The recent ninth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm proved that the popular comedy still has it, with provocative and entertaining episodes like “Thank You for Your Service” and “The Accidental Text on Purpose.” One of the HBO show’s many strengths is the platform it has provided for hilarious, previously under-appreciated comedians like J. B. Smoove, Wanda Sykes and Susie Essman.
Essman’s spectacularly foul-mouthed and fierce Susie Greene has always been a vital character, the most memorable at standing up to Larry David. During an interview with Playboy, Essman is friendly, fiery and very funny, indeed. Our conversation bounces around sexism, harassment in comedy, Al Franken, how Larry David is most like his Curb version and the problem with monogamy.
“The Ski Lift” and “Palestinian Chicken” are Curb classics. Have those two episodes remained with you?
Yes. So “The Ski Lift” is actually Larry’s favorite episode. Oh, God—I love that episode. We had so much fun in those scenes where I had to pretend to be his wife. It was a riot. In season 9, I really liked the episode with Bryan Cranston. I always say, “Well, this is my favorite episode.” And then I think of something else, and I’ll say, “No, that was my favorite!” So I can never pick a favorite.
“The Ski Lift” jests around “correct Jewishness,” and that episode led Orthodox Jews to call you anti-Semitic. What’s your response?
I think that extreme religion, like extreme totalitarian regimes and extreme orthodoxy of most religions, lose their sense of humor because humor is by its nature subversive and questioning the status quo. Totalitarianism and orthodoxy doesn’t really like questioning.
“The Al Franken thing, to me, he was acting like Groucho Marx. He was just being silly and funny.”
“Palestinian Chicken” is one of the great enduring episodes. It’s cool how season 9 riffs off that episode.
Right. For Larry, the show, even from season 1 on, it’s one show. It’s not about each season—there’s always callbacks. As a matter of fact, in episode 8 [“Never Wait for Seconds!”] this season, he brings back a lot of the characters from previous years, including the Orthodox daughter from “The Ski Lift.”
You’ve inspired prominent younger female performers, people like Zoe Lister-Jones and Broad City’s Ilana [Glazer] and Abbi [Jacobson]. And you play Broad City’s Bobbi Wexler, an archetypal affable Jewish mother.
I love working with those girls. They’re amazing. It makes me proud ‘cause I do feel like—and they’ve told me, so I know it’s true—that they’re an outgrowth of a path that I paved as a female comic. It’s easier for them now than it was when I was coming up in the '80s. So I’m happy that they could take what I did and push the envelope even further. It’s just terrific.
You pioneered that female stand-ups and actresses can talk about and do whatever the fuck they want.
Absolutely. [Laughs] When you’re doing something, you’re not conscious of it. I was just talking about the things that were funny to me and that I wanted to talk about. You’re just in it, creating your art the way that you wanna express yourself.
“[Jerry Lewis] was never funny. He said something like, it disgusted him to see a woman on stage and think that she’s a mother. It’s like, really?”
What might surprise people about real-life Larry versus Curb Larry?
Real-life is nothing like Curb Larry. He couldn’t function in the world and be our boss and our leader being that jerk guy that he plays on-screen. What would surprise people? I think how sweet he is; he’s an incredibly loyal friend. Incredibly loyal. He’s always caring about his friends, and he’s very sensitive to people’s feelings, as opposed to Curb Larry, who has no sensitivity whatsoever. I think they’d be surprised at how good of a friend he is and how many friends he has.
How is Larry most like his Curb version?
He’ll say that he aspires to be his Curb character. [Laughs] He’ll say that he wants to be that guy. That you run into a friend in the street, and they say: “Let’s have lunch!” And you say, “OK, here’s my email, call me.” He wants to be the guy that says: “You know what, we’re never gonna have lunch. Why are we going through this charade?” He wishes he could be that way, that honest. But of course, he’s tactful, and he cares about hurting people’s feelings.
So, how is he most like his Curb character? He’s funny—he’s really funny. Very observant. That’s what comedians do, that’s why Larry’s such a great comic, 'cause that’s what comedians do. We see things that other people don’t see, and then we tell them we saw it, and they say, “Oh, that’s right, I didn’t realize that!”
What’s your take on the Louis C.K. comedy-world harassment issue?
People ask me all the time: “Is the comedy business sexist?” And my response still is: “The world is sexist!” Men rule the world. I think that women are second-class citizens in so many different areas, not just in comedy. I came up in comedy clubs in the '80s where harassment wasn’t a known thing. There was plenty of harassment going on, but it wasn’t a thing.
What’s interesting about all this is that the actors and the famous people that are getting all the attention, but you ask the woman who’s working in the post office, or at Walmart or whatever, and it’s going on there just as much, if not more, because they don’t get the attention that a celebrity type gets. So I’m glad that people are understanding it and noticing it.
I just hope there’s not a backlash [against #MeToo]. I hope that it’s not going too far. The Al Franken thing, to me, he was acting like Groucho Marx. He was just being silly and funny. He wasn’t being threatening. I think there’s a line, and I think that people have to start to understand what the line is.
It’s so difficult as a comedian now—it’s much more difficult than the way it used to be because of political correctness. And it used to be that when you were in a comedy club, which is where I first met Larry David, it was private, and you were in this dark and dirty club, and we were all in this together, and you could say whatever you wanted. It was understood that it was private. And that’s no longer the case.
Now people are recording you surreptitiously on their phones, and they’re tweeting about you while you’re on stage. Everything becomes so public in a way that it’s taken away the edge of comedy. I know certain comedians, like Jerry Seinfeld, who says he won’t work colleges anymore because you make one comment that’s just meant to be funny, and there’s such a huge uproar.
“Real-life [Larry David] is nothing like Curb Larry.”
Chris Rock says stuff shouldn’t be filmed at some points in comedy clubs because people are developing material.
Yeah! You make mistakes, and sometimes you go too far, and that’s how you learn. Sometimes you’re on stage, and you have this little thing crawling up your spine. It’s like, “Uh-oh, I shouldn’t have said that. I went too far.” But that’s how you develop yourself as a comedian. So I think that part of that has been taken away now, and that’s kind of upsetting to me.
And by the way, if I could just comment about that political correctness. The one person I know who pays no attention to that whatsoever is Larry David. It’s interesting because Larry is such a politically left-wing person, and yet so many right-wing types love the show because it’s so politically incorrect. It’s a conundrum. Because Larry, he says what he wants to say and does not pay attention to what people’s responses are gonna be. He’s true to his own comedic voice.
Context, nuance, intent, all these things are important. And comedy does need to be able to explore provocative subjects.
Yeah, I think so! Mel Brooks was criticized when he first did The Producers, and his response to that was, his power was in ridicule. The only power he had against Nazis was to ridicule them as a comedian, and I think that’s correct.
You’ve been outspoken in the past about Jerry Lewis.
I can’t stand him, and he’s dead. You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I never understand why you’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead because they don’t know what you’re saying. They’re the best people to speak ill of!
He was never funny. He said something like, it disgusted him to see a woman on stage and think that she’s a mother. It’s like, really? I had no time for him.
“People ask me all the time: 'Is the comedy business sexist?’ And my response still is: 'The world is sexist!’ Men rule the world.”
You’ve said the problem with marriage is monogamy. Jeff Greene, of course, is a serial philanderer. Now that you’re happily married in real life with Jim Harder, what’s your position?
It’s hard for me to say because I got married late. [Laughs] I had sown a lot of wild oats before I got married, so it’s different when you get a bit older. I got married for the first time at 53. So I wasn’t curious about other people—it was a very different time in my life. I think monogamy is very difficult when you marry young, and you have kids, and that becomes your world, and the sex in your life kinda goes by the wayside because life gets in the way. It’s hard! It’s really hard, and I never had to test myself like that.
Getting married at my age, I met my husband when I was 48, so I already had many, many experiences and didn’t find the need to have anymore. Now I’m just totally happy just to be with him. But if I got married at 25, or even 35, I don’t know if I would’ve felt that way. I think people are curious, and people want variety.
I never understand these people that were high school sweethearts, and they get married, and that’s it. I don’t know how they do it! I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it. I think that’s one of the reasons I never did get married ‘cause I was not ready to make that kind of a commitment. And it is a commitment; it’s a sacred vow you take when you get married. I see it that way. I wisely knew myself better and didn’t do it until I was ready to do that.
America’s best religious leaders and politicians have been hypocrites in this regard, you once added.
To me, it’s asking a lot to expect you to just be with one person for your entire life! It’s not natural. Then people will bring up some kind of bird that mates for life or something like that—it’s anecdotal. [Laughs] I think most people, you know, need a little spice.
Susie Greene should have an affair with Leon.
You know what, you’re not the first person to say that. A lot of people have said that, including J. B. Smoove. They always have a bit of a flirtation, a little thing.
Pretty much since the first time they met.
That was an acting choice that J. B. made, that wasn’t in the outline. J. B. just made that choice, and I went along with it, with him. It’s a great example of how we work. Because it’s [semi-]improvised, one of us will come up with something, an attitude, or a line, or whatever, and then when you’re improv-ing, you have to listen to what they’re doing and then just go along with it, go in that direction. It makes it fun because you never know what somebody’s gonna come up with. When I’m working with great improvisers like J. B. or Larry, it’s so much fun 'cause it’s always a surprise. I never know what they’re gonna come at me with. … Don’t forget Richard Lewis—he’s a nutjob. We love him.
There’s so much Susie in season 9 that was enjoyable. Calling out the accidental text on purpose, noting how badly the men other than Jeff are doing with women, the little sister search, that debate over upstairs-access privilege. Any particular Susie Greene episodes or scenes that have stayed with you?
I got to get a brand new house ‘cause Jeff was cheating on me. This season, Larry used me as a through line through the whole season. There was nothing that was a huge Susie Greene scene, like kicking him out of my house like I’ve had in my past. I felt like this season, Susie and Larry were a little more congenial to one another. A bit more, even though he always blows it. But that’s their relationship. Their relationship is very much like family, like siblings, in the sense that she’ll kick him out of the house, and yell and scream at him. And then the next day, she’s like, “Hey, Lar—wanna come to my dinner party?” They have a very short memory with one another; it’s just how they speak to each other. … I hear about families that don’t speak to each other, and I can’t imagine that.
How do you find having enthusiastic fans approach you on the street?
Depends where I’m at and how people do it. Most people who approach me are doing it with genuine appreciation for what I do. And they’re my fans! I never understand people who are not kind to their fans. That’s the people who you do this for. Sometimes, it’s annoying, obviously. Sometimes, people are really obnoxious, but the majority, I would say 95 percent of the time, it’s all good, it’s all fine. I never thought I was gonna be revered or beloved for telling people to go fuck themselves. [Laughs] Sometimes, it’s bizarre that people want me to tell them to go fuck themselves.
"We don’t suffer fools … we’re both take-no-prisoners, no-shit people,” you’ve said, comparing Susie Essman with Susie Greene. A favorite thing Essman has learned from Greene?
Oh jeez, what I’ve learned from Susie Greene? [Laughs] What I’ve learned from Susie Greene is, part of me is more comfortable in my anger. She’s so comfortable in her anger, which I think a lot of women especially—people in general, but women especially—are taught that it’s not lady-like to be angry. That we’re supposed to be nice little girls. And Susie Greene is not like that at all. She’s completely comfortable in her anger, and she has no excuses for it whatsoever.