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“Curb Your Enthusiasm” Star Susie Essman on Being Comfortably Angry

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After six long years off the air, Curb Your Enthusiasm returned to HBO at the beginning of October for its ninth season, and it’s almost as if it had never left. Seventeen years after the show premiered, and more than eighty episodes later, creator and star Larry David is still nitpicking his way through Los Angeles. And, as ever, he has Susie Essman’s Susie Greene — the infamously combative wife of Larry’s best friend, Jeff (Jeff Garlin) — to point out the four-eyed fuck’s most egregious flaws (her words, not ours).

The Voice spoke to Essman about returning to the character after a long hiatus, her guest role as Ilana’s mom on Broad City, and Susie Greene’s unapologetic anger. (We’ll try not to take it personally that the show’s most aggressive character is played by the one star who lives in New York.)

Apart from Larry David, Cheryl Hines, and Jeff Garlin, you’ve appeared in more episodes than any other actor on the show — on what is officially HBO’s longest-running series. What was it like to return to this character after so many years?

I feel like the luckiest person alive. To be in a show like this that’s so iconic, and that I would actually watch, and that I think is really, really funny — I could’ve ended up in some horrible sitcom, and just done it for the money, and I would have! I gotta make a living. But I didn’t have to, I got this. To be able to work with Larry, it’s just heavenly. He gives me incredibly funny stuff to do. I couldn’t be happier.

When I was watching these new episodes, it struck me that Susie is really the only character who cuts through Larry’s bullshit — she’s the perfect foil for him.

Well, he needs me for that. I serve a purpose for him. But that’s what comedy is. I’ve been asked so many times, “How have the characters changed over the years?” They haven’t! We’re not growing and learning and self-aware. We just keep making the same mistake over and over again. I’m gonna bring Larry to a dinner party, and he’s gonna act like an asshole, and I’m gonna kick him out, and next week I’m gonna say, “Hey, Lare, I’m having a dinner party, you want to come?”

It’s almost like a traditional network sitcom in that way.

Actually, it is a literal situation comedy, more so than most, because we don’t have a script. All we have are situations. All we have is story. It’s not about snappy dialogue.

Can you recall any direction Larry David gave you in early seasons, that helped shape the character?

The only direction he gave me was in season one, in an episode called “The Wire.” Jeff brings a Fresh Air Fund kid into the house who robs us blind, and then Susie goes nuts on him. That was why Larry hired me, for that scene. And the only direction he gave to me was, “I want you to rip Jeff a new asshole.” So I went, alright, fine, I’ve had boyfriends before, I can do that. So I’m yelling at him and screaming at him and Larry keeps filming, saying, “Go further, go further.” I was like, I think I got it pretty amped up! And then he said to me, “Make fun of Jeff’s fat. I want you to go after Jeff’s fat.” I said, I can’t do that, that’s mean. “Just do it, just do it, he knows you’re just joking!” So I did. And that really informed a certain piece of her character that has stayed with her. But never a discussion beyond that, for the past seventeen years. We have a dialogue of the unconscious, as I call it.

You’re both New Yorkers, although I feel like you in particular bring a real New York energy to the show.

Well, I’m the only one that lives here, you know. They all live [in L.A.]. Larry was originally from Sheepshead Bay, and [Richard] Lewis grew up in New Jersey. But I’m the only true New Yorker, the die-hard.

Speaking of New York, I heard you’re returning to Broad City as Ilana’s mom this season, and with Fran Drescher playing your sister.

Great casting. Fran is such a professional, and she’s so smart. Ilana was directing that episode, actually. I have tremendous respect and admiration for [Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer]. I just think they are doing amazing things, and they’re so bold and out-there.

What’s it like to see these two young women creating this hilarious, successful show – as someone who started in the business at a time when that was basically unthinkable?

My friend Joy Behar always says, “Susie was doing this stuff thirty years ago!” I was always talking about sex and I was always really edgy, but I didn’t have – it’s such a female thing – I didn’t have the confidence to do what they did. I think about that sometimes. I think about them, and these other great, young comedians coming up, and I just think, if I was [starting out] now, would I have been different? I don’t know. I don’t know if it was in me.

When you read reviews and interviews from Curb Your Enthusiasm’s original run, a lot of people talk about Susie Greene like this totally shrill, humorless, temperamental nag.

I don’t see her like that. I think that’s simplistic. I’ve always said that the thing people respond to about Susie, women especially, is her comfort with her anger. How she’s unapologetic about her anger. That’s not how we’re brought up, generally. It’s ugly, it’s not pretty — Susie doesn’t give a shit.

I read somewhere that you used to call people and yell at them for charity.

I have done that. I’ve raised money for worthy charities by telling people to go fuck themselves.

People really want that?

They do. They’ll say, “It’s my best friend’s birthday, can you call and leave a message?” And I’ll say, alright, tell me about him, what is he like? I’ll get little details and then I’ll craft the message, personalize it. People love to be screamed at by Susie Greene. I won’t do it just as a favor for people. But raising money for a worthy cause, why not? What’s the five minutes it takes me to say, “Fuck you, you bald-headed asshole”?

 

Curb Your Enthusiasm airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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