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Susie Essman, TV’s most outrageous Jewish mother, talks ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and cancel culture

By Andrew Lapin

(JTA) — On the wall of Susie Essman’s powder room hangs a giant portrait of herself.

Actually, the portrait is of Susie Green, Essman’s beloved, foul-mouthed character on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” HBO’s long-running improvisational sitcom exploring the social rules that govern all of our lives, and especially those of the one percent. It comes from an episode in the show’s 10th season, which aired in early 2020 just before the pandemic, when the infamously misanthropic Larry David (the series creator, who also stars as a version of himself) has the artwork commissioned as a gift for his longtime frenemy.

In the episode, a series of comic misunderstandings results in Susie’s portrait being pelted with tomatoes and chucked into the trash. But in real life, an intact painting exists. And Essman, a longtime comic actress and stand-up comedian who has known David since the 1980s and, like him, wears her Jewishness proudly on her sleeve, snapped it up for herself.

“It’s absolutely one of my prized possessions,” Essman told JTA. But in “Curb”’s 11th season, currently airing Sunday nights on HBO, Essman says Susie will get many more big moments with Larry. For fans of one of the Jewiest shows on TV, the prospect of these two antagonists going at each other yet again is a sign that there is still some joy left in the world.

JTA spoke to Essman about the show’s longevity and Jewishness. This interview, which took place the week after the second episode of the season aired, has been edited for length and clarity.

JTA: Between “Curb” and Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” you’ve really cornered the market on–

Essman: Jewish mothers.

Where do you draw on your portrayals from?

Well, I happen to be Jewish, and I happen to be a mother. And I’ve had mothers and I’ve had many friends, mothers and aunts and uncles and grandmothers. And, you know, I mean, Jewish mothers are like all other mothers. Just a little bit more so.

You’ve known Larry David since the mid-80s. Does his longevity surprise you at all?

You know, I always say that if we were hanging out at the bar at “Catch a Rising Star” in 1986, and I said to a bunch of the comics hanging out there that Larry David was going to be richer and more successful than any of us, nobody would have believed it. And not because he didn’t have the talent. He always had the talent. But he never really seemed to care that much. He didn’t seem that ambitious, you know, and he was never one, still, to pander. He always just marched to his own drummer. 

So yeah, it does surprise me. Although even back then, we all knew that he was a brilliant genius. His writing was so incredible. His stand-up bits were so unusual and unlike anybody else. So in that sense, it doesn’t surprise me. But it surprises me knowing Larry as a person that he’s become so successful.

When the show invokes Judaism, it’s not necessarily in the friendliest light. And yet, the show’s portrayal of Judaism resonates with so many Jews. Do you have any insights as to why that might be?

Because it’s honest. And because it’s funny, you know, and I think people see themselves, and that’s what comedy does. Comedy is a reflection. And people see themselves in it, and if it’s not themselves, they see their family members, somebody that’s connected to them in some way, and it’s resonant.

Do you have a favorite Jewish moment from the show?

I would say my favorite Jewish moment was from [season 5 episode] “The Ski Lift,” when I have to pretend to be Larry’s Orthodox wife. Reading that, I was just like, “Oh my God, this is pure gold.” I could not wait to shoot. And ultimately, what’s interesting is, that’s one of the very top of Larry’s favorite episodes.

Do you have a hand in coming up with Susie’s outfits, which are so delightfully garish?

Yes, I do. I mean, our wardrobe designer Leslie Schilling is terrific. She presents me with everything and then we kind of go through it together and put the combos together, and I approve or disapprove or whatever. So yes, I have a strong say in what she wears. Which is the most fun part, for me, of the character. Susie Green thinks she has the greatest taste in the whole world. She thinks she’s always right. You know, she thinks [Larry’s ex-wife] Cheryl dresses like crap. I created the character to be this, that she is just this completely secure woman with no reason to be. 

That’s what’s fun. Because I’m a comic: I’m analytical, I’m insecure, I analyze everything and double-guess everything. I wanted to play a character so different from me, and she’s just complete security and complete belief in herself. And that’s why she could dress that way. And she, you know, she thinks that she’s making a statement, a fashion statement, and that she has unparalleled taste. It’s very conscious — she clearly picks those outfits.

With every season, how do you find new ways to explore the character?

I can only do what’s in the confines of the outline, whatever Larry and [series showrunner] Jeff Shaffer give me to do. But each year they give me more and more. It never gets dull to me. The relationships kind of change and grow. I mean, this season, Larry and I have a lot of stuff where we’re in cahoots with each other. We’re like partnering up together. So that was kind of fun and interesting and different. 

We’re still antagonistic, we’re not all of a sudden besties. But in a way we are. Susie and Larry’s relationship is kind of like siblings, you know: we fight and we’re screaming, we yell and I kick him out of the house and then the next day, I’m like, ‘Hey, Larr, want to go to a dinner party?’ It’s like, all is forgotten and forgiven and you just move on, like how you are with family.

Is it hard to do comedy in the “cancel culture” era. So much of the show has been about breaking taboos. Is it harder to do the show now?

No, because Larry does not care if he’s politically incorrect and who he offends. He doesn’t care. He’s an equal opportunity offender. If he doesn’t care, then I certainly don’t. It gives me tremendous freedom to do whatever I want to do. And you know, I mean, I always feel like Larry is so politically incorrect. He’s sticking his finger in the eye of it, in a sense.

What about with your own stand-up, how has that changed for you?

You know, I haven’t done stand-up for a couple of years. But it does worry me, because I do think that the job of comedians is to push the envelope. And I think that too many people feel like they have their hands tied right now, and that concerns me. Especially for younger comics. I know when I was starting out, there was no Twitter and there were no phones in the clubs, and you could kind of find your own line. Sometimes you go too far and you feel that little thing crawling up your spine. You’re kind of figuring out who you are and what your persona is on stage. And by necessity you need to make mistakes and go over the edge sometimes. And it was okay — you pull back and you figure out what works for you. 

But now it’s so public. Like if you do that, all of a sudden it goes viral. And you’re ostracized, castigated for it. It’s an experimental art form. And when you don’t have that freedom, it can be problematic.

Could Susie get her revenge on Larry and Jeff in the finale? There was the episode where she seemed like she was trying to kill Jeff —

Oh, she was not trying to kill Jeff. That was Larry’s fantasy. As the owner of the character, I don’t think she was trying to kill Jeff. I think she’d like to kill him sometimes, he’s always cheating on her. But in a certain way, she doesn’t really care as long as she’s got the money and the house and the clothes and the car. 

Susie’s had her moments, but her comeuppance is her anger, right? She expresses quite readily to both of them whatever she feels like.

She seems to have an unhealthy amount of anger.

She has a healthy amount of anger. I mean, I have women come up to me on the street all the time thanking me, because women have a really hard time expressing their anger, and Susie doesn’t. I think she gives permission to women all across our great land, and all across the world, to express their anger.

“Curb Your Enthusiasm” is currently airing its 11th season on HBO, and the entire series is streaming on HBO Max.

Main Photo: Susie Essman as Susie Green in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” (John P. Johnson/HBO)

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