They all see me as George.
LARRY DAVID: I mean a thing about it is that you're not even close to George. I tell this to people all the time: You can't imagine what a great actor this guy is. He's nothing like that character.
ALEXANDER: Thank you.
ESSMAN: You know, the funny thing about that is that really Larry was the George character.
ESSMAN: All of George's scenarios were based on Larry. When I first met Larry - in 1985, '86 - at "Catch a Rising Star," he would stand in the bar area and just bemoan to me and Joy Behar about all his love life problems, which later on we saw as George storylines.
ESSMAN: The thing with the answering machine, all that stuff - that was all Larry's stories.
HOBSON: So does that happen with you?
ESSMAN: What, that people think I'm Suzy Greene, yes. And they're usually - when they come up to me on the street and I'm gracious, they're visibly disappointed.
ESSMAN: I'm disappointing people all over this great land of ours, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Alright, well, one of the things that you do talk about, as Susie Essman, in your standup is family. I want to listen to a little bit of a routine that you did a few years back in New York. You're talking about how your mother and father love it when each other get sick.
ESSMAN: And she said to me: We think daddy has a brain tumor.
ESSMAN: And I have the suicide instructions.
ESSMAN: And I told him if he only has one good year left to live, we're going to do everything that I want to do.
HOBSON: Is that really true?
ESSMAN: Word for word, true.
HOBSON: Well, how did your family members react? Or how do they react when you talk about them in your act?
ESSMAN: They're not allowed to come.
ESSMAN: My mother is not allowed to come. You know, when I first started doing standup, it was almost 30 years ago, I was in a club in the city at the Duplex, this tiny little club in the Village. And I walk out on stage and there are my parents, Zora and Lenny, sitting right in the front row. They came and they sat right in the front row. And I just looked at them and I was ready to just strangle them.
You know? I mean I know they thought they were doing the right thing. But it was just - after that they were banned. They were just completely banned. They're not allowed to come.
HOBSON: But do you find it that makes the best material, to talk about them?
ESSMAN: Yeah. You know, talking - well, it depends. I mean whatever is real makes the best material. I talk a lot about my kids. I mean I just brought up four teenagers. We're empty-nesters now. But I had four teenagers that I raised. My parents aging, you know, whatever is personal to me in the moment is what's best to talk about. I'm not one of these comics that talks about, you know, like airlines or...
ESSMAN: It's about my life.
HOBSON: We are speaking with comedian Susie Essman. You can find her tour schedule at HereAndNow.org.
Don't go anywhere. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW. And let's get back to our conversation with comedian Susie Essman, who is perhaps best known for rural in the HBO show "Curb Your Enthusiasm." She plays Suzy Greene, the wife of Larry David's manager. In this scene, Larry comes over to their new house and doesn't want the tour.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Hey, Lar.
DAVID: (as Himself) Hey.
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Ah-yah.
DAVID: (as Himself) Ah-yah, yeah.
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Is this something?
DAVID: (as Himself) Yeah, congratulations.
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Thank you. Beautiful.
DAVID: (as Himself) That's wonderful.
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) We're so happy here. Aren't we, honey?
DAVID: (as Himself) It's a beautiful house.
JEFF GARLIN: (as Jeff Greene) We sure are.
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) So, come on. I'll give you the tour.
DAVID: (as Himself) Oh, you know what? That's OK. I get it.
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) What do you mean?
DAVID: (as Himself) Well, you know, its bedrooms, bathrooms - I get it. I see it. It's beautiful. It's great.
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) You don't want a tour.
DAVID: (as Himself) Eh, you don't need to walk me around.
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) Get the (bleep) out of my house. OK, Larry? Just get the (bleep) out right now.
DAVID: (as Himself) Alright, fine. I'll take the house tour.
ESSMAN: (as Susie Greene) No. No, I'm done. I'm over it. I'm turned off. Leave.
HOBSON: Susie Essman is now on tour doing standup. She'll perform tonight in Boston.
And, Susan Essman, as you travel around the country, do you find that different audiences react differently to your comedy? Or do you find that you have to tailor it depending on where you are?
ESSMAN: Oh, no. I just did a run at the Soho Theatre in London in October - sold out run, eight shows - and they were great. They - no, you know, it's universal. It's interesting 'cause because people always think that nobody really relates to "Curb" except on the coasts. And it's not true. I've traveled all over the country.
I had a guy come up to me recently from Africa. He was an African immigrant in New York City, telling me that my mother - when he sees me do to my mother in my act, it's exactly like his mother.
ESSMAN: So there's a universe - yes, my mother is a Jewish mother, a typical Jewish mother in many ways. But there's a universality - is that the word - universalness about all the characters, I think, and about what I talk about. Everybody talks about having, you know, everybody has kids, has teenager kids that drive them crazy, and parents that drive them crazy, and husbands that drive them crazy. It's universal.
HOBSON: Although I have a Jewish mother and I've always found "Curb Your Enthusiasm" hilarious, and I find that sometimes when I show it to my gentile friends, they don't get it. Or they don't have the same reaction - not everybody, but some of them.
ESSMAN: Yeah, I don't know. I haven't had - I'm sure that's true. But I haven't had that experience. I've had people come up to me, you know, from St. Louis and all over the country telling me how much they love "Curb," and how much they relate to it, who are clearly not Upper Westside Jews.
HOBSON: Now, you've been doing standup now for 30 years, if I'm not mistaken.
ESSMAN: Yeah, 31 almost.
HOBSON: Thirty-one, and when you first started out you experienced depression, which even though we don't think of standup comics as being depressed ever, a lot of them have dealt with that. I wonder what your advice would be to a new, starting out standup comic today, to avoid that if possible. Is it possible?
ESSMAN: You know, the standup didn't - the depression didn't come from the standup. The depression was there, which kind of forced me into the stand-up, 'cause I was so deeply depressed I had nowhere to go but down. Otherwise I would never have done this crazy thing. Depression almost was the impetus to do the standup. If I was happy, I don't know that I would've gotten on stage in front of strangers and try to make them laugh.
So my advice to young comedians is always get onstage as much as you can, and find your voice - be true to your voice. Don't listen to anybody else. Do what you think is funny.
HOBSON: Do what you think is funny, so it's not based on...
ESSMAN: No pandering.
HOBSON: ...what gets the most laughs, yeah.
ESSMAN: Yeah, no pandering. You'll find it. It just takes a really long - when I first started, I remember an older comedian telling me: Oh, it takes you at least five years to find your voice. And I was cocky. And I was like: Oh, no - not me, I'll find it right away. It took me like, you know, 12 years or something like that. I still haven't found it.
HOBSON: But how do you keep it fresh over the years?
ESSMAN: Well, you know, I always add new material and every audience is different. And I work the room a lot, so it's always fresh and different. I don't have an order. I never know where going so I think that helps a lot. It also causes tremendous anxiety.
I mean I usually know what my opening line is going to be, but from then it's just whatever is - I'll just feel the room and just take it someplace. And so every performance is completely different. And I like it that way. I like a live experience to feel truly live, that we're kind of all in this experience together. And we're experiencing this moment and it's never going to happen again - like sex.
HOBSON: How often do you, when you are working on a routine, decide that something's going too far and you have to pull it back?
ESSMAN: Ah, you know, it's - that's just kind of an instinct kind of a thing. I don't how often that happens, not too often. I think that after all of these years my instincts are pretty good. Sometimes I'll be on stage and I'll just be spontaneous with something, and I'll feel a thing crawling up my spine, which is like - uh-oh, you went over the line. But it doesn't happen that often.
HOBSON: But you've talked about the importance of likability for a comedian.
ESSMAN: Yeah. Well, accessibility as much as likability. My theory about the audience is that the audience wants to feel relaxed. And they want to feel like the comedian is in control. And that the contract you have with them is that I'm going to take care of you for this next hour in the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, and you're going to relax and laugh and enjoy yourself.
The reason why - you know when you feel really uncomfortable when you see a bad comic or you see a comic dying?
ESSMAN: That uncomfortable - it's because the contract is broken. All of a sudden you, the audience member, has to take care of them.
HOBSON: Well, have you ever lost control?
ESSMAN: Not over some - well, yeah. In the beginning, of course, all of the time. In recent years, only if the venue is out of control. And by that I mean I did a gig recently that was a private party. It was in a great big grand ballroom. The sound was horrible, they could barely see me, there was no spotlight on me - they could barely see me. They couldn't hear me, they couldn't see me and there was buffet tables on the side of the room where they were eating and drinking.
ESSMAN: So in that sense, I could lose control. But if it's a theater or a club, rarely can I - do I lose control.
HOBSON: As someone who is a New Yorker through-and-through, but who is associated with the show that is so L.A., "Curb Your Enthusiasm," what do you think is the difference comedically between the two cities?
ESSMAN: I think that comedians get a little - a little more complacent when they live in L.A. You know, in New York, no matter how successful you are or how much money you have, you still have to go out and deal with the elements out on the street. You're not isolated. Where in L.A., you're very, very isolated.
If you live in Pacific Palisades, you get in your car and you go maybe to Santa Monica, but that's about it. You're not navigating the way that we do in New York constantly.
HOBSON: You don't have to interact with everyone.
ESSMAN: No, you have no interactions, basically. You know, the other thing I was thinking about, season eight of "Curb" was shot in New York. I just finished a pilot that finished today, actually, shooting in New York. It's a pilot for ABC. It's called "Irreversible," and I played David Schwimmer's mother.
ESSMAN: And it's based on an Israeli series. And we shot it all in New York which was, you know, my dream come true. But New York becomes a character when you short in New York. When we shot "Curb" in New York, my television-apartment was on Central Park West. And you look outside and you see Central Park. When we shoot "Curb" in L.A., my house is in Pacific Palisades and you look outside and you see a shrub.
ESSMAN: You know? It's like - it's very different. L.A. doesn't become a part of the show. Whereas when we shot in New York, New York was a part of the show.
HOBSON: And is there going to be another season of "Curb," in New York perhaps?
ESSMAN: Not that I know of.
HOBSON: You don't want to make news right here?
ESSMAN: I wish I could. No, the last time I spoke to Larry - which is recently - he is not working on it. He has not completely ruled it out but he hasn't worked on it. He just wrote a play, as a matter of fact. It's very funny.
HOBSON: Who do you look up to still, as a comedian?
ESSMAN: Oh, gee. I mean my idol was Richard Pryor. And he was just to me the greatest comedian that ever lived. I thought yet everything that a comedian needed to have. He was funny. He was warm. He was accessible. He was vulnerable. He just ripped his heart open and just showed you the truth about himself. He did characters. He told stories. I mean he was just the full package as a comedian.
HOBSON: OK. Well, Susie Essman, before I let you go, I just want to ask you to do one thing for me and we'll just, you know, bleep out everything here. But if you could please...
ESSMAN: Tell you to go (bleep) off, right?
HOBSON: Yeah, exactly. Give - just tell me off, please as you as Suzy Greene.
ESSMAN: Jeremy, you redheaded Boston (bleep). You and your Red Sox too.
HOBSON: Susie Essman...
ESSMAN: I grew up in the Bronx, you know.
ESSMAN: My grandmother lived on Jerome Avenue and 161st Street. I have my loyalties.
HOBSON: Susie Essman, it's been so great talking to you. Thank you so much for joining us.
ESSMAN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
That was quite a barrage, Jeremy. It's a good thing we have a censor standing by.
HOBSON: Yes, you're welcome to tell me off any time out of the studios, Sacha. I'm Jerry Hobson.
PFEIFFER: And I'm Sasha Pfieffer. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.