SUSAN ESSMAN IS an American stand-up comedian, actress, writer and television producer, best known for her role as Susie Greene on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and as the voice of Mittens in “Bolt.” A comics’ comic, she spent the better part of two decades honing her craft in New York City comedy clubs. There, her colleagues and friends included Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Joy Behar, and Larry David, whose “genius,” as she describes it, helped to cement her positioning as one of the grand dames of 21st century comedy.
Born in The Bronx, her family moved to Westchester County when she was 3. She grew up with two sisters and a brother in the middle-class New York City suburb of Mount Vernon. Her father, Leonard Essman, was an internist and her mother, Zora, taught Russian at Sarah Lawrence College.
I recently had the chance to talk to Susie to learn more about how her upbringing influenced her career and how her career influences others.
Is your family Jewish? We are Jewish. But, you know, my parents were not religious. We never belonged to a synagogue. The first time I even walked into one was when I was 12 or 13 and was invited to an endless series of bar- and bat-mitzvahs. That was really my first exposure to any kind of religion. Apparently, my great grandfather, my father’s mother’s father, was a rabbi. But I’m not really clear. You know everyone has seems to have a rabbi somewhere in their family history. At the very least he was a learned studier of Torah.
So, my parents weren’t religious but they were very Jewish. My father was a voracious reader. I always knew I could work him to buy me books or records. He had a massive library. I was brought up with that really Jewish tradition of learning and questioning and knowledge. I’ve always felt there’s something in the nature of the Jewish religion that is different from other religions in the sense that to be a holy man, a religious man, you have to read. In the reading and in the study, there was the tradition of questioning. Questioning the status quo. Analyzing what it meant. I think that lends itself to comedy very much. Questioning and dissecting the everyday.
What inspired your foray into comedy? Was it a traumatic childhood like most comedians? Actually, my mother was a depressive by nature. And I think I was always trying to cheer her up. I think that’s what made me funny. It was a thankless task. It never really worked. A lot of female comics have that story about their mothers. So many women in that era weren’t actualized. They were smart women that were bored. And my mother was really isolated when we moved from the “shtetl” of the Bronx out to the suburbs. She didn’t have family around her. That could have been a part of it.
So, I always used comedy as a survival mechanism. It was a difficult household. But we were all funny, my brothers and my sister and me. Telling jokes and listening to comedy records. I remember one year for Chanukah, my older sister got a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Well, I just took over, playing Johnny Carson, interviewing my friends and siblings. I found that when you make people laugh they respond to you.
How did that play outside your home? One of my kids recently asked me if I was ever picked for the team in sports because I’m not athletic. And I told him I was because I was funny. I wasn’t picked first but I was picked because they wanted someone on the team to make them laugh.
So, then you went to college [at SUNY Purchase] and by your late 20s found yourself at an open mic night. What happened? I really wanted to be an actress, and specifically a comedic actress; I didn’t know from stand up. I saw Carole Burnett and I want to do sketch comedy like that or be on Broadway playing Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” (more the character parts instead of the ingénue).
So, I’d gone to college and studied Poly-Sci and urban studies because, basically, I was too scared to audition for conservatory programs. Then, as soon as I graduated, I moved to Manhattan and started taking acting classes. I was a receptionist and a waitress. I got into law school but didn’t go.
Then I got bored by the acting classes. I thought, “This isn’t it. This isn’t right.” I fell into a depression. Had a bad boyfriend. I experienced a lot of that early-to-mid 20s “stuff” and sort of spiraled down and eventually quit the acting classes.
But I was always entertaining my friends from the restaurant where I was waitressing with my imitations of customers. So they talked me into getting on stage to do stand up. I had no idea what it was about. Didn’t understand the art form. In fact, I had only been in a comedy club once. But I signed up for open night mic. And I did characters because I was too scared to be myself. That was 1983 and I think I was 28 years old. Everyone’s Jewish grandma says, “You make plans and G-d laughs.” Well, I didn’t really have a plan. But there I was in this booming world of 80s comedy. After a few months, I realized this is what I’m meant to do, branched out and worked in uptown clubs, and it all grew from there.
When did you cross paths with Larry David? I met Larry in 1985 at a comedy club called Catch a Rising Star. We were friendly but not friends. I remember standing next to him at a bar in the mid-80s hearing tales of woe from his dating life. That later became the George story lines in “Seinfeld.” We all started together. It was just about becoming good comics. We didn’t think about being rich and famous.
Did “Curb Your Enthusiasm” just fall into your lap then? Was the Susie Greene character created with you in mind? Larry had moved to L.A. for Seinfeld and I’d run into him a few times, but I was focused on working and building my reputation with HBO specials, etc. Then, in 1999 or 2000, I did a roast of Jerry Stiller for Comedy Central and Larry saw it. He just called and said, “I have a part for you. No script. It’s all improvised. No money.” So I said, “Well, yeah.” As a working comic, I’d take a crappy sitcom if they paid me. But I also knew he was a genius. I feel so blessed to be part of the show. It’s been the greatest joy of my life besides my husband, kids, and dog.
I saw something online that said Susie Greene redefined the swear game almost singlehandedly. How much of you is in Susie Greene, your character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm?” That wasn’t a plan. In Season 1, there was an episode called “The Wire.” In it, my character’s husband Jeff brings home a troubled kid and he ends up robbing us blind. That was the scene Larry had in mind when he hired me. Larry saw the Stiller roast and that side of me and wanted Jeff’s wife to rip him apart. His only direction was, “I want you to rip Jeff….” Then, he kept saying to go further. Go crazy on him. Make fun of Jeff’s fat. I said I don’t like to do that; I think it’s mean and low. But he asked me to try. And that let the genie out of the bottle.
But, in my life, I’m only that intense when I have really bad customer service. Holding for the cable company. And, I guess for each of my kids, when they were in their teens, I was Susie Greene on them at least once.
Lightening things up a bit…This year’s tagline for Women’s VOICES is “Be the Light.” How do you think you bring light into the world? It’s always been a great privilege to me to make a living making people laugh. It’s healing. It’s a positive thing it people’s lives. There is study after study about endorphins and all that. Look, I’ve been on stage 20,000 times. And at times I don’t feel like it. But I do something and I focus on the idea that I’m going onstage to unclog some arteries. It’s ironic because so many comedians are really dark but they are putting out something that’s very healing in their work.
There’s a thing with comics about being people who are on the outside looking in. Part of that early on with Jewish comics was from the immigrant experience. And that’s how it is for many female and black comics today. We take our challenges and make light of them, for ourselves and for our audiences.
Finally, in homage to James Lipton (“Inside the Actors Studio”) — let’s rapid fire his famous series of questions:
- What is your favorite word? Yes
- What is your least favorite word? Bully
- What turns you on? A sense of humor
- What turns you off? Bigotry
- What sound or noise do you love? Music
- What sound or noise do you hate? There’s a dog that lives next door to me that they leave out all day and all night…that barks endlessly.
- What is your favorite curse word? I can’t say it in a nice Jewish magazine.
- What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Fiction writer, novelist
- What profession would you not like to do? Dental hygienist
- If heaven exists, what would you like to hear G-d say when you arrive at the pearly gates? Welcome, nonbeliever.
Caron Berkley is a contributing writer for Jlife.