“Everybody thinks I’m Susie Greene,” actress and comedian Susie Essman said.
And no wonder. Over eight seasons on Larry David’s largely improvised HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Essman has portrayed a pampered, albeit foul-mouthed Jewish housewife, whose blistering sarcasm and expletive-filled invectives have made her a new form of TV icon. Her favorite target is David, or rather David’s alter ego, Larry, as well as her TV husband, Jeff (played by Jeff Garlin), who portrays David’s show-biz manager. Essman’s hilariously enraged tirades could make a sailor blush.
Greene, who also has a fondness for wearing screaming leopard-print outfits, sees through the lies and scams David and Jeff are perpetually plotting, and her seething riffs have made her one of the most beloved characters on that very popular show.
During a conversation from her home in Albany, N.Y., Essman seemed the opposite of her “Curb” character, starting off a conversation by apologizing for her allergies: “Everything’s blooming. I’m a mess,” she said.
Besides her turn on “Curb” — which is rumored to be returning for a ninth season at a date not yet determined — the 58-year-old actress is a staple on the New York comedy scene, and known for her appearances on “The Tonight Show” and her 2009 memoir, “What Would Susie Say: Bullsh—t Wisdom About Love, Life and Comedy.”
Essman spoke about why she loves Susie Greene, doing stand-up and why she was drawn to play a woman whose husband is having an adulterous affair in Jason Chaet’s new film, “Putzel” (see related story), a comedy that will open the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on June 1 and screen again on June 3.
Jewish Journal: How did “Curb” first come to you?
Susie Essman: I met Larry around 1985 at Catch a Rising Star in New York, because he was then a stand-up comic. And one day, out of the blue [around 1999], he called me, and this was the conversation: “Susie, it’s LD. I’ve got this new HBO show and I have a part for you to play, Jeff Garlin’s wife.” And I said, “OK, what’s the part?” And he said, “Don’t worry about it, you can do it.” “All right, so send me the script.” “There is no script, there’s no money, and it’s low-budget.” But I just knew working with Larry would be a blast.
And I really wanted to create this character who was completely secure in her opinion about everything; she thinks she’s fabulous; she thinks Cheryl [David’s on-screen wife] dresses like crap; she thinks she has the greatest taste in the whole world, and she has no insecurities about anything. She’s an empowered Jewish woman.
JJ: Your character is perhaps best known for calling her husband a “fat f--k.” How did that line come about?
SE: I was never reluctant to swear, but I was reluctant when Larry asked me to improvise something to make fun of Jeff [Garlin’s] fat, because Jeff was my friend. He was overweight, and I never like to make fun of what people look like. So I said, “Larry, I don’t really want to do that. Jeff has weight problems, and it would be mean.” But Larry said, “Just do it, it’s going to be funny; Jeff knows that you’re just acting.” And that’s where the fat f--k” line was born, and the genie was out of the bottle; I did it for the rest of the eight seasons. And now people around the world come up to me and ask me to call them a fat f--k.
JJ: You’ve said that Susie is misunderstood.
SE: People think she’s a screaming madwoman, and she does overreact, but then again she’s almost always provoked. I mean, Larry gets her kid drunk; he gets her kicked out of her country club — I could go on and on. She’s the perfect foil for Larry, because she’s not impressed with him in the least. And she’s the moral compass, in a sense, of the show, because they’re always conniving, those two. But remember that she and Larry do have a secure friendship in a certain way, because she always forgives him and invites him to the next dinner party, so they have this kind of family dynamic.
JJ: How are you different from Susie Greene?
SE: I don’t have that level of anger in me, and while Susie Greene is very, very reactive — she never thinks about her reaction; it’s just gut with her — I’m much more analytical. I’m a comedian, and I’m looking at every situation from every way imaginable. And, of course, I don’t dress like her!
JJ: Is it cathartic to play such an enraged character?
SE: When we’re doing scenes when I’m screaming and yelling, it’s like primal-scream therapy. When I go back to my hotel room, I feel just completely relaxed. And the beauty of it is I get really angry, but nobody gets hurt. And I get paid. And people love me for it.
JJ: Have you ever been concerned that Susie Greene promotes a Jewish princess stereotype?
SE: Yes and no. Whatever scene I’m in, I try to make her a real person, and I always hope that if something has an emotional reality to it, it’s not a stereotype. That being said, I am a Jewish woman and I’m playing this other certain type of Jewish woman, and there is cliché in there.
JJ: How does your persona as a stand-up comic differ from your character on “Curb”?
SE: “Curb” is Susie Greene, and my standup is me, so it’s about the things in my life, my children, my mother, and all of my previous years of being single and dating.
Actually, none of us on “Curb” are anything like our characters. Larry is very kind and sweet and thoughtful, and while TV Larry alienates everyone and treats people like a jerk, real Larry really cares about if he hurt somebody’s feelings and how people respond. And he has this incredibly joyous laugh, which is nice, except he’s ruined some of my best takes by getting the giggles, because he loves to be yelled at.
JJ: Your character of Gilda in “Putzel” is like the anti-Susie Greene. She’s so vulnerable, even heartbreaking.
SE: That’s why I took the part, because people get really confused, and they think I’m Susie Greene, and I’m not! Gilda has nothing in common with Susie Greene. She’s very loving and devastated to find that her husband is cheating on her; she doesn’t even think it’s possible for him to cheat on her, and he’s kind of a nasty guy. I had to figure out why she’s with him, and I think that’s because she’s an accepting person; she really loves him with all his faults.
JJ: How did you prepare for some of the more devastating scenes in the film?
SE: I had to focus on what Gilda’s situation would feel like; it’s not a place I necessarily wanted to go, because I didn’t really want to experience what I would feel like if I caught my husband cheating on me. But as an actor you have to go to those places, otherwise [viewers] don’t feel the character’s pain.
JJ: There are rumors that a season nine of “Curb” isn’t out of the question.
SE: I could play Susie Greene for the rest of my life. We have a great time; we laugh all day long. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. It’s my dream job.