Best known for being the loud and foul-mouthed Susie Greene in cult comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, Susie Essman is much more than just a supporting actress on Larry David's hit show.
This month she brings her stand-up comedy show to the UK, having played the Newbury Festival on July 13 and 14, she is playing at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue on July 15. As she prepares to take to the stage, Caroline Westbrook talks to Essman about the tour, working with David and being asked to swear at strangers.
How did the role in Curb Your Enthusiasm come about?
I had known Larry for many years and I hadn't seen him because he moved to LA and I lived in New York. And he saw me on the Friar's Roast with Jerry Stiller, and I don't know if you know anything about roasts but they're very rough. He had the idea in his head, and saw me and thought 'of course! Susie Essman to play Susie Greene! She's perfect to play Jeff's wife!' So he called Jeff and suggested me and he said 'Of course! She's the perfect one!" And he called me and offered me the job which for any actor is fantastic, when you don't have to audition. At the time it was all this slapdash operation, we didn't know it was going to be a hit show, it was like "I'm doing this little show, come out to LA, it probably won't last beyond one season", we all thought it was this little nothing show in terms of expectations. I didn't have a contract or anything, I was paid as a day player.
Do you have a favourite episode?
My favourite episode is The Doll. I feel like my character's power was really established in that episode.
Do you get people coming up to you and asking you to swear at them?
Yes constantly, I would say four or five times a week, somebody approaches me and asks me to curse them. I think it's a very unique position I'm in, I don't know anybody else who gets to say that. They'll hand me cellphones and say to me, "It's my husband, call him a fat f--k! I don't really get fed up with it, sometimes I'm not in the mood but every now and then I'm not in the mood and then I get to yell and scream at somebody and then I feel better. It's a very cathartic role, we do many many takes and when I have to do an anger scene, by the end of the episode we'll have done about 25-30 takes. But Larry has some kind of strange idiosyncracy where he gets hysterical laughing when I start yelling at him, and the minute I start cursing on him he just breaks up, so we have do it over and over again. So by the end of the day I'm so relaxed, it's like some kind of primal scream.
Are you anything like Susie?
No, I'm much more analytical than Susie. I find it a relief to be her, I really enjoy playing her. I mean, I have a temper if you push me, but no, I don't dress like her, I'm not that Beverly Hills housewife Jappy kind of character, I'm much more of an intellectual than Susie Greene. But I think one of the reasons the show works is we really like our characters. I really like Susie, and I know Larry really likes Larry. And in real life we all really like each other.
In series two, we're told Susie is pregnant but we never see a baby – what happened?
It was never mentioned again. There are so many inconsistences in the show. The only reason he had me pregnant was because of the episode where I fall out of a window on to a pile of sponge cakes. Then it was never mentioned again. The next season we make one little reference to it, in the episode with the studded sweatshirts, I made a reference to the fact that I loved designing clothes out of my own home because it was easy with the new baby. But it has never been discussed since.
Is there another series coming and what can we expect?
There is – I can't tell you what happens but I can tell you it's as Jewish as ever and as funny as ever. And the season finale is – I don't want to give anything away but no Jews will be disappointed, let me say that.
Have you ever found yourself lost for words while trying to improvise dialogue on the show?
No. You probably know this, but we have an outline of the show, it's very detailed, about seven or eight pages, each scene and what's happening in each scene is very clearly defined. Larry's genius is telling stories, so when you're doing a scene about something you're never at a loss for words. I know who my character is, I know what my relationship is to Jeff and Larry and Cheryl, and we're talking about something and it's always some kind of information we have to get out, so no, I'm never at a loss for words. None of us ever are. It's like a well-oiled machine.
How did you get into stand-up?
I wanted to be a comedic actress, which is kind of different to being on stage, then one time I was doing stand-up, felt like the kind of thing I should have been doing for years. My comedic persona by the way is not Susie Greene but it's equally blue and it's for mature audiences only, so tell your readers not to bring the kids. All I do is talk about sex, well not all, but I talk about sex a lot, because I find it fascinating what goes on in relationships to me is endlessly interesting, I think our sex drives are the things that drive us to insane behaviour. So I don't want any young kids there or even older kids.
Which comedians do you admire?
Richard Pryor was my idol when I was growing up, the greatest comic that ever lived, he was everything that a comic should be. I like the people that I grew up with, me, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, we all kind of came up at the same time. Larry by the way is a great comic.
Is the Larry we see on screen anything like Larry in real life?
It's not really that similar. You have to realise Larry ran the most expensive show in the history of television, and you can't be the character that he is and do that it's like running a major corporation. I think how he acts on the show is the way he wishes he could act in real life.
What's your family background?
Both my parents are Jewish but they were left-wing political athiests, but for some reason we still had to have a Passover Seder every year and still had to have Rosh Hashanah dinner, but we never attended temple, I wasn't Batmitzvahed, my brother wasn't Barmitzvahed but when you grow up in New York it's such a Jewish town, that even my non-Jewish friends speak Yiddish in New York. So my father used to read us Sholom Aleichem stories , we went to this Hebrew school as kids where they taught you Jewish culture, so that was basically it. My grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland, they came in via Ellis Island and lived on the Lower East Side, they were more religious and my grandmother spoke Yiddish, but I was not religious at all, and still am not. I know so many Jews in New York who identify with being Jews, but a cultural tribal sort of thing, but I know a lot of Orthodox really resent that. And apparently a lot of the Orthodox community in the US did not like the ski-lift episode of Curb. But Larry is an equal opportunities offender, he's offended everybody at some point!
What's the origins of the family name Essman?
Well my mother's maiden name was Pressman, she married an Essman, and I believe they were from Georgia actually. My grandfather told me that the name was Ezzman and they changed it at Ellis Island. But I was never clear on that story. Of course Ezzman means 'eat man' so that makes me a maneater I guess.
What's your favourite Jewish joke?
I have the worst memory for jokes, I can never remember a joke in my life!
For more information on the Newbury Comedy Festival, visit; http://www.newburycomedyfestival.com/
For information and tickets for the Lyric Theatre show, call the box office on 020 7494 5045