Susie Gets Serious

She’s the vitriolic Susie Greene on the HBO hit comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm,
works the standup circuit and appears in film and elsewhere on the small screen.
On top of all that, Susie Essman is a hands-on parent of four teenagers. Where does
Essman get all the energy? From her approach to comedy to a diet that accommodates
her gluten intolerance, a healthy lifestyle is no joke to Essman. Energy Times saw
her standup act and took Susie out to lunch and food shopping to find out.

By Allan Richter

March 2008

It is a bright but cold-to-the-bone day on New York’s Upper West Side, and Susie Essman is approaching the Thai restaurant she chose for our lunch meeting. She does not look happy—giving me a sudden pang of fear. For a moment I identify with Larry David and Jeff Greene, partners in mischief and the frequent objects of expletive-riddled verbal daggers that Essman’s caustic, no-nonsense Susie Greene character throws with precision on the hit HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm.

As Susie Greene, Essman has been tossing acidic barbs for six seasons of Curb, which David created and stars in as a combative caricature of himself whose battles against convention land him in trouble. David and Essman’s rotund TV husband Jeff (comedian and Curb co-producer Jeff Garlin) invariably step into misadventure, like when they steal a doll’s head from the Greenes’ young daughter or plot to give away the family dog. The two typically retreat when Susie Greene, with an icy stare, delivers razor-sharp invectives that would make a trucker in the throes of road rage blush. Jeff Greene’s heft is typically a target of the barrage.

Curb’s ensemble cast rivals those of TV’s pioneering sitcoms like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy. Of course, compared to those earlier characters, the Davids and Greenes are as advanced as Elvis was to mountain music. Curb benefits from the freedom of running on a cable network, not to mention the cast’s sparkling improvisations on brilliant story outlines written by Seinfeld co-creator David. Curb’s political incorrectness on race, health and other seemingly taboo topics, not its rough language, is what pushes it to the edge. Television’s come a long way since Lucy’s pregnancy with Little Ricky raised eyebrows.

Essman, her tough New York demeanor vivid against a sunny Southern California backdrop, and her 5-foot 3 1/2-inch frame forcing her outsized TV husband to stand down, shines as Susie Greene. Her two decades of standup—she performs 100 shows a year—have served Curb’s improvisational format well.

David tapped Essman for the role after her performance skewering comic actor Jerry Stiller at a 1999 Friar’s roast.

Essman and Susie Greene are both strong, independent women completely comfortable in their skins, but the similarities between actress and character end there. Susie Greene’s gaudy outfits and upper-crust Pacific Palisades setting suggest a materialistic self-focus. (In one episode, she spars with David over his refusal to tour the Greenes’ new home.) In contrast, Essman, when Energy Times meets with her, is in jeans and wearing hoop earrings that would be dwarfed by the bracelet-size ornaments Susie Greene sports.

The center of Essman’s world is parenting the four teenagers—three girls and a boy, 14 to 19—that have been part of her family since she met her boyfriend Jim Harder, a commercial real estate broker, five years ago. They and the rest of her personal life are fodder for her standup act. “I realize that having a boy and girls, that I have a double standard. And I’m appalled at myself, because my feminist credentials are impeccable,” she told a New York comedy club audience recently. She is happy about the boy’s active dating life but wants to “lock up” the girls until they are 45.

Joy Behar, co-host of the talk show The View and a friend of Essman’s since their budding standup days in the early 1980s, says Essman is driven by a generous spirit and a need to express herself. “She wants to tell you what she thinks about her family, about the world,” Behar told Energy Times in a telephone interview. “That motivates comedians—that you can get up there, make people laugh, and they’ll actually listen. Creative energy keeps you going.”

Essman sees standup as one of myriad factors driving her healthy lifestyle. She swore off meat 20 years ago and—gluten intolerant—seeks out organic and other healthy energy foods, evident in the Thai lunch and neighborhood grocery shopping trip that Energy Times accompanied her on. Even Sumo, the ShiTzu she rescued, benefits—Essman’s been cooking a mix of whole grains, veggies and meat for him since last year’s scare over tainted pet food. “I cook more for him than I do for my boyfriend,”she says. “Jimmy’s the cook in the family; I clean.”

 Essman stretches and does yoga, though a broken ankle from a sidewalk spill has sidelined her of late. The ankle fracture is the source of her stern look as she approaches the restaurant. When she arrives, any imagined run-in with Susie Greene evaporates. Wearing a sweet smile never seen on her Curb character, Essman quickly settles in for lively conversation and a healthy lunch.

Energy Times: I have to ask you about Susie Greene’s anger—is all that negative energy healthy?

Susie Essman: The thing people respond to about Susie Greene is her comfort with her anger. And speaking of energy, she is such an energy conserver because I think repressing anger is exhausting and uses up way too much energy. Susie Greene is completely reactive. She doesn’t analyze anything. You say this, she responds; it’s almost always provoked. Larry steals her kid’s doll’s head, things like that, and she responds with immediate anger. It’s very efficient. She gets it out, and then in the next scene she’ll be with Larry and be totally nice and friendly to him. It’s a healthy thing. People stop me on the street all the time and tell me, men especially, “My wife is exactly like you,” and I’m like, “Good!” I feel like I’m giving women across this great land of ours permission to be angry and scream and yell.

The end of a day of shooting where I have a screaming scene, I go back to the hotel, and I’m lying in bed and my muscles are so relaxed. I sleep really, really well, and it’s just so funny to me because where do you get to scream and yell and curse, and no harm is done? And I get paid!

ET: You do 100 standup performances a year, are flying out to California soon to do voice work on Bolt, your animated movie with John Travolta, and are dubbing toned-down versions of your salty language in Curb Your Enthusiasm for the show’s syndication. On top of this, you’re an active parent. All of this with a broken ankle. Where do you get the energy?

SE: Diet and exercise are really important to me because my life is so scattered and crazy, which I like by the way. I don’t like routine so much but I also feel that it’s really important to be a role model because I have three teenage girls. It’s way more important what I do and how I live my life than what I say. When I first met them, they just ate junk. I’ve turned them on to things that they thought that they would hate, like making stir-fried tofu and broccoli. That’s their favorite meal now. Instead of forcing things, I just ate the way that I ate and slowly let them come to it.

ET: When did you discover you were gluten intolerant?

SE: About five years ago. My mother has celiac [an immune disorder linked to the grain protein gluten] and we both have thyroid disease. It’s genetic and very common to have both. So I just kind of self-diagnosed myself. I ate wheat and didn’t feel good, with gastrointestinal distress, bloating and discomfort. I loved bread and I loved pasta. Loved pizza and bagels. I stopped eating all wheat gluten and felt good. It was kind of easy to figure out.

ET: How soon after you cut that from your diet did you start feeling better, and was the adjustment tough since you loved those foods?

SE: I started feeling better almost immediately. It was an incredibly difficult adjustment but I kind of figured this is my cross to bear. If this is the worst health issue I have I could deal with it. People always say to me, “How could you not eat bread? How could you not eat spaghetti?” Well, I can’t, and it’s not so horrible. I’m kind of used to it now, and I’m pretty much off almost all starch and carbs altogether at this point.

Over the years I’ve kind of gotten in touch with—and this has to do with food, life, emotions, people around me—what feels good and what doesn’t feel good. For example I love red wine. Red wine feels good for me; it feels healthy. I drink alcohol, like vodka, and it feels horrible. Even though I like the buzz something in my body does not respond well to it. I kind of feel that way now that I’m off the wheat gluten. I can feel the difference, that it wasn’t good for me, and I feel better not eating any kind of starch or sugar at all even though I have a sweet tooth and always have.

You mentioned energy. To me, the major thing that I try to stay away from in people is energy suckers, people who just suck up your energy. They’re all over the place, like energy vampires. I used to think, “Oh, they don’t like me,” and then I kind of realized, no, they don’t like themselves. Certain people you feel iffy around, stay away. Same thing with food. Certain food I eat, and if I don’t really feel that great, stay away.

You don’t have an infinite amount of energy, and you really don’t want to waste it because you need it for everything that’s good. So when I’m onstage, the way that I work is so focused and concentrated. Because I improvise so much, I need tons of energy. So you don’t want to eat things that are hard to digest; they take up all your energy and make you exhausted. I eat really light, a lot of protein. Protein is brain food. If I have an eight o’clock show, six o’clock I’ll have some protein.

ET: Is there anything else you do as part of a conscious effort to keep your mind sharp before a performance, particularly since alcohol is so accessible in comedy clubs?

SE: I don’t like to dull my mind with any kind of drugs or alcohol. As I said I love red wine; it’s my vice but I don’t really consider a glass or two a day a vice. I will never, ever have a drink before I go onstage, ever. One time I did experiment. It was many years ago in the very beginning. I saw so many comics drinking at the bar, and I thought, “Let me see how this feels.” It was a disaster. I couldn’t remember anything. It wasn’t fun.

As I said I don’t like to eat heavy before I go on. I like to feel light. I like to stretch a couple of hours. I make sure that I’m stretched so that my body’s aligned. I don’t want to say my body is my instrument because that sounds so pretentious, but I need my energy in my body to be flowing freely, as well as my mind. As much as I make people laugh, as a live performer I’m also moving energy in the room. Each person in the audience has a different energy, and my job is to instantaneously take all of that energy that they’re giving towards me, filter it through really quickly, and then spit it back out. That brings us all into the same energy in this performance. In order to do that I can’t just impose my world on them; I have to take them in, then reconfigure it, and then somehow make something so that it’s not mine, it’s ours, which is what I love about live performing. It’s ours.

ET: Your act almost feels like you’re having a conversation in your living room with friends—there just happen to be 300 of them having fits of laughter.

SE: There are certain comedians who’ll remain nameless that are wonderful comedians but who are contemptuous of their audience, and the audience knows it. I like to go out and be a friend. I’m just a friend. I also think comedy is so powerful because when people are laughing they’re open, so you could slip ideas in and thoughts in, and it’s a very powerful thing. I take that seriously and I don’t like to abuse it. More than wanting to laugh, audiences want to feel taken care of. They want to feel relaxed, and it’s important for them to know that I’m in control and I’m going to take care of them. So that’s another part of moving the energy; it’s like everything is going to be alright. I’m going to take care of you. When you see a bad comic and you get that uncomfortable feeling—you know that little thing crawling up your spine—that’s because the contract is broken. All of a sudden you have to take care of them. They’re not taking care of you, and it makes you uncomfortable. That’s not what an audience wants.

ET: A comedy club couldn’t have been a very healthy place to be before anti-smoking laws kicked in.

SE: It used to be horrible because I’ve never been a smoker, and they always sat upfront. In the old days, in my youth, I used to sometimes do six, seven shows a night, and by the end of the night everything would stink. Your hair, your clothes. I’d get home, take my clothes off, and immediately put them in a plastic bag. I wouldn’t even put them in the hamper because they were just so smelly and disgusting. I would feel like I just couldn’t breathe. I’m sure I have second-hand smoke damage. There came a point when I stopped doing clubs because of that. Now it’s a pleasure, it really is.

ET: You incorporate your life and family, including your mom, into your standup act. Tell me about your mother and food.

SE: You walk into the house, and the first thing you hear is, “Do you want something to eat?” Three minutes later, “You want something to eat?” “No.” Two minutes after that, “You sure you don’t want something?” She’s not happy unless she’s feeding you. It’s a Jewish mother thing. It’s just non-stop, food cures everything. Food is your entire social life. The amount of food at any given holiday is outrageous. I remember once it was Thanksgiving, and everybody was out of town so there were just six of us. I walked into the kitchen and she was making two 20-pound turkeys for six people.

ET: Yet, despite the food, you apparently were a happy kid and are a confident, secure person. We’re examining the health benefits of laughter in this issue, and it seems many comics were drawn to humor to overcome very difficult upbringings. That wasn’t the case with you.

SE: No, not particularly. You’re either funny or you’re not. You see babies or toddlers, and some of them are just funny kids. I think as a kid I was a funny kid, and I realized the power of it. I made people laugh, and then everybody seemed joyful and happy. I used to make my grandmother laugh; that was my favorite thing. Somehow I just instinctively saw that comedy had a lot of power and you got positive feedback.

ET: The night I saw your standup, the theme of the show was “I am now my mom.” You confuse your kids’ favorite bands, for example, the way your mom confused the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

SE: In many ways I’m not like my mom. My mom is now 82 and in decent health but has struggles. This hurts her and that hurts her. My mother never exercised a day in her life, and I think that’s the kiss of death. I think exercise is so important, even if you just stretch 10 minutes a day to keep your body mobile. One thing about having this broken ankle was the lack of mobility. I’ve been ready to kill somebody, because I walk, I go, I move.

Exercise is another area where you conserve energy. I don’t believe in exercise where you spend so much energy that you’re just wasted and exhausted. I’ve been doing yoga since I was 16, pre-yoga craze, a very young age when I was first starting to sense what my body was as a woman. But I’ve never been an aerobics person or a big cardiovascular person. I’ve always done much more of a stretch, alignment body thing to keep in shape and always stayed in really great shape. In that way I’m not like my mother, and I think that maybe it’s a generation thing. There was a whole group of women in that generation that I think were suffering from a mild depression their entire adult lives because their lives weren’t completely fulfilled. Even though my mother was a teacher I still think she didn’t really do what she wanted to do.

ET: You’re also not like your mom because, despite the attention she put on food as you grew up, you have succeeded at breaking that chain now that you’re a parent.

SE: Well they still eat a lot of junk, believe me, they’re teenagers. They’re girls so they’ll say, “I’m not having dinner, I’m dieting,” and then they’ll be bingeing at midnight. I changed what we kept in the house. Jim used to buy chips and cookies and ice cream; it’s not in the house anymore. So when we go get ice cream, it’s a treat. I also make salads with fresh dressing, as opposed to just some bottled garbage, so they taste the difference.

ET: You no doubt use humor, too.

SE: I use humor in everything. I don’t know how not to use it. It’s my world view. It’s my religion.

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