NEW YORK—It’s the curse of Susie Essman—“curse” as in “naughty language” and not “magical wish for harm”—that has made her a highlight of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the Larry David HBO series. Her profanity-filled tirades spew forth with almost Elizabethan eloquence as she verbally slices and dices the fictional Larry David and his buddy, her onscreen husband Jeff Greene (played by Jeff Garlin).
Essman, born in the Bronx but raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., came to Manhattan in the early 1980s to pursue acting. She instead developed into a standup comic—gaining enough of a reputation for it that she was hired as a consultant on the Sally Field-Tom Hanks dramedy “Punchline” (1988). Sitcom spots and cable-comedy specials followed, as Essman became one of the city’s comedy regulars. Her siblings are food-and-wine writer Elliot Essman, and Nina Essman, executive producer of Broadway’s “Wicked” and other shows.
Following Essman’s breakthrough role in “Curb” in 2000, she starred in an unaired CBS pilot and hosted the Bravo reality show “Better Half.” Essman lunched recently—and quite politely, thank you—with Frank Lovece at an Upper West Side restaurant.
You came of age as a comic during the 1980s boom.
There’s a fraternity of New York comics that all came up then. There was me, there was Joy Behar, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Colin Quinn, Louis C.K.—y’know, we’re like war buddies. Ray Romano was in my class. A lot of the guys writing on his show, Steve Skrovan, Lew Schneider ... they’re like my brothers. That’s where I first met Larry (David). Jerry Seinfeld was around, Paul Reiser, Carol Leifer, but they and Larry were all a little before us.
It sounds like high school.
It’s like that! You’re a class. We were the freshmen. And what happens is you really get close to people. Because in those days, Chris Rock and I would sit at the bar at Catch a Rising Star waiting to get on at 2 o’clock in the morning, and you’re just hanging out all night. And then after you’re done, you all go to the diner `til 4 in the morning.
Anyone in your class not make it?
There were lots of people who didn’t make it. Tons, actually. More who didn’t than did. As a matter of fact, I saw someone the other day on the subway, who’d started when I’d started, and she’d been extremely funny and then just gave it up. She couldn’t take it. It’s hard. (Professional stand-up is) a hard thing to do.
Some people have the misimpression that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is all improvised, but that’s just the dialogue, correct?
Everything that comes out of my mouth is my idea, but all the story lines are Larry’s. There’s a very detailed outline, about seven pages. Each scene has two or three lines, sometimes a paragraph, of exactly what needs to happen in the scene. Larry is all about story. He’s a story genius. There’s no dialogue written—that is completely improvised. All that filth that comes out of my mouth, I make it up.
Were you surprised you had it in you?
Tell me about your 2005 pilot.
It was a sitcom on CBS. It was based on me being this single New York City girl who’s suddenly in the suburbs with four teenage kids, which is basically my life. (Essman’s companion for four years is a commercial Realtor with three daughters and a son.) It was a great cast—Stacy Keach played my father, Michael Higgins played my gay best friend, and Gregory Harrison played my husband. It was good, it was OK, but chemically, it didn’t all come together.
I did a recording session just yesterday for it. It’s this animated Disney movie, where John Travolta plays this dog from L.A. and I play Mittens the cat, who’s this tough New York City stray. I know—that’s shocking. I don’t wanna give away too much of the plot, but you can imagine I have zero patience for this little Hollywood dog.
I assume Disney didn’t hire you for your cursing.
No, they hired me for the attitude.
What attitude? You grew up in Mount Vernon. Your parents were a doctor and a Sarah Lawrence professor!
Mount Vernon is an extremely urban suburb. It’s not Scarsdale.
George Washington’s home is a tough town?
That’s Virginia! That’s a different Mount Vernon! (This one’s) right next to the Bronx. It’s the first city in Westchester.
No, that’s Yonkers.
It’s right next to Yonkers! Anyway, you don’t have an attitude based on geography. You have an attitude based on hormones, usually, if you’re a woman. People ask if I ever just scream and yell at people. Sometimes, yeah, but generally only strangers. In my family we call it “going Susan Greene.” It’s a verb: “To Susie Greene someone.” “I was Susie Greened.” “I will be Susie Greened.”
I was walking right here on Broadway with one of my girls, 16 years old, and a guy grabbed her behind! Oh, he got so Susie Greened, I can’t even tell you—I went crazy on him! And afterward, she turned to me and said, “Y’know, you just Susie Greened him.” And I was like, “Let that be a lesson for you, young lady! You Susie Greene anybody who ever does that to you!”