There’s always been a certain mojo about Leon Black that marked him as more than a mere man. But now it’s official: he’s a lifestyle. The quick-talking freeloader broke out as a fan-favorite supporting character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and now the man who brings him to life — actor and comedian J.B. Smoove has committed his character’s infinite wisdom to paper. The Book of Leon collects the deadbeat’s many koans into one convenient tome, a timely accompaniment to the long-awaited new season of Curb. Whether on screen or page, Leon’s always talking a mile a minute (much of that mile peppered with offhand cuss-words), and Smoove never even breaks a swear keeping up.
Smoove sat down with us to discuss his “imaginary friend,” the philosophy of wearing sunglasses indoors, and the Zen state of total oneness he attains before letting Leon loose.
I couldn’t help but notice you’re wearing sunglasses indoors. I feel like that’s sort of becoming a lost art.
Oh, hell yeah. All you gotta do is get some sunglasses you can see out of, but they can’t see the fuck in. The difference between taking ’em off and wearing ’em is so minimal that you ain’t gonna walk into a fuckin’ wall in a dark-ass club. But it gives you class, a little style going on. But your ass ain’t blind in the darkness. Try those transition glasses. Shit turns black.
Leon was a pretty philosophical guy to begin with, even before the book organized it all.
I honestly and intentionally wanted this book to feel like Leon Black wrote a book, like, to capture his voice. At first, I was gonna write a J.B. Smoove book, just a regular-ass crazy book about shit that I do and that I’ve been involved in and whatever, but I thought I’d do a Leon book instead.
What caused you to change your mind?
We had already started working on the J.B. Smoove book, but then on set one day I said, “Goddamn, I think I want to do a Leon book.” And Larry David said, “You know what? You’re so full of shit, you ought to take all your bullshit and put it in a book.” I had thought about doing it, but I didn’t think I could. When you deal with networks, you don’t really own the character. You can’t make any fuckin’ money off the character. I had to go through HBO and do this, and at the same time, they wanted the new episodes. But getting to do the book as Leon, that made it even more fire. Every time I wrote, I’d get my do-rag on, put some long-ass socks on, all that shit, long robe and chain on, and I channeled his fucking brain. And I didn’t sit there like, ‘Hmm? Hmm?’ The first shit that came in my brain, I would spew it out, just like I do with Larry. It sounds stream of consciousness. I didn’t want it to sound so polished and written-written-written, because that wouldn’t be Leon! And I wanted it to come across a certain way for the audiobook.
It’s really for the audiobook.
It’s written for the audio, yeah. I wanted it to feel like you’re Larry, and I’m talking to your ass. That would give it a genuine feeling. When I was reading for that audiobook, I was laughing my ass off at myself! I love a good audiobook. I like reading, but to hear it? The way I’m talking to you? I’m really trying to help your ass.
Through your life, have you found that people are often trying to get at the secret of your essence?
Always, but I’m very open to giving that up. What the fuck you gonna do, hold onto shit? I give people advice all they want. And let me say this: motherfuckers can catch up to you, but their ass can’t pass you. That’s all it is. It’s cool if they catch you, but as long as they don’t pass your ass, you good! Nothing to fuckin’ worry about with them coattails. I don’t mind healthy competition, I don’t mind people doing their dizzle. That’s what Leon would say, it’s a particular way of thinking. Because there’s some Leon in J.B., but no J.B. in Leon.
How do you mean?
Leon’s a different kind of dude. I know how to turn my class up, and I know how to get ill if I’ve gotta get ill. I draw from that for Leon, but Leon cannot go all the way here. Leon’s a very specific sort of character who everyone knows, like, every neighborhood has a dude like Leon. He ain’t a bad guy, he’s just a guy who knows how to get one over and say the right shit. He knows how to tap some ass, he’s got a certain kind of lady he deals with, he knows what lady to go after. Knows how to push the right buttons. He doesn’t have any negativity in his body, because he doesn’t have the time. He’s always on the hustle. He loves a good slice of pizza, a Big Gulp, shit like that! It makes a great fucking day. Simple-ass pleasures that somehow coincide with reality, and how he lives his goddamn life.
He’s a mooch, and still you can’t help but have love for that kind of guy.
Cause he’s entertaining, and he’ll show up, and he gives a fuck about you. Larry brings shit to Leon all the time, and not just because! He really appreciates Leon’s take on a situation. He’s aggressively confident in everything that he says.
Back when the show was first airing, some friends and I took up the Leon-ism of “get in that ass!” as our life mantra.
You know the first time we did that bit, Larry had never heard that term, “get in that ass.” Never heard the expression! So his face was like [bafflement face]. I explained to him a little bit more before the next take, and by the third time we did it, he was crying. Shit was fuckin’ bananas!
Have you expanded the Larry David vocabulary much over the years?
Oh, so much, man. And him using it, I start to scream laughing, because it’s hard for white people to pull it off. In the new one, Larry tries to say he’s lampin’ to Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy’s like, “Why’re you talking like that?” It’s for moments like that, teaching Larry lampin’, that I try to be conscious of who Leon is. That’s where I get the little words, like when he says he’s gonna “crudi-take” the crudité, it’s silly as fuck.
It really does just pop into your head?
I really have to go into a scene empty-headed, because what that allows me to do is really be in that moment. If you think about it too hard, you can’t do it freely. They say when you’re boxing, the person that gets mad is the person who loses. Because then, you’re not loose or free enough to put it all together. All you gotta do is listen when other people are speaking, very intently. Larry will say something, and I’m listening for an angle, one key word, that’s all it takes to get the direction for the scene. In the first new episode, Larry says his assistant’s got constipation, and I immediately started thinking of all the shit I could do with that. “I did a hot dog eating contest constipated! I did a porno constipated!” He’s full of shit, but that’s confidence!
Athletes will talk about their pregame routine — how do you get in the zone for Leon?
I’ll get my wardrobe, they’ll give me three options and I’ll pick the wildest shit they got, like, “What’s gonna make the most sense today?” Leon’s on them high-waisted joints, lime-colored tank top, every type of do-rag, goofy-ass sneakers.
I think of the look as “pimp, but broke.”
Exactly — eclectic, cool, but fucked up. Very Goodwill-ish. That pulls the character together for me. And honestly, I go fuckin’ blank. You know how many times I watched Curb and realize I don’t remember any of that shit? You remember when Leon says he and Larry are LEGO, they’re interlocked together? Where the fuckin’ LEGO? I don’t remember saying anything about LEGO! None of that, “black belt in fucking,” you get possessed. You start to think as that character. End of the day, I’m driving home and talking to my wife in the car, she’ll talk about Leon in the third person. She’ll say, “How was your day? What’d Leon say today?” And I think fuck, I’m Leon! but I answer, “Baby, Leon’s a fuckin’ fool.” We talk about him like he’s a Snuffleupagus or some shit. He’s my imaginary friend.