‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ star Susie Essman on swearing at strangers and working with Larry David
Larry David may be the writer, creator and star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but arguably the performer who truly embodies the show’s caustic charm is Susie Essman. The stand-up comedian stars as Susie Greene, the fabulously foul-mouthed wife of Larry David’s manager/BFF, Jeff (Jeff Garlin). Perpetually clad in skin-tight animal print and always at the ready with a fusillade of profane insults, Susie is a long-standing fan favorite — with good reason.
The long-delayed ninth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which concludes on HBO Sunday night, has seen the indomitable Susie face new challenges, including launching an organic soap company and dealing with her husband’s latest infidelities. Essman, 62, recently spoke with The Times about her decades-long friendship with David and just how the semi-improvised “Curb Your Enthusiasm” comes together.
People must ask you to curse at them all the time.
All the time. And it [gets tiring]. I’m buying a melon at Fairway, I don’t feel like telling somebody to go … themselves. You know what I mean? It’s my job. I don’t come to their job and say, you know, “Can you do my books for me?” if they’re an accountant, or whatever the hell it might be. It’s my job. Leave me alone. I’m a comic. And the fact that I’ve made a living — not only made a living, but become beloved — for telling people to go ... themselves ... I could not have planned that.
Why do you think fans love her so much?
I think they love Susie because she’s so true to herself. She’s so comfortable in her skin, and especially for women, she’s comfortable with her anger. So many women are not comfortable with their anger. You know how we’re brought up. “It’s ugly.” “You’re a shrew.” “You’re a bitch.” “Be ladylike.” Whatever. And Susie doesn’t give a ... about that. If she’s angry, she’s gonna tell you and she’s gonna tell you exactly why. It’s freeing to people. There’s some vicarious thing that people are getting from her comfort with her anger.
Is Susie inspired by anyone that you knew?
There were these girls that I went to high school with. I remember being so envious of these girls. I think they all had mothers that really loved them because they were always secure, never had all these doubts and neuroses and questions that I seem to have. And I was always just like, “Wow, what’s that like?” And I think that I tapped into that when I was putting Susie Greene together, that’s why she dresses the way she dresses. She believes she’s got the greatest taste in the entire world.
Tell me about your friendship with Larry David.
I knew Larry from back in the old days, in the ’80s, hanging out at [New York comedy club] Catch a Rising Star. Hanging out at the bar, he’d tell me all his tales of woe, dating problems he was having, which were constant and then later on became George [Costanza] story lines [on “Seinfeld”]. Larry was what’s called a comedian’s comedian because he had such amazing material, but he just couldn’t always connect to an audience, he didn’t have the rapport. So we would all go in to watch him because you never knew what was gonna happen. He was explosive in a lot of ways as a comic. A fellow comedian once said that Larry was in watching me and came out and said something really nice about a bit I was doing. And I remember being thrilled, because Larry was at a higher level as a comedy writer than any of us.
So how did you get cast in “Curb”?
I hadn’t seen him for about 10 years. He moved to L.A. and he was doing “Seinfeld.” And then I did a roast of Jerry Stiller for the Friars Club on Comedy Central. The roasts are always filthy, and Larry saw that roast and he had a particular scene in mind from Season 1 from an episode called “The Wire,” where Susie goes crazy. He saw the roast, and it was like, “Ding, ding. Susie.” And he calls me up and he’s like, “Hey Susie, it’s L.D. I have a part for you on a new show I’m doing for HBO.” And I was like, “Well, what’s the part?” “Don’t worry about it. It’s a character you can do.” And I said, “Well, all right, well send me the script.” “There’s no script. There’s no money. You have to fly yourself out and put yourself up.” I remember thinking, “I know how great he is, and I’d love to do work with him, but I’m not gonna have it cost me money to go out there.” So finally I said, “I’ll do it, but they gotta fly me out and put me up.” Which they did.
That first season it was such a low-budget slapdash operation, we had no idea that here we would be in 2017 talking about this iconic, amazing television show. I knew it was funny. But we were completely under the radar until at least Season 3. Nobody was watching us. We didn’t even have a makeup trailer. We didn’t have dressing rooms. We didn’t have port-a-potties. We would just be on location and everybody was just, “OK, I’ll change in that closet.”
The show’s known for being outrageous. Has there ever been a scene or an episode that gave you pause?
Once. It was the episode “The Nanny From Hell,” where Larry is talking about the size of this little boy’s penis. The kid was maybe 3 or 4. As a woman and a mother, immediately my back went up. And I cringed at that. Whatever Larry does, it’s politically incorrect, I don’t really care. That one bothered me. I believe I said something to him about it. And he was like, “I know, I know.” But he pulled it off. That’s the only one that I remember being like, “Uh, I think you’re going too far here.” Anything with adults is fair game, as far as I’m concerned.
Do you have any favorite episodes?
“Palestinian Chicken,” “The Ski Lift,” “The Doll,” “Beloved Aunt” from Season 1 — that’s one that’s just perfectly crafted. The first season, I didn’t see any [of Larry’s] outlines. And for some reason I saw that outline. I remember thinking, “This is … brilliant. It’s transcendent. I can’t figure out how he did this, and I have comedian-brain.” It was just like, beyond, you know? Now he lets me see all the outlines. But he doesn’t let guest stars because he doesn’t want them pre-thinking what they’re going to say and coming up with bad sitcom lines. Most guest stars show up and they’re just explained what the scene is about. That’s all.
So what’s actually in the outlines?
It’s so heavily plotted. It’s all about storyline. There will be like seven to 10 pages. And there will be a paragraph about what happens in each scene. There will be a dialogue written if it’s essential dialogue that has to come out for the story purposes. But otherwise, no dialogue is written. You just know what’s happening in the scene. Half the time we’ll be on set and we’ll just be talking and then Jeff and I will look at each other and be like, “What scene are we doing again?”
When you’re doing these scenes, who makes you laugh the most?
Probably Larry. But I don’t break — he’s the one that breaks nonstop. Especially with me and Leon [J.B. Smoove]. He just does not stop giggling. He’s ruined all my best takes. All these years.
Do you hold it against him?
Nah. He has a very joyous laugh. And I’m glad that I make him laugh, because I think that’s why I’m still on the show. I’ll just look at him sometimes and he’ll get the giggles. He just knows I’m gonna yell and scream at him and he loves it. It’s like the third-grader who knows that the teacher’s gonna yell at them — the mischief-maker? That’s what Larry’s like.
‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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