‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’s’ Susie Essman Talks Almost Playing Elaine on ‘Seinfeld’

·11 min read
John P. Johnson/ HBO
John P. Johnson/ HBO

When Susie Essman first signed on to play an exaggerated version of herself on Curb Your Enthusiasm’s first season, she had no idea she would still be screaming at Larry David and Jeff Garlin more than two decades later.

“I didn’t even know we were going to do season 2,” she tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast. “Every season Larry would say, ‘That’s it! I’m done! I’m not coming back.’ And clearly that wasn’t the case. But no, never in my wildest imagination would I have thought then that 21 years later we’d still be working and doing this.”

The long-running HBO series did go on an extended hiatus after season 8 wrapped up in 2011 but ultimately made its triumphant return six years later. Now, it is back again for its 11th season and Essman could not be happier.

Susie Greene has become the role of Essman’s lifetime, much to her surprise. And as she reveals in this conversation, it has both allowed her to avoid the traps that have ensnared some of her comedy contemporaries and granted her a type of creative freedom that she couldn’t have found anywhere else—including on David’s previous show, for which she auditioned unsuccessfully more than three decades ago.

“I’m thrilled with it,” she says of the way her career has worked out. “But I never thought this was going to last.”

Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation and you can listen to the whole thing—including the real-life inspiration for Essman’s ‘Curb’ character and what it was like to roast Donald Trump to his face in 2004—right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.

It’s a pretty unique experience to play the same character over this many years. Not many people can say that they’ve done it. What has that been like for you to live with this person, who maybe has some similarities to you, but is not you, over so many years?

One good thing is we all started out old, so it’s not like we’ve aged out of our characters, you know? We weren’t like beautiful people, ingenues that were running around in bikinis. So it’s not like we can’t do that anymore. But I remember after season 8, when Larry called me and he said, “That’s it, we’re done,” and he was very definitive about it, and he meant it at the time. And we were done for six years. And I remember going into a depression about not being this character anymore, not putting on those crazy outfits anymore. And I really missed her. I really missed playing her and being her because I have so much fun being her. Because I get to channel all that anger and all that Susie Greene-ness, that’s not me, that is so much fun to play. So I’m not tired of playing her. They keep on coming up with new fun things for me to do. So if he wants to do season 12, 13, 14, I’m on board.

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I think most people know by now that Curb is not scripted, that you are given these scenarios and then you kind of have to just improvise. Did that take a while for you to get used to, or was it pretty easy right off the bat to do that style?

Like a fish to water, Matt, I just took to it. You know, I’m a comic. And I am the kind of comic that improvises a lot on stage. I always know what the first line I’m going to say is and beyond that it was a free-for-all. Not that I don’t do material, I do, but I never do it in the same order. And I’m always playing with the audience. So for me, it was really easy once I figured out who the character was and what our relationships were, which was right away. So that was set up in that episode, “The Wire”—the antagonism, me dealing with these two buffoons. It’s always been really easy and a joy for me. I mean, I love it. I just love working that way, for two reasons. One, I don’t have to memorize lines, which I hate to do. And two, I’m writing. I am a part of the creative process. I’m not just given something to say and have to figure out some acting thing of my motivation and interpretation and all that acting lingo. I’m actually writing it in the moment. And when you’re improvising, it’s all about talking and listening—and listening is the most important thing. You have to listen.

I could imagine that with all of the guest stars that come on, not everyone is used to working in this way. Are there people that you’ve worked with who either were particularly good at it in a surprising way, or struggled with it in a surprising way?

Well, Larry hires a lot of stand-ups who are generally good at improvising. And improv actors too. I mean, Cheryl [Hines] is from the Groundlings. So those people, they know what they’re doing and they know how to improvise. But then there are actors, real actors, who come on and some are fantastic and some have trouble with it. Jon Hamm is a perfect example. Great improviser, but he’s a real actor. He was just a natural improviser. I remember when Anne Bancroft, that was way back in The Producers season, she did not want to improvise. She asked Larry to please tell her what to say.

She’s Anne Bancroft, she could get away with that.

But what’s ironic is she was married to one of the great improvisers of all time in Mel Brooks.

So it didn’t come naturally to her as an actress. There were other people, but I don’t want to mention the names. But she’s dead so I can mention her.

Do you have a favorite Susie storyline over the many years that you think about as the quintessential Susie moment?

Well, there’s so many. I mean, my favorite episode has always been “The Doll” from season 2, for a few reasons. One, I just think it’s one of the most perfectly crafted half-hours of comedy ever written. And that’s really when the Susie Greene persona got established in season 2, where you really see that these two are living in fear of her. And that’s the first time that the Spaghetti Western music came up as my kind of theme song. So that’s always been near and dear to my heart.

Has there ever been anything that you’ve had to do on the show or that’s been on the show that actually made you uncomfortable? Because it does push the envelope in so many different ways. Is there anything that you’ve been asked to do where you said, “Oh, I don’t know, this might be too much?”

You know, I really trust Larry and I really trust his sensibility. Sometimes I’ll read an outline and I’ll think, “Oh God, is this going too far?” But if it’s funny, you forgive a lot of things. So, no, I completely trust Larry and [showrunner] Jeff Schaffer and their sensibility. And we’re so on the same wavelength with so many things that I have no problem with whatever they asked me to do.

Yeah, I always feel like Curb is one of those shows that’s kind of grandfathered in, in terms of what you can get away with.

Yes, well the political correctness you’re talking about. I wonder about that. I mean, I think that Larry is so politically incorrect that he’s correct. And he’s got the last laugh. I mean, the laugh is always on him in that sense. And he’s an equal-opportunity offender. He offends everybody—every ethnicity, every gender, every whatever.

And mostly himself probably.

Exactly. But I do wonder, and we have no way of knowing, if it aired for the first time today, how it would be received. I don’t know. What do you think?

I think people forgive things that have been on for so long and sort of say, well, we’ve accepted it for so long that to turn on it now would seem kind of ridiculous.

So much of that stuff is intent also. And I know Larry’s intent. And I know how pure his intent is. And what an old lefty he is, also.

The question of intent was really funny around the episode where he’s wearing the MAGA hat around town. And then of course Trump himself decided to take it totally out of context and tweet a clip of it, sort of implying that it was supporting him.

Not realizing that it was being used as a repellent.

He really didn’t understand the intent of that one.

Well, he understands nothing about anything! But when you think about that episode, what’s so interesting is, what Larry does in that episode is clearly he’s using the MAGA hat as a repellent, right? At the same time, he’s showing the small-mindedness of the left. It’s so complicated how he does it, because it’s not just anti-MAGA, it’s also showing the knee-jerk reaction that people have to it. And why we’re in this polarized place we are, from both ends right now.

When you met Larry, what were your first impressions of him as a comedian in those early days?

Well, he was brilliant as a comedian. I mean, his material was like nobody else’s material, you know? He would come up with these scenarios that were these short stories really, they were so well fleshed out. But you know, Larry, we would all watch him because he was just so brilliantly funny, all the comedians would go in the room to watch him because you just never knew what he was going to do. If one person was looking at their watch and everybody else was laughing, he would get annoyed and storm off the stage. But I remember once, in the very beginning, somebody said that Larry had been watching me do a set and there was one of my bits that he thought was really great. And that meant a lot to me that Larry thought I wrote a really great bit. Way back in the early years, you wanted his approval, because he was very judicious in how he gave his approval.

So you weren’t surprised by the success of Seinfeld, because you knew how brilliant he was or did that come as a surprise that it took off the way it did?

I think the success of Seinfeld was surprising in a sense that it was this very New York, very Jewish show that seemed—not that it was successful, but that it was so successful. It’s like the most successful show in the history of television or something like that. So I think that was a little surprising, but not really when you really take it apart. It was funny.

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It’s undeniable, right? But I’ve always thought about that too, how it’s so specific New York Jewish humor that somehow appealed to everybody.

But then again, the history of humor in this country is so specific, New York Jewish humor. So maybe that’s just the rhythms that people were used to.

I was curious if there was ever an alternate universe where you could have played Elaine on the show. Did you audition?

I actually did audition for Elaine. I remember Larry wasn’t there, but Jerry was. But you know, I really think that Julia [Louis-Dreyfus] was the right person for that part.

She’s pretty good.

She was so brilliant in that part and the chemistry of everybody. After I saw Julia, I never once had any regret for not getting that part.

Did you audition for a lot of sitcoms during those years?

Yeah. It’s horrible. Auditioning? It’s horrible! Listen, this job, first of all, not only has it lasted for 21 years, I was given the part.

You didn’t even have to audition.

And I feel so incredibly grateful that I’m on a show that I would watch because I could have gotten a part on some crappy ABC sitcom or whatever. And a lot of those shows just limp along for seven years. You’ve got to sign a six- or seven-year contract. And yeah, I would have made a lot of money and that would have been nice, but I wouldn’t have been doing anything that I was proud of or that I could tout in this way. And to be on a show that I think personally might be way up there as the funniest show in the history of television—I mean, there’s a few others, but I think it’s in the running—that’s like, oh god, I mean, I couldn’t ask for anything better.

Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: SNL alums and writers of the new Comedy Central movie ‘A Clüsterfünke Christmas,’ Rachel Dratch and Ana Gasteyer.

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