‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Stars J.B. Smoove and Susie Essman on Redefining Comedy Over 24 Years: ‘Nobody Does It Like ‘Curb” | Collaborators

In TheWrap’s Collaborators video, the longtime stars talk about their journey with the HBO series — and if it’s really over


“Curb Your Enthusiasm” became a singular masterclass in television comedy across 24 years and 12 seasons on the air, and few were as intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the show — and its impact — than costars Susie Essman and J.B. Smoove.

The two played key roles in Larry David’s groundbreaking improvised comedy, as Larry’s f-bomb-dropping nemesis Susie Greene from Season 1 and Larry’s outrageously funny right-hand man/roommate Leon Black from Season 6, respectively.

“No one does it like ‘Curb,’” Smoove said during a lengthy and heartwarming conversation with Essman as part of TheWrap’s Collaborators series, presented by HBO and Max. “We’re acting, but we’re also creating in the moment. We say one thing that can easily be a part of the whole season.” 

Indeed, the improv conceit was exciting and dangerous when “Curb” first debuted on HBO in 2000 as creator and star Larry David brought only outlines of scenes to set and encouraged his costars to improvise the dialogue of each scene. Many imitators followed, but there’s an art to this particular form of comedy that Essman and Smoove know all too well — if it were easy, there’d be a million “Curb” lookalikes on TV right now.

Though the actors barely shared scenes on the show, Smoove and Essman felt like old friends as they reminisced about working with David and executive producer Jeff Schaffer during production. “My feeling is that on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ we got to collaborate in a way that no other actors do on any other show,” Essman said. “Larry has said to me that, and I don’t know the (exact) percentage, but something like 98% of the time, we come up with better stuff than he ever could.”

J.B. Smoove and Susie Essman (Photo: Jeff Vespa for TheWrap)

Essman recalled David asking her to join the cast in the early days, when the role was more of a day player position. (“I had no contract for years!”) But the opportunity to work alongside David and create a character herself made the show a rare and wonderful opportunity. “I loved doing the show… but there was no job security at all.”

Smoove was a big fan of the comedy’s early years while he was building his own career as a performer and writing for “Saturday Night Live.” He landed the fan-favorite role of Leon after his wife Shahidah Omar encouraged him to audition. 

“Real money” wouldn’t come until later in the show’s run — Smoove said he was paid scale for a few seasons as well — but both performers agreed the visibility of “Curb” helped them raise their price point for standup tours, and other projects popped up in film and television while the show was on a production hiatus, like “Broad City” and “Hacks” for Essman and “American Dad” and “The Last OG” for Smoove.

“You always make time for ‘Curb.’ No matter what you’re doing, you put ‘Curb’ in the first position,” Smoove said. “I say that all the time, just to be sure I’m covered because I would hate to miss it… I gotta do ‘Curb.’ ”

curb-your-enthusiasm-j-b-smoove-larry-david-jeff-garlin-susie-essman-jerry-seinfeld-john-johnson-hbo
HBO

Though Essman appeared certain that the show is truly over after airing its series finale on April 7, Smoove shared the sentiment of many in Hollywood that David might never truly be done with “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“It’s almost a little bug in me because I always feel like there are still stones left unturned… That dude right there, he’s hilarious. Like, how do you say you’re not coming back?”

Looking back at the show’s long hiatus between Seasons 8 and 9 from 2011-2017, Smoove recalled not believing Larry then either when he said the show was done.

“Where are you going to have this much fun ever on a TV show?… There’s no way you’re going to be in a moment where you can create and perform. It’s hard to have that balance anywhere else,” he added. 

“We’ve been out to dinner a few times since we wrapped where something’s come up and he’ll be like ‘Ah, that would have been a good episode,’” Essman said. “The brain is always working. I just feel like he’s done.” 

Essman said that the death of longtime cast member Richard Lewis — who died in February after suffering a heart attack at 76 — makes the end of the show feel even more real. 

“Yeah that’s a hard one. (Larry’s) buddy,” Smoove said. 

Richard Lewis final appearance on 'Curb Your Enthiusiasm'
HBO

Whether this is truly the end of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or not, Essman and Smoove emphasized the privilege of working alongside David in crafting the dynamics and story on the celebrated comedy series through improv.

“I can find a way to stick things in there that, as I call it, make stupid sense. I try to think of the craziest thing and put a story around it, that way I can sell it to Larry in the scene and it makes perfect sense, even though it doesn’t.” Smoove said. He added that he looks for catchphrases for fans to latch on to, like the famous “Get it in that ass!” that has become eponymous with Leon.

But both Smoove and Essman emphasized they are not Leon and Susie Greene in real life — except for fans or in special occasions. 

“Bad customer service, I can go Susie Greene on them,” Essman said. “But I also raise teenagers, and I would say that at least once for each one of my kids, I went Susie Greene. I’ll hear myself and I’m like ‘Oh my God, I’m her.’… We each individually are so much more than (the characters) are, but we created them.” 

Though both Essman and Smoove now face saying goodbye to their creations, something else they share with their characters is their longstanding love for Larry David, the comedy legend who brought them together. 

“I will defend him to the death,” Essman said.

“That’s how I feel too,” Smoove added.

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