A chat with Susie Essman, Susie Essman interview, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bolt
Susie Essman

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As an actor, one has to be willing to accept the fact that not everyone will be able to separate you from the character that you play. Few know this quite as well as Susie Essman, who – thanks to several seasons playing Jeff Garlin’s wife on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” – is rarely able to walk down the street without someone recognizing her and…well, basically, if she doesn’t act like a crazy bitch, they’re disappointed. The real Susie Essman, however, is a sweetheart, and she was pleased to chat with Bullz-Eye in conjunction with “Curb” making an appearance in the latest TV Power Rankings. Not that she wasn’t a little unhappy with the show’s position…

Susie Essman: Will…? It’s Susie.

Bullz-Eye: Hey, how are you!

SE: I’m good! Where are you?

BE: I’m in Virginia.

SE: Oh, okay.

BE: And I’ll apologize in advance for the fact that I’m suffering through an allergy attack.

SE: Ugh, I know. I’m miserable when I’ve got one of those. All I want to do is sleep. So it’s okay. I understand.

(At this point, our connection, which had been rather dodgy from the moment the call began, finally petered out altogether. Several seconds later, however, Susie called back.)

BE: See, I’d planned for my voice going out, not the phone going out.

SE: Yeah, really! You didn’t have to hang up on me! (Laughs) So what is this for? It’s for a list or something…?

BE: Right, we do the TV Power Rankings for Bullz-Eye.

SE: And we’re only #8? What the fuck is that, Will?

BE: Hey, hey, you were #1 last time around.

SE: Uh, yeah, I know!

BE: It’s not for lack of quality, obviously. Frankly, I blame it on the short memories of TV viewers.

SE: I know, we’re hardly ever on. So, yeah, I get it.

BE: But, again, you’re coming off a #1 spot. So we do love you here, I swear.

SE: All right, but I’m not going to tell Larry that we dropped. It’ll upset him.

BE: Yeah, but to be fair, he gets upset over pretty much everything, doesn’t he?

SE: (Laughs) Exactly!

BE: Well, since this is the first time I’ve ever talked to you, I’ll start at the beginning. How did you first find your way onto “Curb”? Did you know Larry beforehand?

"When we first started ('Curb Your Enthusiasm'), it was, like, this slapdash operation. It was really low budget. We had no scripts, no trailers, no dressing rooms, we barely had wardrobe and makeup! It was really like a 'I’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show!' kind of thing. After we had no trailer for two seasons, we got a trailer that we all shared. We’re a very close set. We eat our lunch every day with the crew, which apparently is unusual. I had no idea."

SE: I knew Larry way back in the old days. I met Larry in probably 1986 at Stand-Up New York when we were both comics, and then I didn’t see him for many years, because he moved to L.A. to do “Seinfeld” and I lived in New York. Then he saw me…he had done the pilot for “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the special, and it hadn’t aired yet, but they had already decided that they were going to do the series and they needed to cast Jeff’s wife. Jeff, of course, was cheating on me in the pilot, but I didn’t exist then. He’s still cheating on me, though, isn’t he?

BE: Pretty much, yeah.

SE: You know, I get asked all the time, “Does Susie cheat on Jeff?” They want to know our fictitious lives. (Laughs) So, anyway, Larry was casting the past of Jeff’s wife, and he had this scene in mind for an episode in the first season called “The Wire” where a fresh air frightening kid comes into our house and robs us blind, and he wanted Jeff’s wife to just rip him a new one, so he just serendipitously saw me on a Friar’s Roast for Jerry Stiller on comedy Central. On roasts, you know, you have to be totally blue, so I just came into his mind again. “Oh, Susie could do this!” So he called and offered me the part! I didn’t have to audition or anything! When we first started, it was, like, this slapdash operation. It was really low budget. We had no scripts, no trailers, no dressing rooms, we barely had wardrobe and makeup! (Laughs) It was really like a “I’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show!” kind of thing.

BE: You, then, would be Judy Garland, I’m sure. America’s sweetheart.

SE: (Sarcastically) Yeah, sure. I might have to fight Cheryl for that one.

BE: So everyone I’ve ever talked to who’s been a guest on the show has just raved about the ad-libbing aspect of the show.

SE: Yeah, y’know, the thing is…all the guests love to do the show for a couple of reasons. For one thing, people really love that we have a really happy set. We just have fun. For a couple of years, we all shared a trailer. After we had no trailer for two seasons, we got a trailer that we all shared. We’re a very close set. We eat our lunch every day with the crew, which apparently is unusual. I had no idea. (Laughs) But it’s just a very fun set, so everybody likes to come on. And, then, you basically get to just play, because there isn’t a script. You get to find it, which for an actor is really a lot of fun. I mean, for me, as a comedic actress, what’s so great about doing “Curb” is that I never have to think about trying to make it funny. So often I get, like, really bad comedy scripts, and I have to figure out how to make them work and how to make them funny, but with “Curb,” I don’t have to think about being funny. I just have to think about being in my character and being in the scene, because Larry sets up the scenes in such a way that I know it’s going to be funny no matter what.

BE: Has there ever been an occasion, though, when you started a scene and just could not for the life of you find anything funny?

Susie EssmanSE: I never try to be funny. I always just try to act my intent in the scene. I don’t even think about it. If you think about it, then you end up doing bad sitcom lines. Also, another thing, Will, is that I get the outlines for every season ahead of time, as does Jeff, but none of the guest stars ever get the outlines because they don’t want people coming up with lines ahead of time, because then it does become like a bad sitcom. So the guest stars and all the other actors, they just show up on the set and they’re told what the scene they’re going to do that day is, and then we just start to do it. But it’s not haphazard. It’s very well structured, as you can tell from the structure of the show. The outline is very detailed in terms of what happens in each scene. There’s just no dialogue written.

BE: Was that a challenge at all for you when you first started on the show?

SE: No, it was a pleasure! (Laughs) I’m a comic. It’s harder for some actor types, ‘cause they’re actors, and they’re used to having scripts, but for most comedians, we improvise all the time on stage…well, at least, I do. As does Jeff, as does Richard Lewis. You know, we’re all improvisers at stand-up. And Cheryl came from the Groundlings, which is an improv troupe.

BE: To kind of parallel the question I asked about Larry earlier, did you know Jeff prior to coming onto the show?

SE: Yeah, I did. I knew Jeff very well, actually. Jeff and I had been good friends for…I don’t know, twenty-something years.

BE: Wow. Was that also from the stand-up scene?

SE: Yeah. Yeah, he lived on West 72nd Street and I lived on West 73rd in our early stand-up years, and…in those days, we knew everybody, ‘cause there were only a few clubs that you worked and there weren’t that many of us, so it was a small, tight-knit community.

BE: I’ve read many places that you apparently can no longer walk down the street without someone demanding that you call them a “fat fuck.”

SE: (Sighs) I know. My life has become bizarre.

BE: That is kind of surreal.

SE: It really is! It hasn’t happened in a couple of days, though.

BE: I won’t ask you to do it. It feels like it would be in poor taste.

SE: That’s all right. Thank you, Will. (Laughs)

BE: I would think it’d be a little weird to have your catchphrase be an obscenity like that.

SE: It is. It’s weird, but the nice thing about it is that people think I’m my character, which I’m not. (Laughs) I’m not a screaming, yelling, cursing crazy woman. It’s a character I play. It’s called acting. But the nice thing is that if people bother me in the street and I am rude to them, they’re never upset or disappointed! Sometimes people are visibly disappointed when I’m nice! People will come up to me and say, “Oh, I love the show,” and I’ll be gracious and nice, and I can see that they’re upset that I’m not screaming and yelling at them. (Laughs) So, yeah, it’s bizarre…but worse things can happen in life!

BE: So when you’re doing an improv scene, have you ever been asked to take it down a notch?

SE: Yes. Definitely. You know, usually, I’ll start out really big because it’s always easy to take it down, and then I like to give different options. You never really know. Because it’s improvised and so much of the show is put together in editing, I always like to give different options for the editors and Larry to choose from, to see what works best in terms of the whole flow of the show. Like, he might’ve been yelled at in the scene before, you know what I mean? And I don’t even know what happened in that scene because I wasn’t there for that shooting. So I always like to give options.

BE: Do you have a favorite of Susie’s storylines?

"What’s so great about doing 'Curb' is that I never have to think about trying to make it funny. So often I get, like, really bad comedy scripts, and I have to figure out how to make them work and how to make them funny, but with 'Curb,' I don’t have to think about being funny. I just have to think about being in my character and being in the scene, because Larry sets up the scenes in such a way that I know it’s going to be funny no matter what."

SE: “The Doll” is my favorite. I think that’s my favorite for a couple of reasons. First of all, I think it’s one of the most well-crafted half-hours ever written in the history of comedy. It’s just…I watched it again the other day, because we’re going to be syndicated starting in June, so we’re doing this panel discussion that I’m hosting, and last week in L.A. we shot the first two seasons with this great panel including Seinfeld, Jon Hamm, and just these incredible people on the panel discussing the moral and ethical implications of Larry’s behavior. It was fun. So I just rewatched “The Doll” because of that, and…it’s just a brilliantly-crafted half-hour, as is “Beloved Aunt” from the first season. And then the other thing about “The Doll” is that that’s when Susie Green really became Susie Green. That scene in the driveway where Jeff and Larry are driving up and I’m standing there demanding, “Get me the fucking head,” you see them just cowering. And I think from then on our relationship became like that: they just live in fear of me. And I love that. (Laughs) That was also the first time that spaghetti western music came on as my theme song!

BE: To talk about the most recent season, since that’s what earned the show its rank…well, of course, you got cheated on in the very first episode of the season.

SE: Yeah, I know! He’s a pig. And with a mentally-ill Catherine O’Hara! (Laughs) I love her. She was just so…well, you know, another nice thing about the show is that I get to work with my idols! I got to work with Mel Brooks, Catherine O’Hara, David Steinberg was one of our directors, and all of the people that I just think so highly of.

BE: Don’t forget Shelley Berman.

SE: Shelley! And Ted Danson. We love when Ted’s on. Ted’s the most fun.

BE: So what did you think when Larry came up with the “Seinfeld” storyline for the season?

SE: I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was a brilliant new twist. I remember when we were having lunch in New York about two years ago, when he told me the idea for the next season, he also told me how he was going to get out of his relationship with Loretta, which I thought was just genius. (Laughs) I thought the “Seinfeld” thing…I didn’t know how it was going to play out, but I totally trust Larry. I thought it was a great device. I thought it was just brilliant, because they would never really have a “Seinfeld” reunion. Larry and Jerry would never do that. It’s like when Jerry says in that episode, “But reunion shows are always lame!” Yeah, they are! (Laughs) That’s why they’d never do it!

BE: The big question, though, is how the real Larry is going to deal with the fact that the average person doesn’t understand that. Because you know they’re still going to ask, “So, are we gonna see the ‘Seinfeld’ guys again?”

SE: Oh, yeah. I think he’s really ready to put that to rest. (Laughs)

BE: In “The Hot Towel,” your daughter on the show had a nice sequence.

SE: Which episode was that? Was that the one when she was singing?

BE: Yes. The gift from the heart. (Laughs) Such a lovely song.

SE: That was one of those things where, for days, that was all I could hear in my head!

BE: How was it working with Sammi again?

SE: You mean Ashly? You know, what’s funny is that I see her so infrequently…she’s maybe in one or two episodes a season, which are two years apart…that, whenever I see her, she looks completely different! Now I think she’s probably 16 or 17, but when I first met her, she was probably 7. She’s just…I’ve watched this little girl grow up, but with huge spurts in-between! (Laughs) She’s a good kid.

BE: So what’s the status of another season? Larry seems to be implying that there’s a possibility, or at least that he’s got ideas.

SE: Yes, he’s implying.

BE: So that’s basically where you’re stuck, too?

Susie EssmanSE: I have no definitive answer for you. If I was going to bet my life on it, I would say it’s happening. But I don’t have any firm answer. I know that he’s working on it, so I know that it’s in the works, but, y’know, the thing about Larry is that he usually needs to finish about seven or eight outlines out of the ten before he’ll say, “This is good enough, and we’re going to do another season.” But I know him. He’s always going to make it good enough. He’s a really hard worker. He’s not a slouch by any means, and he’s going to work on it until he gets it to where he wants it to be, so that’s why I have faith, knowing that he’s in the midst of working on it. I know he’s finished a bunch of outlines already, so I think it’s going to happen. But you never know with him. He’s so idiosyncratic.

BE: Larry…? No!

SE: Yeah. (Laughs) My buddy. You know, the other funny thing is that we’re all really close friends, and everyone’s always surprised when they see us all together. Like, Jeff and I are the best of friends, and we talk almost every day. I think that’s one of the reasons that we can treat each other so horribly on the screen: we know we’re just playing. We’ll be talking, blah blah blah blah blah, and as soon as they say, “Action,” we’ll start screaming and yelling and being horrible to each other, but when they say, “Cut,” it’s, like, “Where do you want to go for lunch?”

BE: Jeff’s great. The first time I went out to the Television Critics Association press tour…like I said, I’m in Virginia, so I don’t get out to L.A. very often, and I’m already in awe, but then the first night there is the HBO party, and it’s champagne, lobster, filet mignon…

SE: Oh, my God, they throw the best parties.

BE: Oh, I was just completely blown away…but, then, I was also completely intimidated by everything going on around me. But then the first person I got to talk to was Jeff…

SE: …and the tension was broken. (Laughs) Yeah, he’s very chatty.

BE: Yeah, he was the perfect person to make me feel at ease. He was great.

SE: He’s a good man, my husband. Not as a husband… (Laughs) …but as a person.

BE: So are you pleased with the reception for your book?

SE: Yeah! Well, let’s put it this way: I was pleased with the book. I’m like Larry: I wasn’t going to put it out there until I was happy with it. I wrote it and rewrote it, and I was happy with it. It came out during one of the worst falls ever in the history of publishing… (Laughs) …but so be it. That was out of my control! But it sold nicely. I was happy with it, and I hope that when the paperback comes out in August it’ll have another spurt.

BE: Was it your idea to write it, or did the publisher pitch the idea to you?

SE: My agent, actually, kind of pitched it, and then my manager forced me to sit down and write an outline, then they sold it…and once they’ve sold it, you’ve got the gun to your head…and the deadlines! They give you money, and you’ve got to produce. But I need that anyway. I need that gun to my head. I couldn’t just sit down and write. You know what it’s like to write.

BE: Uh, yes, I am somewhat familiar with the deadline process. (Laughs)

SE: Yeah, but I love deadlines!

BE: If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t get anything written.

SE: Exactly! But I enjoyed the process. I will one day write another book, but not for awhile. It was kind of difficult for me, being so used to being a comic, to not have the immediate feedback that I’m used to.

BE: I just wanted to ask you about a couple of other things you’ve worked on besides “Curb,” and then I’ll let you go, but…you were just in “Cop Out.” How was it working with Kevin Smith?

"The thing about Larry (David) is that he usually needs to finish about seven or eight outlines out of the ten before he’ll say, 'This is good enough, and we’re going to do another season.' But I know him. He’s always going to make it good enough. He’s a really hard worker. He’s going to work on it until he gets it to where he wants it to be, so that’s why I have faith, knowing that he’s in the midst of working on it. I think it’s going to happen. But you never know with him. He’s so idiosyncratic."

SE: He’s great! He knew he was hiring me, so he just let me go. He just basically said, “Don’t worry about it. Just do it your way.” And one of the reasons I took the part…it’s just a cameo, really…was because I’d never fired a gun before! And I had this big, heavy Magnum, and…actually, I still have some shoulder problems from it, it was so heavy! And it was a year ago that we shot it! But I just wanted to work with Kevin, and…he’s just great. He’s very secure, which is what you want in a director. You want somebody with a secure vision, which is why it’s so great to work with Larry. Larry always has a really clear vision of what he wants. When you’re working with somebody who’s kind of not really clear on what they want, it puts a lot of pressure on you as a performer.

BE: You also contributed a voice to “Bolt,” which my daughter loves.

SE: Oh, I loved doing that! Yeah, that was really…that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because…like, people kept asking me what it was like working with John Travolta, and I’m, like, “I don’t know! I didn’t work with him!” I didn’t meet him ‘til the premiere! You’re all alone in a sound studio, you’re recording, and a lot of it…there were a lot of parts to Mittens that were really poignant, real acting, and I had to act it by myself! I wasn’t doing a scene with anyone. It was like the opposite of “Curb,” where you’re so involved with the scene because it’s improvised. But, again, they let me improvise and let me go, and the director, Chris Williams, was just terrific. Basically, though, you just read the lines 20 to 40 times, because you’ve got to give them tons of choices, because they’ve got to cut it together with all of the other actors and to match the animation. But I enjoyed it. It was challenging. And I was so happy with how it turned out.

BE: I thought it was a really good movie. And, of course, so did my daughter.

SE: I loved it. I just loved it. And, you know, I’m alone in a sound studio, I don’t know how the movie’s going to turn out, so I was thrilled with it. Yeah, I actually watched it the other day. I was flipping through the channels and it was on, and I watched it again, and…I just love it. I just think it’s beautiful, I love the story, I love the music. I just love it. And I’d love to do more animation. It’s fun!

BE: I saw that you’d done a couple of one-off voice appearances.

SE: Yeah, I’ve done “Dora the Explorer.” My little niece called me the other day because she heard me! (Laughs) That’s always fun. You know, the other reason that I wanted to do “Bolt” was because…my kids are between 16 and 22, so they watch “Curb,” but I’ve got little people, nieces, and they can’t watch “Curb,” so I wanted to do something that they could relate to.

BE: Yeah, that’s pretty much the only way I can impress my daughter with who I’ve interviewed: by reeling off their animation credits.

SE: Yeah, exactly! And you know what? Animation is…I think that, dollar for dollar, animation stuff is just so much better than live action. There’s so much great animated stuff out there. I think we’re luckier as parents than our parents were.

BE: Oh, definitely. I mean, I’m getting ready to hit 40, so…

SE: ..so you get to watch all of this great stuff with your kid, and what were our parents watching? “Herbie the Love Bug”? (Laughs)

BE: You were in “The Man.”

SE: Yeah! With Samuel!

BE: I interviewed Luke Goss a few years ago, and I said, “Now, be honest: was the only reason that you did that movie to meet Samuel L. Jackson?” And he said, “Yep. Only reason.” Was that your reason, too?

SE: (Laughs) No, I did it because I liked the part. I always like playing a cop. And, also, they paid me. I mean, we’re all prostitutes to a certain extent, right? (Laughs) I thought the script was okay. It wasn’t the greatest, but I thought it was okay, and I liked the part. I liked the idea of playing this lieutenant, and I liked the idea of being Sam’s superior, that I was over him. So, yeah, I liked the part. That’s why I usually do things. But, I mean, I had fun with him. And Eugene (Levy) was fun, too. And we shot in Toronto, which was kind of nice. I love Toronto.

BE: What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

Susie EssmanSE: Oh, geez. (Considers the question) I don’t know that there is one. My favorite project is, of course, “Curb,” and my equal love is stand-up, so I don’t know that there is one. I guess you could say “Bolt,” because I thought it was going to be bigger than it was, but it made something like $300 million, so I can’t really say that. It wasn’t as big as, like, “Shrek” or something,” but it did really well, so I can’t really say that it didn’t get the love it deserved. A lot of people loved it. So I don’t think that I have one, really. Nothing else comes to mind.

BE: Last one: I looked at IMDb, and I see that in 2005 they have a credit for you for “Untitled Susie Essman Project.” Was that a pilot?

SE: It was. That was a pilot I did for CBS. That didn’t give the love, but I don’t think it deserved it. (Laughs) It was one of those things where CBS…they did a development deal with me because they loved me on “Curb,” and they loved my character…and then they kind of made me into Donna Reed. It was something where it was a good script, and it was very well cast, but these things are very hard to make the chemistry come together. Even if it’s a good cast and a good script, it just doesn’t always gel. That’s why when something gels like “Curb” or “Seinfeld” or whatever, it’s so special. So, yeah, that was a pilot, and it was kind of based on my life, being a stepmother to all of these teenagers, but it just didn’t really happen. But I got paid. (Laughs)

BE: Well, Susie, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

SE: Thanks, Will! By the way, what’s the order of these rankings? Who’s ahead of us?

BE: Let me just pull up my list…

SE: And you didn’t ask me my favorite shows…

BE: Now would be an absolutely perfect time for you to tell me.

SE: Well, right now, I’m just obsessed with “The Good Wife.” I love it.

BE: See, I’m the only person who voted for that show, but I love it, too.

SE: I love that show. It’s so well-written, well-directed, well-acted…I just think it’s the best new show on network television, if not in general. I love “Mad Men.” And I love “Breaking Bad.” I love Bryan (Cranston). I just think he is so terrific. And “Mad Men,” I mean, I just can’t wait for the next season. I don’t really watch comedies so much, just these well-written dramas.

BE: Well, here’s how the list shapes out above you. “Lost” is at the top.

SE: I’ve never seen “Lost.”

BE: Wait ‘til it’s off the air, then start with Season 1.

SE: (Laughs) Okay. What’s #2?

BE: #2 is “The Office,” “Breaking Bad” is #3, “Glee” is #4.

SE: I’ve never seen “Glee,” but my 16-year-old loves it.

BE: “30 Rock” is #5, then “Friday Night Lights” at #6.

SE: Which everybody tells me is great, but I’ve never seen it. People that I respect love that show, though. Is “Mad Men” on the list?

BE: It isn’t, but only because Season 3 finished up before the last Rankings.

SE: And “The Good Wife” didn’t make it, huh?

BE: No, but it’s in the Honorable Mention section. I wrote it up for that.

SE: I’m glad you did, because I’m telling you, I think it’s the best show on network right now. It’s a courtroom drama, it’s a personal thing…I think what they did was that they always had the characters really well drawn, but what they’ve developed really well now is the storyline. It’s a great ensemble, and…I just love it. So, yeah, I absolutely vote for that for Honorable Mention, too.

BE: I’ve got you marked down.

SE: (Laughs) Okay, Will. Thanks so much! Good talking to you!

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