If, as a respectable, suburban Jewish mother of four grown-up children, men regularly came up to you in the street and begged you to scream at them, “Go f*** yourself”, would you feel like you had made it as a international icon of Jewish womanhood?
Susie Essman does, and she is not wrong. Her towering, terrifying portrayal of the — how shall I put it? — somewhat combative Susie Greene in the Larry David sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm has taken her — relatively late in life — from jobbing New York stand-up comedian to a star of world standing.
Essman has played the ball-breaking, foul-mouthed but much-loved Yiddishe momma in eight series of Curb, with rumours always bubbling of a ninth to come. Her bullying of both her fat TV husband, talent manager Jeff (played by Jeff Garlin) and of his fictional client, Larry David (who confusingly kind of plays himself) amuses and embarrasses men, especially Jewish men.
In Susie, I always imagine, at least 50 per cent of us see our wives, while even more see our own klutz-ishness in the blundering of Jeff and Larry, who invariably deserve what they get from Susie, if not in quite such strong measure.
Susie Greene is a glorious comedy creation. There is rarely seen pilot of Curb without her and it does not quite work — almost like Fawlty Towers would be without Sybil Fawlty. It is remarkable how a great comedy can often hinge on a relatively minor character.
The first thing I learned when I had lunch with Essman in New York recently – the excuse being that she is doing a one-off corporate gig in London next week — was that the Gorgon that is Susie Greene was her invention rather than Larry David’s.
She explains the genesis of the show, and with it the role. She had known Larry David since they were stand-ups on the New York circuit in the 1980s, but had heard little from him since he went to Los Angeles to create Seinfeld and then Curb. She did read for the role of Elaine in Seinfeld but felt that David’s choice, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was always more suited to the part.
“So I hadn’t seen him in years,” Essman explains. “Then he called me up and said: ‘I have a part for you in this new HBO series’. I said: “Great — you want to send me a script?’ He said: ‘There’s no script. You’re going to play Jeff Garlin’s wife’. I said: ‘OK, Jeff’s a friend of mine’. Then he said: ‘There’s also no money’. So I thought: ‘OK, I’ll do it for whatever the minimum day rate is. Larry’s a genius — there’s nobody with a better comedy brain. It’ll be good’, and I flew to LA and did it.”
Playing the part without a script did not trouble her. “We’re comedians — we can work it out as we go along.” And being told little other than the story outline and that she was Jeff’s wife gave her a chance to make her own monster.
“We never once discussed the character of Susie Greene. Not once, ever. The only thing he said in the first scene we did, where I had to shout at Jeff was: “I want you to rip Jeff a new a**hole’. And I thought: ‘OK, I’ve been in relationships before — I could do this’.
“We did a run-through, and Larry kept pulling me aside and saying: ‘Go bigger, go bigger’. Eventually I was going bigger and bigger, but he wanted more and he said: ‘Make fun of Jeff’s fat’. I said: ‘I don’t want to make fun of what people look like. It’s not Jeff’s fault — he’s my friend’, and Larry said: ‘He knows you’re acting, try it’. So that’s when I first called him a fat f*** , and the genie was out of the bottle.”
How did her friend react? “There was a flicker in his eyes, and I felt bad. And even now, people ask Jeff how he feels when my character calls him that and he says: ‘No, Susie Essman doesn’t treat me that way. We’re all very close friends’.”
The rest of the Susie Greene character, she says, “just came out” as, with series after series, the show got more popular.
“I just got this idea of Susie and I saw how the first house we happened to be using was decorated and imagined how she’d dress and how she’d have this whole sense of herself, how she’d be so secure in her opinions. I’m not, I’m totally insecure and I question everything. But I don’t want to play myself, I want to play a character. So I created this character that dresses outlandishly but thinks she has the greatest taste in the world.
“Larry got what I was doing and then he started writing around what had developed. It was a dialogue of the unconscious and he started writing me in more and more. And the only direction I ever get from Larry is ‘turn it up’ or, ‘turn it down’. It usually takes six to seven takes to get a scene right. Then we’ll do it again, and sometimes I’ll save a little morsel in my head to throw to them, but we never plan ahead what we’re going to say.”
Curb, as she recounts, was never anything like the well-oiled — and accordingly bland — machine that is the average American network sitcom. “It was all quite slapdash. There was no contract, no security, no trailers and the sets kept changing — we just did it in people’s houses where we could. Larry doesn’t care about continuity as long as it’s funny.” But she recognises that it was the greatest break anyone could have in their career — to go, as she says, straight into “the funniest comedy ever”.
So which relative, I had to wonder, was Susie based on, since Essman is manifestly a good-natured, thoughtful woman who says she has only ever had one “Susie Greene moment” with each of her four step-children when they were teenagers? (She lives in upstate New York with her husband of 10 years, Jimmy Harder, who is in commercial real estate, and his kids.)
This daughter of academics — father a doctor, mother, a professor of Russian — who was destined to be an urban planner says Susie Greene was an amalgam of several of her childhood friends’ mothers, plus an adored grandmother in the Bronx and her card-playing cronies.
“But she’s also original,” Essman adds. “She’s complex. She’s very loyal — you don’t do anything against her daughter. But she’s also loyal to Larry. She always forgives him for ruining her dinner parties and invites him back the next week in hope. That dynamic has just grown between us. We’re family.
“The thing about Susie Greene is that she’s so universal. I travel all over the world and so many people relate to her. Men say she’s exactly like their wives, whether they are black women, Hispanic women, Midwestern goyim. I just tell the men: ‘I’m so sorry’.