“Larry David, you bald ASSHOLE!”
As shrieked by Susie Essman’s Curb Your Enthusiasm stand-in Susie Green, this phrase is like music — piercing, furious music. The lovable harpy has elevated the act of getting pissed off at Larry and his faithful sidekick, her husband Jeff (portrayed by Jeff Garlin), to an art form over eight seasons. After a six-year hiatus, during which she fleetingly brought the “apoplectic mama bear” schtick to Broad City, Essman returns now to Curb in order to reclaim her throne of TV’s Jewish Mother Supreme. But even though they share a first name, Susies Green and Essman couldn’t be farther removed from one another. She chatted with us about the therapeutic qualities of playing a character who doesn’t give a flying fig, the secret underbelly of New York City, and the silver lining she’s clinging to during the Trump administration.
The Susie Greene character has become the ultimate manifestation of the Jewish mother type. I’m curious as to how you’d define the character for someone unfamiliar with the real-world basis for her.
You know, what’s always been interesting to me is that when you’re of a certain tribe with your own little idiosyncrasies — you mention the Jewish mother type, but it’s a universal thing. I was on the radio yesterday, and the host was a black woman, and she said, “You must have a lot of black friends, because the way you act is how black women treat their husbands!” And I thought that was so curious. That happens so often, I’ll get stopped on the street by all sorts of people. My usual bank teller is a crazy huge Curb fan and he’s West African, and he’s telling me in his thick accent about how much I remind him of his mother. All across the board I get this, in the Midwest, wherever.
That’s a beautiful thing, overbearing moms unite us all!
Susie is an iconic Jewish mother in her own right, but all moms are protective and feel injured when their kids don’t behave. There are universal aspects about motherhood, and hey, about personhood. People in New York think that the only people who get the show are older Jews from the Upper West Side, and that’s just not true. I travel all over the world — I just got back from Australia and New Zealand, and they love us there!
Susie’s whole thing is her unbridled anger. Acting, have you ever reached a point where that had to be reined in at all?
I try to mix it up, try not to be angry in every scene. She’s not a ranting and raving lunatic. And there’s always a reason why she’s doing what she’s doing. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, and she’s not mentally ill. She’s almost always provoked by Larry and/or Jeff. He gets her kid drunk, steals her kid’s stuff, gets them kicked out of the country club, gives her the shit assistant. There’s a reason she punches him in the face! He foisted the assistant on her, and she’s trying to run a business!
What’s your favorite thing about playing Susie?
So many things! I love putting on her outfits, things I’d never ever wear. I love her surety, the certainty in everything she ever does. She has no doubt and no insecurity, she’s screaming and yelling and cursing and she has no doubt that she has every right to do it. There’s no second-guessing, no analysis, no neuroses. By design, too, because I created the character.
Is that reflective of your life?
No, I was always thinking, “God, wouldn’t it be great to be that sure of yourself?” When you’re a comedian, it’s in your nature to consider everything in every possible way: Should I have said this, should I have said that? But it’s so freeing to just be in your skin. Susie’s not like me, in that way, and that’s why I love playing her. I don’t wanna play myself. I’m myself all the time!
Especially with Curb, people wonder how much of it comes from real life and how much is invented.
You’ve got Larry David playing Larry David as a character, and there’s Ted Danson playing Ted Danson as himself. Cheryl’s Cheryl, but a different Cheryl. It’s all confusing, I get it. But we’re all acting. Nobody’s really playing their true self, not even the people portraying themselves. It’s kind of weird. I think this has something to do with reality TV shows. Are the Kardashians really the Kardashians, or are they playing the character on the show? This is several times removed from that, but with those kinds of shows, people get very caught up.
Are you a big reality TV person yourself?
I hate it, I haaaate it. Well… I don’t wanna say I hate it. There’s nothing about it that interests me in the least. If I wanna watch reality, I watch sports, which I love, I watch the news, which is a bad enough reality, or I love documentaries. But watching people fake-be themselves doesn’t interest me. It’s not really them!
It’s a weird spectacle. I used to cover reality TV, and after you have to watch it for long enough, you get a morbid kind of fascination.
It’s like a sitcom on Mars. But who has the time? There’s so much good stuff to watch. I’d rather watch Yankee games, ‘cause I’m from the Bronx. My grandmother used to live right across from the stadium.
Did you go a lot as a kid?
No, they never thought to bring me. I used to sit on the fire escape, and to the right I’d see the Major Deegan Expressway, and to the left, I’d see the stadium. The ballgame would be on TV, and they never thought to take me because I was a girl. It never occurred to me to ask. But I go all the time now.
You mentioned that you enjoy scripted TV — what’re you into lately?
Not a lot of comedy, because I live it. I’ve spent my entire adult life in comedy clubs, and people say, ‘Oh, we’re going to see so-and-so, wanna come?’ I say no, I’m good, thank you. I’ve been there. There are certain comedies — I love Veep, for example — but I really do prefer dramas. Just binged and finished Big Little Lies, just started The Deuce, both of which I loved. We’re about to do the new season of Endeavor. It’s on PBS. You know Inspector Morse? This is the young Morse.
I like the Broad City episode where you and Ilana go to find the really good knockoff purses underground in Chinatown. There really is this whole hidden world in New York, if you know where to look.
It’s funny, someone was telling me just yesterday that she went to Chinatown for a new bag, and they’re very, very secretive now, even more than they used to be. They used to just lay them out on the street, but there must have been some kind of crackdown, I don’t know what’s going on legally. But there really is so much that goes on here. We were shooting that episode in Chinatown, on these tiny little streets designed before they started working off a grid for midtown. We were on this block, and I was like, “How are there seven or eight barbershops on this one stretch?” And we had an interpreter for that episode because I had to speak some Chinese, and she told me they were all brothels, specifically for Chinese clientele. And that’s one little speck, there’s stuff going on around this city we have no idea about!
I once went to do karaoke in Koreatown, and we later found out that directly upstairs was an S&M dungeon.
There ya go! I’d bet you there are S&M sex dungeons hidden all over this great city! The Deuce is kinda interesting in that way, too. I remember Times Square back in the day, and you did not go there. It’s a tourist destination now, but it used to be shit.
New York’s changing, but at the same time, people grousing over New York changing seems to be the one eternal constant for the city.
Well, that’s what New York is. I’m so not a fan of “Things used to be better.” Not for a woman! Not for me! Even for the white guys, it wasn’t always better! Things are so much better now. I believe in fluidity, and I’m not big on nostalgia. I’ve lived on the Upper West Side since 1980, and the neighborhood has been gentrified, and a lot of the mom-and-pops are gone. I miss that, the neighborhoody feel of it. But you can’t hold onto stuff, you gotta move with it and learn to enjoy whatever the new thing is.
But you’ve still got a special affection for the Upper West Side?
It’s home. I used to have a better relationship with local merchants, and it’s a little less contained as a neighborhood. So be it. But there are good things about it now, too. Hey, we got a Whole Foods.
It’s hard to think about the profile of New York without bringing up Trump.
Yeah. But here’s the good thing! When he’s no longer President, which might be sooner than we think [knocks wooden armrest on chair], he’s not gonna be invited anywhere if he comes back here. I go to charity things a lot, and he’s not going to be welcome. All the people that he wants to like and respect him, that’s not his base. He’s never gonna be friends with those people. They’re sure as hell not going to be on his golf courses. So as long as he doesn’t blow us up, he won’t be able to walk down the street in New York. I see silver linings on this all.