Susie Essman Always Knew There Would Be More ‘Curb’
When Curb Your Enthusiasm wrapped up its eighth season in 2011, the mystery of if there would be a season 9 lingered for years. Finally, to the surprise of many — including the cast and crew — Curb did return in 2017 after a six-year hiatus. There was perhaps only one person from the show who was not shocked when that happened: Susie Essman.
For the entire time between seasons, Susie was the only person from the show who remained adamant that Larry David would want to return eventually. “It’s the most fun job he’s ever had,” says Essman. That was evident in season 9, with basically the whole gang in front of and behind the cameras returning like no time had passed at all.
I’ve heard that you were the only one who remained confident during the hiatus that the show would return. How did you know that it would happen eventually?
Maybe it was just wishful thinking — more desire than an actual “know.” But I know Larry and I know how much Larry loves shooting Curb. I know that it’s the most fun job he’s ever had. And I kind of feel like he came back to his first wife. He went out, he did a Broadway play, he did a movie, he tried this and he tried that. Then when he thought about it he was going to say, “I want to do more Curb.” That’s actually what happened. He missed it! We have so much fun. We just have so much fun that I knew that he was going to want to get back together.
Is Curb your favorite thing that you’ve ever done?
What is that nature or feeling of shooting Curb that you don’t get anywhere else?
Standup is really great in its own right — it’s very powerful and it’s all mine. But in Curb I get to “play” with other people, and that’s really what we’re doing. Because we don’t have a script, it’s all improvised, so I don’t have to stress like I do for other acting jobs where I have to memorize lines and drive myself crazy. You have to be so in the moment and listen to what everybody’s saying and respond because it’s improvised, and it’s just pure play.
Have you ever done live improv in a theater setting?
Yeah, I have. And that’s not as much fun as Curb. In Curb I’m playing this character who I love to play. I love her relationships with the other characters, I love her relationship with Larry and Jeff and Funkhouser. It’s a whole world that Larry’s created that we all inhabit, and it’s just a really fun world to be in. Plus I get to yell and scream and tell people to go fuck themselves. It’s so much fun.
You come across as someone who in real life is so much unlike the character of Susie Greene. Does getting to play someone unlike yourself help you stretch and grow as a person outside of the show?
That’s the whole point of acting, you know? I don’t want to be myself. It’s a boring character — I’m with myself 24/7. I want to create this other character and I’ve created a character that’s really fun to inhabit. Her rage, her complete and total comfort with her rage. She’s very secure, Susie Greene. She’s very secure in all of her opinions and she’s very certain that she’s always right. She doesn’t ever analyze or question, which is the complete opposite of me. I’m a comic, so I’m analyzing things every which way imaginable. I find it very freeing to be her because of her certainty. I marvel at it. The other thing is that there is primal scream therapy also.
Did it feel easy to get right back into that first scene you filmed after five or six years off?
Yeah. It felt completely like we had done this yesterday. It didn’t feel like it was any different. I’ve known Larry since 1985 or 1986. I’ve known Jeff for years, [Richard] Lewis. It’s not as though we didn’t see each other or keep in contact through those six years. We were in constant contact because we’re all friends. It didn’t feel like anything. It felt like “Okay, we’re back.”
What’s your favorite work to do outside of Curb?
Ah, my Law & Order is on tonight! I got an SVU on tonight. I really love doing that show. They’re a great group of people over there and I really enjoy it. I have a recurring role as a defense attorney and I always feel like I’m playing Perry Mason. I’m in the courtroom doing all this courtroom stuff, and it’s hard in the sense that I have to memorize a lot of legal jargon, which means nothing to me, that’s always difficult, and the hours are really long, but I enjoy it. It’s different. Animation I love. I love doing voiceover animation. That’s so much fun for me.
You’ve talked in the past about how season 1 of Curb was shot for so cheap, and that it continued for the first few seasons like that before people started watching in bigger numbers. Now it’s this huge comedy television entity with a lot more resources. Which seasons do you think you’ll look back on more fondly — the first few or the most recent?
It’s not about people watching or not watching. I look back fondly at those early years because it was almost, I don’t want to say innocent, but almost an innocence about it in that sense that we just kind of threw this thing together. It was thrilling to see it work. I don’t know that any show had ever been done in this way, with the improvising. In the beginning we had no trailers, then after season 3 we shared a trailer. The truth of the matter is that we’re all still exactly the same all these years later, 18 years later. We’re all still pretty much the same. So I don’t look back that that was a better time than this. I’m making more money now — I like that.
During the Seinfeld days, a lot of people called Larry David the unsung hero/genius behind the show. Who would be that person, the unsung hero, for Curb?
I don’t know. It’s so Larry. It’s so Larry’s vision. Now, [executive producer, writer, director] Jeff Schaffer, over the past number of years, has had just amazing input. But the show is so Larry. There is no unsung hero. It’s Larry’s show, Larry’s vision, Larry’s voice. It’s Larry’s world, I’m only living in it.
You’ve worked a lot of roasts. Is it similar to roast somebody in that setting and to do it to Larry or Jeff on the show?
It’s very different. When you’re doing a roast, you have to be really, really prepared and you have to have your material. Usually you’re in some big, grand ballroom. They’re usually horrible rooms for comedy. You have however many minutes, 3 or 5 minutes, and you have to bang it out and have your punchline. You have to really have your setups and your punchlines and know what you’re doing. When I’m playing Susie, I never know what I’m going to say ahead of time, so it’s a very different skill set.
Do you think it is perhaps easier to come up in comedy these days with YouTube and social media and whatnot? Or do you think it’s tougher, or roughly the same as it was in the ‘80s?
You know what? It’s hard no matter what. Doing standup is ridiculously difficult. I’d say it was probably harder for females back then because there were so few of us. I think that some of us have trailblazed a little bit. In that sense, it’s harder. I don’t know what the scene is now — it seems a little harder in that they have to bring their own audience to half of these shows. You have to ask all your friends to come watch you. We just had to sit around at the bar and wait until somebody puts you on at 4:00 in the morning to six drunks.
Standup is hard no matter what. There’s more outlets, but standup as an artform is really, really difficult. It takes years to get good at it. It takes years to figure out who you are on stage. I don’t know if it’s easier or more difficult to have stage time now because I’m not in that world anymore, but that was the key when I was coming up in New York in those days when I met Larry. The key was getting stage time, that was the only way to get good at it. There were a lot of clubs in those days. I got a lot of stage time and I got good. I would do 400 shows a year. On the weekends we would walk around and do 6-7 shows a night until we made our living. I’d get $50 a show and at the end of the night I had my rent for the month.
Those days were really fun. Because in the mid-’80s, comedy was king in New York. There were lines around the block every night, even during the week, to get into Catch a Rising Star. It was just a really exciting time.
Who are some women in comedy today that you are loving or admiring and that inspire you?
One of the other shows that I have a recurring role on is Broad City. I am just a huge fan of Abbi and Ilana. I have so much respect for them. They do things that I never would have felt entitled to in my day. They write, they direct, they produce — they do everything on that show and they have such work ethic. I think they’re both brilliant.
After a six-year hiatus from season 8 to season 9, now it’s just back-to-back with seasons 9 and 10 with shooting for next season getting underway soon. Anything you think we can expect from Susie or anything else?
It’s great, isn’t it? I haven’t seen any of the outlines yet. I wrote to Larry the other day, “When can I see them?” and he said “Just be patient.” I don’t know what he’s got up his sleeves this season. I would imagine it’s not going to be as insanely ambitious as last season. I would imagine, if I had to guess, it would be smaller scope, but I don’t really know. I haven’t seen anything. I’m ready. I will guarantee you one thing: At some point I’ll be kicking him out of my house, because I always do. And at some point I will tell him to go fuck himself.
Season 9 of Curb Your Enthusiasm is now available on DVD and digital download.