[9 December 2009]
Don’t tell Susie Essman that you are just like Larry David. Larry David is a genius, and you are an annoying man from Great Neck, Long Island, she says. This statement, brutal, but hilarious and entirely bullsh*t free, is exemplary of the kind of cutting wisdom Essman passes on to readers in her book, What Would Susie Say? BullSh*t Wisdom About Love, Life and Comedy.
Of course, much of the advice Essman doles out is not quite so cutting, but like your best best friend, Essman will be kind when it’s appropriate, and tell you the cold, hard truth when you need to hear it. Although on the back cover, a sharply funny Richard Lewis quote reads, “Don’t get me wrong, I worship Susie Essman. That said, considering she knows absolutely nothing about life, love, or comedy, I’m thrilled that she managed to pull off such a brilliant hoax,” it turns out that Essman does know quite about it love, life and comedy. She also manages to create dynamic interplay between these subjects, such that she can sneak in really good advice between jokes, and make you laugh just when you think you have had enough lecturing.
The book reads much like a stand-up routine. Although chapters are titled and organized, the rhythm within them feels casually ad-libbed. Essman weaves in and out of topics, as if she is so helplessly funny and creative it simply seeps out of her. However, she does manage, like a good comic, always to return to where she started and complete the circle. Her writing is easy to read, chatty, and within a few chapters, her voice will be in your head all day. Her comedic timing translates into her writing, even when she veers off to more serious subjects, such as her marriage, her suicide attempt, and her career frustration before landing the spot that made her famous, Susie Greene on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
In fact, it seems at times that the comedic aspects of the book are simply a venue for Essman to write a quite therapeutic autobiography. She fully admits that throughout her life, comedy has been not only a passion, but a coping mechanism. After Essman attempted suicide at age 28, she writes that she tried stand-up comedy because as terrifying as it was, it could not possibly be worse than attempting suicide. She notes that she gave up “depression for anxiety,” as the life of a comic is certainly not an easy one. She writes about that life, and the comic scene of the ‘80s, with clarity and honesty. Although Essman may come across as confident and composed now, there is real vulnerability when she writes about waiting on lines for auditions, fighting to get spots, and coping with a male-oriented comedy world.
Of course, the flip side of Essman’s willingness to share her pain is that there is almost an inspirational quality to her book. She tells stories about Chris Rock spending years sitting in bars as a sub, waiting to go on in case another comedian failed to show up, and Larry David being hated and called impossible to work with. She admits that even after making it as a stand-up comic, she had difficulty getting TV air time and had given up hope of ending up on a TV show when Larry David called her to play the part of Susie Greene on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Especially when talking about working her way up or her family, much of her writing is quite affectionate. For example, the chapter devoted to her wedding is funny, but it’s also sentimental.
In a sense, Essman’s book demonstrates what a true comic she is, in body and soul. She is funny by nature and enjoys making jokes about her life. But it has been said many times before, and by Essman in this book, that the real gift of comedians is that they see life for what it truly is. Essman’s book is her truth, which is why we get long sections on peri-menopause and the difficulty of raising teenagers. These subjects do not necessary have wide appeal, but Essman makes them entertaining. Her philosophy is both “take or leave it” and truly generous. One gets the sense that Essman is tremendously grateful for her life and would like to be able impart some of her blessings to the world.
That said, if you are one of her ex-boyfriends, you will probably find this book degrading and humiliating.