Q&A: J.B. Smoove on Larry David and how getting fired from ‘SNL’ changed his life


J.B. Smoove has become such a favorite of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fans, it’s easy to forget that his character, Leon Black, Larry David’s eminently quotable sidekick/seemingly permanent houseguest, only joined the HBO series in Season 6.

For those who’ve missed Leon’s colorful insight during the show’s six-year absence, Smoove has a new book written in the voice of his character, “Leon Black: The Philosophy of a Fool.” He also returns in “Curb’s” long-awaited ninth season, which premieres Sunday night.

We recently caught up with Smoove, looking dapper in a fedora as he discussed Leon’s unique rapport with Larry and the sequence of events that led to getting cast on “Curb.”

How does it feel to be back after six years?

It does not feel like six years. We got so many questions about whether “Curb” was coming back. Fans approach you all the time. You’re sitting next to a guy in first class, five hours [later], he’s calling you Leon the whole time. All these things keep it alive.

You get busy. I did movies, commercials, TV shows. I think that’s why when we got back on set, it was like second nature. The only thing that happened was the day before [we started shooting] was the presidential election. I was up most of the night, like “Holy …, I can’t believe this.” We came in the next day. We spent the first half-hour to an hour talking about it. Aside from that, it felt like jumping back into it.

Other than thinking that you’re Leon, what response do you usually get from fans?

They love this character so much. Just last night [at the show’s premiere] about five people came up to me and said, "It's my uncle's birthday. He's in the hospital, he ... loves you, Leon. Would you just say 'Get better and bring the ruckus to that ....’’’ I'm like, "OK! Hey Johnny, get better, leave the hospital. Bring the ruckus to that ...!" But that keeps us going, man.

Leon is a guy you would love to take with you to fight a parking ticket. He got your back if you got his back.

— J.B Smoove

What do you think people love so much about Leon?

I think they love that he's relatable. Everybody knows a guy like Leon. He don't got ... going on, but somehow this guy finds a way to be positive. Leon is a guy you would love to take with you to fight a parking ticket. He got your back if you got his back.

I think people love the Leon-isms because on some level, they make sense. “That’s how I dooze it” is a great metaphor for life, you know? Someone asks you "Why'd you do that?” “Because that's how I dooze it.” Perfect answer, you know?

Do you have a favorite episode or scene?

I definitely love [“The Lefty Call,” in which Leon gives Larry some colorful but unprintable advice about dealing with personal challenges] Even [“The Anonymous Donor”], that’s the moment, I think, that really set Leon and Larry off. And that one scene allowed us to figure out why these two guys have something, over the explanation of what “ejaculate” is and of the audacity of him asking me did I do that to that blanket.

I also love the scene where Larry wanted me to snatch a purse [from his ex-wife’s therapist in “The Therapists”]. “I'm not gonna let you pry this purse out of my hands like I'm a punk. I’m gonna break your glasses, knock a tooth out. The worse you look, the more of a hero you're gonna be to the lady. You know?”

You joined “Curb” in Season 6. Were you already a fan? What was the audition like?

A bunch of things had to happen for me to even be a part of that show. I was working with “SNL” as a writer. My fourth season I didn't get renewed, but I was already a huge fan of “Curb.” My wife was washing dishes one day and she said, “You gonna be on that show one day because you say crazy stuff all the time. You would fit right in!"

All this happened within a month or two. I signed with a new agent, my buddy passed away and I had to come to L.A. for one day. I said, while I'm in L.A. I'm gonna go visit my new agents. And then the agent comes, says, "Hey man, I got an audition. How long are you in town?" I said, "I leave town tomorrow. What's it for?" He said, ‘"Curb Your Enthusiasm."’ I said "Get the … out of here, that's impossible!"

I left his office, went straight to the audition. I never go into the room as myself. I always walk into the room as my character.

So I walk into the room and Larry is standing in the middle of the room, and I said, "Holy …." They said, "OK J.B., you're gonna improv with Larry." But I was already in Leon mode when I walked into the room. I said, "OK, let’s do this ..., Larry". Because we improv-ing right? I said, "I’ll smack you in the face, right?" And Larry looked at everybody, like, “Who the ... is this guy?”

I left town, went straight to Pittsburgh to do a comedy show. Got there, there was a big snowstorm. I was in a horrible town, a horrible club. Everything was horrible. I never been in a hotel that filthy in my life.

I said, "What the … is happening right now? I used to work at ‘SNL.’” And I'm driving 15 miles an hour in the snowstorm to get to the airport, then my phone rings. It’s my agent. He said, “Slow down, do 10 miles an hour, ‘cause I need you back in L.A. because you got ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ You start work on Monday".

My buddy who passed away, right? His name was Oji Pearce. He was a music producer. He wrote, "This Is How We Do It” [by Montell Jordan]. He wasn’t just a friend, he was also a big fan; he always motivated me. So I did the whole season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and we had our wrap party. And the gag reel is all the funny moments from the season, cast and crew, photos of everybody. It's always funny. And guess what the song was on the gag reel? “This Is How We Do It.”

Yo, a chill went up my back! My wife and I looked at each other, we said, "Holy ... It's Oji saying what's up. Saying he's proud.” If I got re-signed to “SNL” I wouldn't have been able to do “Curb.” If my buddy didn't pass away, I would've never come to L.A.

Even if he had passed away three days later, I would've missed that window. All that … had to happen in order to get the part on my favorite show in the world, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” You don't know how the universe is gonna work for us. But all this plays a part in our journey.

The show is known for being outrageous. Has there been a script that you've read where you've said, "I can't believe we're doing this?"

Never. ‘Cause, you know, I'm a stand-up. I'm a real stand-up too, I don't ... around.


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