Trying to Keep Up with the Unstoppable J.B. Smoove
J.B. Smoove is a force to be reckoned with. The quick-witted, high-energy standup, actor, and writer, known for his role as Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm, has been running on all cylinders the last few years, appearing in memorable TV and movie roles and in his first special for Comedy Central. He currently stars on The Millers and Real Husbands of Hollywood and is the host of the new season of Last Comic Standing, which premieres tonight on NBC.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Smoove about the new season of Last Comic, his love of standup, and his philosophy on work and play.
How did you get involved with hosting this upcoming season of Last Comic Standing?
Wanda Sykes, who is one of the producers, I’ve known forever, and my name came up as a possible host. Standup is what I do. This is something that I love and have a passion for. I bring the fire every time I get on stage. I’m an arsonist. You want someone with fire and passion for what they do to be on stage to introduce these comics.
A lot of these comics are young guys – some of them are veterans – but at the same time, who says a veteran can’t learn also? You need another eye on you, and I’m that extra eye that’s on these guys. Sometimes you need someone to tell you what you’re doing wrong, what you’re doing right. I want you to win this damn contest. I want you to win Last Comic Standing, but I always tell the guys, “Everybody can’t win, but there are no losers. Just everybody can’t win.” That’s our motto.
I’ve been doing standup for over 25 years, and this puts me in a position of not just being a host but a mentor, a friend, a co-worker. I’m all those things to all people on this show. I’m not a judge, but I can in some way judge what you’re doing as a comic – judge your preparation, your pace, your timing, how the audience responds.
And it’s my job to set the pace; I’m a pace car. It’s my job to get the audience going. I bring you on stage, and I want everybody to have the same exact level of crowd response so everyone has an even playing field. That’s my job as a host to make sure it’s an even playing field and you have an opportunity to do what you do the way you do it. That’s what it’s about for me.
I was happy Wanda called me, and I’m happy they involved me with the show. It hasn’t been on the air in three years, so for me it’s great to help bring it back with a whole different vigor and whole different style. Plus, I’m a cool ass dude. Let’s put that out there. A lot of people love J.B. Smoove. People like a lot of people, but people love J.B. Smoove. There’s a slight difference between what the hell I do and what other people do. I’m not knocking anybody, but what do I bring to a project? I bring 200% every time. I’m fire. I ignite. I’m a gas leak, baby. You light that cigarette, and boom! In your face.
I don’t care what you do. You could be a plumber. You could be a babysitter. You bring the right fire, and you’re gonna continue to get work as a babysitter. Those kids love you. Those kids love your ass. You’re the best babysitter they ever had in their life. You let the kids do whatever they want to: you let the kids smoke, you let the kids do things they shouldn’t be doing. You’re that kind of babysitter. The parents will trust you, but the kids love you to death. Because you’re letting them play with knives and Orcs and outlets and stuff like that, stuff that a normal babysitter wouldn’t do. You know what I mean? You’re taking care of those kids, but you’re also giving them a little leeway, letting them have fun and experience stuff.
Hell, you don’t know how hot a fire is unless you touch that damn fire. I’m also a babysitter on this show. I’m trying to help your ass out, but I also want you to learn from your mistakes.
I’m all things to all people. I’m a man of the people. That’s another nickname for me: “J.B. Smoove: Man of the People.” I’m being blunt, and I’m being honest.
You mentioned the show is going to look different than when we last saw it. What can you tell us about some of those changes?
Here’s the thing I like about the show this year: You gotta realize, in the past, it was just a competition. They compete against each other.
The cool thing about this year is this: because they have myself, I believe people in the audience and people at home could actually be able to understand the art of comedy, not just watch comedians on stage perform. You could get that from a comedy club. You watch a comic on stage, you’re not necessarily learning about the craft. Then you’re not respecting the craft. This is a craft. This is an art. Just like a play or drama, we have to take drama and turn it into comedy and make fun of it, make light of the world. You only get that if someone is presenting that to you. In the comedy club all you’re going to get is comedy, and you’re going to have a drink, go home, and try to retell these jokes, but doing a show like this it’s up to me, J.B. Smoove, to give you some insight into what a comic actually goes through. There’s preparation. You need a certain amount of laughs per minute. This is what people don’t understand about comedy. This is not just the class clown dude hopping on stage making you laugh and getting off stage. These guys have preparation. These guys have anxiety, nervousness, and all these things they have to go through before they step on stage, and they have to know the rules of comedy in their heads. They gotta know their pace, their energy level, their stage presence – all these things people don’t understand have to go into doing standup.
You have to present your style, your brand to these people, and not just the people in the audience but the people watching the TV. The audience is small. It’s a few hundred people, but when you’re talking about millions of people maybe watching you that night on TV, you have to perform for the crowd and you have to get enough energy through that television screen so people say, “Damn, I love that guy.” Then they’re gonna want to come and see your ass when you’re doing a comedy club in your city.
So every time you hit that stage, it’s an investment in yourself. You’re investing and reinvesting in yourself. You are your own stockbroker. You go on that stage and perform in front of that crowd, which people are so used to doing in comedy clubs, but now you’re performing in front of that camera. When you win or when you lose, you still want people around the country to come out and see you, support you, and say, “I saw that guy on Last Comic Standing. He didn’t win, but he’s not a loser.” You don’t gotta win to win.
Absolutely. Some of the contestants who didn’t win on past seasons are having great careers.
And some people who won aren’t winning now. It happens all the time. That might not be your path. That’s what I try to tell people on this show. This might be an opportunity for you, but it just might not be your complete journey. Don’t put it all into this show. You want to have a good showing and you want to win, but sometimes you win and lose at the same damn time. Be open to your journey. This might just be a bump in the road. This might just be part of your journey, but it might not be the end of your journey. This might just be a stopover. You might just be stopping to get some coffee on Last Comic Standing on your way to a gourmet dinner. I don’t know. Nobody knows until after the smoke clears.
And this is part of my journey too. You think I do this every day? You think I host shows every day? Come on. We are all part of each other’s journey.
You’re hosting Last Comic, and you’ve been appearing on The Millers and Real Husbands of Hollywood. How has being so busy been for you?
Things are going great, man. I’m everywhere. I’m like American Express–everywhere you want to be. I’m everywhere you need to be. I’m every damn where.
Some people want everything at one time. I’m patient. I take a little at a time because I know I can put 200% into a little a time. You can’t put 200% into a thousand things at one time. Something’s going to suffer. That’s why I believe in taking things where I know I can do well, things I can handle. That keeps the chains moving, keeps the phone ringing continuously.
If you give me everything at one time, I’m a different person. You can’t handle all that success at one fucking time. Give me a little bit at a time, and smell the roses along the way. There are roses, you just have to smell them. You want time to meet people and experience things. It’s all part of your journey. You could look back and people could look back at you and say, “Goddamn, we had a good time that day.”
But if you’re so goddamn big you can’t smell the roses or you can’t meet people or they’re scared to talk to you because you’re too big – they can’t get to you because you’re surrounded by people every minute, you’re hiding from the paparazzi – you still want to be able to go to the goddamn amusement park with your kids. You want to be able to eat dinner in a restaurant. You want to be able to eat soup or spaghetti without people taking pictures of your ass. Let me tell you, spaghetti is some sloppy shit. You don’t want no paparazzi taking photos of you eating spaghetti. Fucking long ass cartoon noodles where it’s all one continuous noodle and you clear the whole fucking plate and all the fucking spaghetti’s gone in one slurp. That’s a long continuous noodle. Realistically, you can’t make it that fucking long anyway. That’s unrealistic. But that’s the power of spaghetti.
Have you always had this patience and work ethic, or was it something you had to learn?
When you don’t have shit, you’re used to not having shit, so nothing surprises you. When you got every goddamn thing all the time, you can’t enjoy that shit. And then when shit goes wrong, you lose your marbles because you’re not used to not having. When you don’t have it and then you have it, you can deal with it. When you have it and then you don’t have it, that’s when it fucks your head up. That’s when you’re all jacked up. You can’t get back on course and you think the world is against you. The phone’s not ringing. Then you lose patience, and when you lose patience, you start burning bridges. Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, you start burning bridges. You might not know you did it because you’re thirsty, and once you get thirsty, you start fucking up. You step on toes, you don’t treat your family right, you get a fucking divorce, your kids don’t like your ass, everything fucks up. And that lottery money you won earlier? She wants half that shit. Now you’re down to half of that $10 million. See, if you hadn’t taken all that money at once, you wouldn’t be dealing with this shit. Now you’ve got $5 million. You are fucked.
Bottom line is take your goddamn time through life.
You mentioned appreciating the way this season gives audience a little more insight into the art of standup. What do you appreciate about standup in particular over acting or writing?
Let me tell you about standup. It’s the immediate response I love about standup. You can find out right then and there. It’s like going to buy a car. They don’t say they’ll call you back tomorrow. You sit your ass down at that desk, they run your credit, and you found out right then and there if your credit is too fucked up to get that car. When you’re sick, they have to send away for the results of your testing. They’ll get back to you next week, while you’re on pins and needles. When a girl gets pregnant, you can find out right away. You get that stick, she pees on it, and you find out right away whether she’s pregnant or not. Standup is like that. You get your immediate response from an audience. You don’t have to wait until a movie or TV show comes out or see if people like your pilot or not. You know right then and there that this is a great audience and what I do is amazing. They love my brand. You find out right away with standup if they love you. You can perform, get that immediate response, and walk off that stage and get in your car and smile or learn something about yourself on the way home.
It’s the same way with plays. You know immediately if they give you an encore. You come back on stage and bow and shit? That would be amazing for a guy doing a play. Curtain call and encore. What if every time you made love to a lady you went in the bathroom to clean yourself up and shit and every time you walked back into the room she’s giving you a curtain call? Standing on top of the bed butt-ass naked clapping for your ass because you performed well? Immediate response is what comedians love.
What other kinds of things are you working on?
Joel, the world is mine. If you don’t think that, you have to always think that. You should be saying the same thing all the time. The world is mine. I can apply what I do to any goddamn thing. You think I can’t do what I’m doing with you to something else? You think I can’t be a great babysitter? I can apply my philosophy to any fucking thing. It’s all about how much work you put in, how much time you put in, how dedicated you are to what you do. I could be a good babysitter or a stockbroker a race car driver. It doesn’t matter. When you’ve got passion for what you love, you can do anything. If the world became humorless, I would do something else with my style.
I reinvent myself all the time. I still do J.B., but sometimes I gotta reinvent myself just to entertain myself. You gotta keep yourself fresh all the time, otherwise you become the norm, and you can’t stand out amongst other people.
I’ve got a show I do called Four Courses with J.B. Smoove and I ask all the guests this: If you can do what the hell you do – but do what the hell you do doing something else – what would it be? I asked Steven A. Smith that question. We all know what Steven A. Smith does on ESPN, but imagine him doing something totally different but he’s doing what he does. He said he would be an attorney. He said he would be an attorney on the O.J. Simpson trial. He thinks his aggressive attitude and his knowledge would help him to put people away. He’s a good judge of character.
You should think about that. What would I be doing if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing but still doing what the hell I do doing something else?
I’ve giving you some shit right now. Fold some of this shit up, and put it in your pocket. It’s a give and take. Like I said, people like a lot of people, but they love J.B. Smoove.
Photo credit: WireImage
Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.