JB Smoove Talks ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and Building a Comedy Career

Article Image
Photo Source: Harrison James O'Brien

JB Smoove has a way of emanating timelessness. Even seated amidst diner decor that screams ’70s nostalgia, he appears classic—and perfectly coiffed. On a sunny winter’s day in Gramercy Park, he’s sporting a three-piece gray suit, a Double Albert pocket watch chain, a dark overcoat with a black fur collar, black-and-silver beaded bracelets, and a black straw hat, feather included. He wonders aloud several times: “When is GQ magazine gonna call me?”

The comedian is almost as famous for his sharp sartorial choices as he is for his comedic timing. And while GQ has yet to show him love, his career thus far has created something a bit more enduring than a fashion profile: beloved characters and an adoring (and ever-widening) fanbase. He pulls up a photo on his phone to illustrate his point: “I signed this guy’s neck,” he says, proudly showing a picture of his swirling signature in blue ink. “This guy comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, man, I love you,’ and I say, ‘If you love me, you’ll let me sign your forehead, cheek, or neck. Do you love me? Do you love me?’ “

Smoove is perhaps best known for his role on the Larry David–helmed HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which premiered its 10th season in January. As Leon Black, Larry’s surprisingly perfect companion—and willing instigator of his petty, persnickety tendencies—Smoove gets to cultivate one of the show’s best relationships while showcasing his strong improv and sketch comedy background.

Prior to his debut on Season 6 of “Curb,” Smoove was a fixture in the standup comedy scene. He cut his teeth as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” creating sketches for Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Snoop Dogg, and others. He also starred on the semiscripted faux reality show “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” played the right-hand man to the titular character in the cult classic film “Pootie Tang,” and appeared on shows including “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Last Comic Standing.”

Smoove has a studied but never inauthentic charisma, and after 30 years in comedy, he continues to push, recently taking on a voiceover role for “Ice Age 4,” guest-starring on Tracy Morgan’s “The Last O.G.,” and working on an upcoming Lorne Michaels and Seth Meyers project titled “Mapleworth Murders” for Quibi—all on top of a new season of “Curb.”

We discussed how he moves between standup and acting, fan interactions, and why New York is a great place to start a comedy career. By the end of our chat, we were fighting the urge to let him sign our necks, too.

You grew up in Mount Vernon. Did being in the New York City area influence your comedy?

I was born in North Carolina and came to New York when I was 5 years old, so I’m definitely a New York baby. Every borough has its own flavor and style, and you get a chance to experience all of those, including Westchester County, where I’m from. You’re only 25 minutes from the city by train or car, and it’s amazing to have this city as far as your comedic abilities [go]. You have a chance to see, firsthand, all these styles [and figure out], what do you want to do on stage? What you don’t want to do? It gives you a certain armor to your body.

[New York has] so many different kinds of people, so many things to laugh at, so many things to intrigue you. And we have so many opportunities to perform. You can perform three times a night, go from club to club to club to club. In L.A., you can’t do that. Here, you have a show in Queens, leave Queens and go do a spot in the city, go up to the Bronx. You can bounce from borough to borough and still be able to do three shows.

Is that what you were doing back in the day as a young standup comic?

Yeaaaaah. Getting those reps in makes your timing better, it makes everything better. Networking with other comedians and promoters and clubs and getting a chance to really, really bounce around and enjoy it. You still have your tours and stuff, but the real heartbeat of it is the city.

What came first, the standup or the acting? Are they inextricably linked?

When I first started doing everything, I was an extra on movies. I would go on everything because I wanted to try it. The first thing I did when I started doing standup was an improv class. I got a chance to find out who I wanted to be onstage and who I wanted to be offstage. And that improv class really helped me mature into an actor and a comedic performer. It really allowed me to step away from myself and be more grounded in the moment, which is what improv skills teach you. For me, [improv is] the No. 1 thing that helped me in my transition from an actor and comedian.

My standup act has always involved a lot of improv-ed situations, so I get a chance to be in the moment with audiences. I’m a horrible robot—I’m not good at doing the same thing over and over; I get bored of my own self. I can’t do it, I gotta change it up. So, every time you see a JB Smoove show, it’s always a little different. You’ll never see the same exact show twice.

I’ve read that you don’t do much writing of your own bits.

I don’t write them out, but I do write the premise. And once I get the premise down in my brain, it becomes storytelling, it becomes gauging: What does this particular audience love about you tonight? Is it my mannerism tonight, is it my facial expressions? Is it my delivery, is it my candid response, is it my description of things? What is it tonight that this particular audience wants? That’s what I focus on most when I’m onstage.

I have the bullets in my holster, I have jokes already written and I can always do my jokes, but a lot of times I like to feel the audience and the elephant in the room—like, “Wow, look at the stairs, these are old-ass stairs”—and talking about things people can see.

It’s not talking at your audience, but to them and with them. I spend another hour, hour and a half after my shows hugging people and meeting people. It’s important for me to connect with people. Standup is such a personal thing. It’s kind of like standing in your living room with a bunch of friends listening to you tell a story.

So, you go from standup to sketch shows—“The Chris Rock Show,” “The Lyricist Lounge Show,” “Cedric the Entertainer Presents”—to writing for “SNL.” How’d that happen for you?

Normally, they break people, but for me, I had a different process. I actually auditioned twice for “SNL”—I didn’t get cast twice. It was one of those things where I said, if I take this job [as a writer], I’d have to move back to New York, but it would look good on my résumé. So, I became a writer. I’d never done live TV in a sketch form like that, and I’m a big fan of “SNL.” It actually enhanced, my abilities because I got a chance to work on live TV. The pace is different; everything moves a lot quicker. You’ve got to think on your feet.

Do you think your background in sketch and standup is what caught the attention of the heads at “SNL”?

I have a bunch of different demographics going at the same time: I’ve got Hollywood, I was on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I was in commercials, guest-starring on “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Life in Pieces,” all of these different things. I don’t write for a specific genre, I write for what I find funny and I sell it. I’m a great salesman.

I’ve had to reinvent myself several times. Once I get bored with myself, I need a bad show to make me realize I’m past that material, [that] I got bored with it and wasn’t putting the energy into it that I needed to.

What’s an example of a time you transitioned because you had outgrown it or it had outgrown you?

I’ve had shows where I just went offstage and realized I didn’t want to be there, or it wasn’t for me but I took it anyway. Sometimes the audience comes to you or vice versa, but you gotta know your threshold and what you want to do. That forces my hand, forces me to pick up new routes.

People have misinformation about what this is. This is a job. I always think that the comedian gets the least amount of respect from people—they think you’re a clown. They tend to talk to you a certain way, respond to you a certain way; they forget that you’re actually a father, a son, a husband; you’re a lot of things that you’re not [showing] onstage. [People] think we laugh all day, that we’re just clowning all day, but we’re not—we’re business people. You’ve got to be a business person to run what you’re doing. You’re providing a service, making people happy.

Do you think you had a big break?

I think I had a steady marathon run. I think I don’t get tired. This is the best shit in the world.

That’s allowed me to change and keep it interesting, not just for the audience but for myself.

“For me, [improv is] the No. 1 thing that helped me in my transition from an actor and comedian.”

The variety of it all helps me not become stale. I’ll laugh just talking to someone on the corner and making them feel good. When I was on the corner doing the photoshoot [for Backstage], a guy walked up and I gave him love, gave him a long hug and he was like, “Man, you’re just like you are on TV!” He wanted to know I was a real person, not some fake-ass dude who’s like, “Get away from me.”

You’re a man of the people.

You gotta be a man of the people, because in the end, for me, it’s never about money...because that director, those other actors have dreams to be there and do this. So if you show up and give 50%, now you’re biting into their dream and taking it from them.

If I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it 100%, 200% every time. I’ll overdo it and allow you to tell me I’m doing too much—that way, you’re getting what you want out of it and I’m not shortchanging you.

Do you think that’s why you’re such a fan favorite on “Curb”?

I think so. Some people need it real. I think the Leon character gives it to you so real.

You have to always be conscious of what you’re doing. And I think money comes and goes like the wind, times change, what people love changes, the value of things changes every day. Shit goes out of style.

My mother always told me to buy classic because class never goes out of style. You’ve got style in spades.

It never goes out of style—brands do, but class never does. Some things are just classic, they never change. A good hard-bottomed shoe never goes out of style. A nice watch—you can have the oldest watch in the world, but that watch, as long as it tells the time and looks good on your arm, it’s classy.

See, now, this sounds like the interview you want to be doing for GQ.

I’m telling you! GQ better recognize! They better recognize me and stop playing around.

I do think we are a bunch of different things. I say money comes and goes, but your character can live forever. Your character and the stories about you go on forever. That’s where I feel like I’m getting the most mileage out of JB Smoove.

You mean the story of being a positive dude, rather than the characters you play?

Yeah. I try to give more than I receive, which is why I donate a lot of my time to the Boys and Girls Club; I host their galas and events. I think it’s important to plant some seeds as far as what you see. Because as times change and the world speeds up, we’re becoming disinterested in the lives of people.

I know you used to work in the perfume industry. Does Larry David smell as rich as he is?

Ha! Larry’s not a perfume guy. I can see him maybe wearing it, but I don’t think he does. I’m trying to think about what his scent would be. I could do that on “Curb,” tell him to start wearing a little gefilte fish on his neck.

 

Do you have thoughts on being one of the few black actors on this otherwise very Jewish, pretty white show?

I think it’s the greatest piece of the puzzle on “Curb.” [Larry] needs that acknowledgment from somebody, because that character is so opinionated. [Leon] is so eager to give Larry some shit that he didn’t know and pull him into a lot of things. I think it creates a whole new demographic for the show, for me and for Larry. Him putting the Black family on the show, I think it really opened it up.

What have you learned from working with Larry David?

I feel like the universe works with you somehow. Somehow, I was supposed to meet Larry; I was supposed to work with him. I always wanted to meet him, always wanted to work with him, and my wife actually told me I was going to be on the show. She felt like, “I know you guys are going to be good together.” She knows I love to improvise, she knows the show is improvised, there’s something about the show that was my language.

“[People] think we laugh all day, that we’re just clowning all day but we’re not—we’re business people. You’ve got to be a business person to run what you’re doing. You’re providing a service, making people happy.”

(Read More)

[Larry] and I have a similar background. We both worked at “SNL” and we both know a lot of the same people. But I think what Larry gives me is this way of thinking; what “Curb” has forced me to do is look at human attributes. Things that people really do, and it makes me notice little things more often. Larry’s found a way to take human nature, the bad part of human nature, and made it delight. And focus on it and make people say, “This shit is as hilarious as it is cringeworthy.” People will go, “Oooh, I hate people who do that!” But people will laugh. He really is attuned to that. I’ve learned that life is funny, we are funny [even] when we’re not trying to be funny—and Larry just points that stuff out.

I do think there’s something unique about the characters together; they have a vibe and a really cool balance as to what they give each other on camera, and everybody on the show—Jeff [Garlin], Richard [Lewis], Susie [Essman], Funkhouser [Bob Einstein]—everyone I’ve met on the show has been amazing and these are people who are real friends. It really is cool to be a part of; I think that the [journey] of me taking that improv class and putting that little improvised tool in my toolbox in the late ’90s to being able to be on one of the greatest improvised shows on TV is amazing.

It’s like you set yourself up for success and had no idea.

That’s the patience part of everything. Some people rush and burn bridges and step on toes. I sit back and let it be what it is, put the energy into it, and it comes gradually to me.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and brevity.

Inspired? Check out Backstage’s comedy audition listings!

Photographed by Harrison James O'Brien on January 22, 2020. 

Recommended

Now Trending