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“Everyone Knows a Leon”: The Freestyle Brilliance of J.B. Smoove, the Secret Weapon of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’

Most people know Smoove as Leon Black, his most famous creation. But there’s a lot to his story, which includes 30 years in stand-up, proximity to hip-hop greatness, and playing defense against Ray Allen.

Pablo Iglesias

In the final minutes of the fourth quarter, a seemingly insurmountable 13-point lead evaporates into a tense, one-possession battle. It’s crunch time at the 2019 NBA Celebrity All-Star Game. The “Home Team” faces humiliating collapse; a lockdown defender is necessary to preserve the victory. Glancing toward the end of the bench, coach Dawn Staley knows that only one viable option remains: Put J.B. Smoove back in the goddamned game.

“I’m like [Dennis] Rodman,” is how the comedian and Curb Your Enthusiasm star explains his defensive technique. “I get under your nerves. I annoy you. I bug you. Sometimes, I pull your pants down. I don’t care. I cheat.”

We’re at Q’s Billiard Club in Brentwood in early March—prime Larry and Leon terrain—and the plan is for us to shoot a game of pool. But before anyone can rack it up or I can ask a single question, Smoove launches into an epic saga about his near-death experience trying to thwart a Ray Allen corner 3.

“So I get back in the game, and I’m on Ray, right?” Smoove drops his 6-foot-3 frame into a spidery defensive crouch. “I’d already stolen the ball from him once. I chalked that to my to-do list: steal the ball from a legend!”

Smoove is dripped out in a pregame fit that you wear for the TNT cameras to catch you entering the arena. A rakishly angled, camel-colored, Borsalino hat. His crisp, pink dress shirt is offset by a powder blue necktie; his pants are East Hampton white, and his shoes are a tan suede. There’s a diamond stud in his left ear, beaded bracelets jangling around his wrist, and rectangular designer shades shielding his eyes. We’re as sartorially far as possible from the do-rags and tank tops sported by his most famous alter ego.

It’s not yet noon, but Smoove is in storyteller beast mode, charged by a vodka and Red Bull, ratcheting his voice from disgusted “We will NOT lose” chagrin to high-pitched “OOOHHH, I-will-get-in-that-ass, Ray Allen” resolve. He’s nominally retelling this anecdote to explain why he had to postpone filming his scenes on Season 10 of Curb, but also because J.B. Smoove isn’t about to sit and wait for you to ask him about what it’s like to work with LD.

It’s entirely one thing to watch Smoove on television, where he’s made millions laugh since he made his small-screen debut in the first season of Def Comedy Jam in 1992. But there’s something entrancing about watching the show from a foot away. It’s like sitting in orchestra seats as Gustavo Dudamel whirls his baton into invisible waves of sound and color, watching from the mat as Simone Biles turns flesh and bone into a blur of lightspeed backflips, or marveling courtside circa 2006 as Allen Iverson turns Antonio Daniels’s ankles into ash. Smoove is all bug-out tics and subtle vocal modulations, full-body eye rolls and scornful tongue clucks, exaggerated imitations and beveled tilts of the head. His face is elongated and ovoid, DMX as a Hanna-Barbera hound dog, capable of conveying both bewildered naivete and a hustler’s swagger. A maestro of comic mugging. A bulging-eyed Buster Keaton embodying the ethos of “Bring Da Ruckus.”

With the 10th season of Curb, which wraps this Sunday, the 54-year-old comic has staked his claim to the crown of the funniest person in America (or unquestionably the best comic duo alongside “Long Ball Larry,” a nickname Smoove coined, which has become a running joke throughout the show’s past five seasons).

If this sounds hyperbolic, just ask his costar Richard Lewis, the chronically skeptical comic legend, who has shared a stage with practically every single brilliant stand-up of the last half-century.

“When I first saw a tape of J.B., it gave me flashbacks to when I was in college and decided to smoke opium and listen to a Jimi Hendrix album. The opium didn’t work, but the Hendrix did,” Lewis says. “I’d never heard anything like it, and that’s what I felt when I first heard J.B. Where did this guy come from? It felt outer space like Jimi, so unique and hilarious that I knew he was destined to become an icon. He’s one of the funniest comedians and comedic actors of my lifetime, and he’s got a look and swag that goes with his genius—and I don’t use that word lightly.”

There it is. But maybe this is getting ahead of ourselves. Time is ticking away, Ray Allen has the ball, and J.B. is stuck to him like $64 cologne. But this is Jesus Shuttlesworth, a two-time champ, a Hall of Famer, and arguably the greatest shooter of all time. This can’t end well. “I jumped maaad early. When I was coming down, he was coming up and his shoulder caught me in the rib.”

As Smoove says this, he makes a “blouaaheeah” noise that sounds like a cross between a deflating basketball and KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police” bleat. “All the air came out, but I kept playing,” Smoove continues, shaking and baking from side to side as though powered by plutonium. “I’m a tough-ass New Yorker. I stayed in the goddamn game. I said ‘Fuck it, that’s that playground shit. Yo’ ass can’t breathe, but you better not punk the fuck out right now!’”

Final Score: 82-80. Advantage, Smoove. But this is where the drama begins. Smoove spends the next 10 minutes breaking down all the All-Star Weekend revelry done in spite of the crippling pain. The day party, where he replicates the pop-and-lock dance battles and crumping flails in this empty pool hall. (“You’d be surprised what a motherfucker can do on two Motrins.”) The slam dunk contest, the Sunday All-Star Game, and a full improvised monologue at the Legends Brunch. All is well until he nearly collapses on the airplane home.

Upon touching down in L.A., the doctor orders him to get an X-ray, which reveals a collapsed lung, which came courtesy of Ray Allen’s shouldering. This triggers two emergency room trips, with the second requiring 11 days in the hospital, with a valve strapped to his back to help drain the fluid drowning his pulmonary system.

“The needle was this big,” Smoove makes a machete-sized estimate to describe the operation. “I thought I was about to pass out. It’s like UFC, when they get that fucking whole leg around you and they choke the shit out you. You gotta tap your shoulder to be like, ‘I’m good, playboy. I’m good.’ UFC rules, baby!”

By now, you might have intuited some semantic resemblances between Leon Black and J.B. Smoove. And sure, as Smoove has frequently said, there’s a good deal of J.B. in Leon, but there’s no Leon in J.B. Let’s start with the obvious differences: J.B. is a vegan, a college graduate (he studied graphic design and engineering at Norfolk State), and boasts an André 3000 on ComicView stylistic flair. He’s a father and has been married since 2007 to the singer Shahidah Omar. For someone as antic and quick to entertain, Smoove seems messianically patient and temperamentally suited to the long view. In Leon, he has created a fool, in the Shakespearean sense: the truth-telling jester slicing through bullshit social norms with an outsider’s sensibility. Leon might be uneducated, but he’s shrewd. He knows how to get over, but he’s far from a con man. He embodies the strength of street wisdom; Leon, the proverbial honest man living outside the law (except the time he was tapping his best friend Alton’s wife).

“Everyone knows a Leon,” Smoove explains. With the collapsed lung chronicle finished, he sits down at a stool, absentmindedly swirling his drink. “Leon isn’t necessarily a black dude; it doesn’t even matter what color he is. He’s just a metaphor for that fucking dude. What makes it so wild is once I get into my wardrobe, I just become him.”

Most people are aware that Curb Your Enthusiasm is improvised, but less clear on what exactly that means. For the most part, there’s a narrative through line for each season (e.g., the Seinfeld reunion in Season 7, the Fatwa in Season 9, etc.). Each episode outline runs about seven or eight pages but contains no dialogue because Larry insists on the element of surprise. Rehearsals are done strictly for blocking (where each character is going to stand and move around in each scene, etc). But for Smoove, it’s always a one-take freestyle. After his scenes are finished, he leaves the set, so that he knows only as much as Leon would (and so he can appreciate the show as a fan when the episode airs). During his first two seasons on Curb, Smoove didn’t even read the plot summaries.

“I felt like if I fucking read it, I would overthink it. I wouldn’t be able to be authentic,” Smoove says. “For the two or three days before a shoot, I’d just be reciting what I’m going to say. I want to have a natural reaction to whatever Larry’s doing. It needs to be off the fucking dome.”

This is where the depth of Smoove’s gift comes into sharpest focus. Because there is never a bad time to watch Curb (but especially during a quarantine), it’s worth re-assessing Smoove’s performances in the context of the fact that not only is nothing written down, it’s all completely spontaneous. For the last dozen years, Smoove’s been operating at a Lil Wayne circa ’06 level of heat check. From his first appearance in the second episode of Season 6, Leon Black is fully formed: from trademark head tilt to beltless bathrobe, a wardrobe detail Smoove insisted on.

“I told them, get rid of the fucking belt. I just wanna keep holding it like this,” Smoove pantomimes the closing of his bathrobe. “There’s just something funny about it.”

Comedy often boils down to whether you’re laughing at or with someone. In the case of Leon, it’s frequently neither. It is just funny in a molecular, autonomic sense. Take that first encounter between Larry and Leon, in which Leon keeps pronouncing ejaculate like it’s “a-jacka-lit.” A frustrated Larry switches to a whispered “cum,” with Leon countering “What kind of cum?,” sparking an ontological debate about how “cum is not cum.” Leon indignantly retorts that it couldn’t be him because he brings “da ruckus to the ladies.” It’s an Abbott and Costello routine that abruptly veers into Wu-Tang. Smoove’s slight lisp somehow exaggerates the absurdity of the routine, which ends with them both confused about which Andy Griffith character Leon is not masturbating to. It is perfect.

“Once Larry and J.B. started talking about ejaculate, it was very clear that we weren’t going to let this guy walk out the door,” says Jeff Schaffer, Curb’s showrunner. “He came in for the audition and sat in the chair as Leon, and we were immediately laughing. He had the part before he ever opened his mouth. Once he opened his mouth, we were all like, ‘He’s incredible.’”

But Curb history is replete with one-off cameos and recurring characters. Smoove became a Talmudic addition in “Lefty Call,” the fourth episode of Season 6, which both Schaffer and Smoove highlighted as one of Leon’s finest moments. You may know it as the “Get in that Ass” rant, which they both say exists in several different improvised forms, each equally hilarious, giving us hope that one day they might open up the vault and it’ll be like the Neil Young archives but with lighter fluid, a pack of matches, and burning that asshole down.

The most obvious direct analogy for Leon on Curb is Tracy Morgan’s Tracy Jordan from 30 Rock, but that comparison feels facile. Jordan is little more than an absurdist caricature of the infamously chaotic actor, who also happens to be a New York native, SNL vet, and a Def Comedy Jam alumnus. He is the clown—deceptively intelligent, sure—but vain, insecure, and crazy. The show introduces him shirtless in tighty-whities, waving a lightsaber while running through the Cross-Bronx Expressway screaming “I am a Jedi!” By contrast, Leon is intensely real. The next-door neighbor who isn’t a drug dealer, but definitely knows how to get you whatever you need. If someone jacks your Joe Pepitone jersey, he’s the guy you take to get it back. He’s not quite a fixer, but he can do that in a pinch. He’s the guy for whom the rules are a mere recommendation—who always finds a way, even if it ain’t pretty.

“Leon’s the guy who gives you good bad advice, which is always good because there is fucked-up shit out there and you need a way to get out of that bullshit. He knows how to move,” Smoove says, taking a swig of his drink. “Leon is the condom in your wallet and you never fucking know when you’re gonna need it.”

Leon’s function on Curb extends much deeper than crack-up one-liners and the inherent comedy that comes from Odd Couple pairings between Larry and anyone vaguely hip-hop (see also: Killa, Krazee-Eyez). Leon opens Larry up to a world that he didn’t know existed and would never encounter amid his wealthy white Brentwood bubble. The axiomatic need to “get in that ass” would never have occurred to either the actual or fictionalized Larry. Leon is a study of contrasts: both constantly scheming and always chilling (in a “Lampin” gold necklace). He’s the wild card, guaranteed to juice up any staid premise. He is the Kramer of Curb, albeit crossed with the Bobby Digital–era RZA (and maybe a splash of ODB). Lanky eccentrics with no clear origin and no source of income, proverbial house guests that never leave, who usher the protagonists into scenarios they would never otherwise entertain.

But unlike Kramer and Jordan, who exist alongside Leon in a holy sitcom trinity, Smoove operates within a choose-your-own-adventure framework. This affords him a power to fundamentally alter the plot of the show based on his own comic whim. In “The Therapists” episode (Season 6, Episode 9), Leon’s idea to pose as a mugger overpowered by Larry was a spur-of-the-moment decision.

“Every one of those scenes has the option of Leon going against Larry or having his back,” Smoove says. “I choose on the fly based on what I’m gonna get the most mileage out of. Now they both have their place. Having his back means ‘You right, Larry. Fuck that dude? He’s a fucking asshole. We should go over there and fuck them up.’”

If you ask Smoove about his training, he immediately credits an improv class taken in 1992 that helped him discover his on-stage persona. And certainly, the quarter century of extemporaneous stand-up monologues supplied an invaluable background. But on some level, this is just a meticulously honed gift. You can take all the Groundlings courses in the catalog, but you will never come up with a bit like the Groat’s Disease tête-à-tête with Michael Richards (“Danny Duberstein is good at two things; that’s math and fucking”).

The eldest of three brothers, Smoove was born Jerry Brooks in Plymouth, North Carolina. The family moved to New York shortly after his birth, eventually settling in Mt. Vernon’s Levister Towers housing projects, around the same time that the Westchester County suburb incubated Heavy D, Pete Rock, and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. When he was 15, Smoove’s father, who worked installing light fixtures, died from complications from diabetes. The future comic attributes his sense of humor to his mother, and says it saved him during that period of turmoil. He was a promising wide receiver but got kicked off the football team for joking around too much. In the 11th grade, he remembers dressing for a Halloween party as “The Unknown Comic” from The Gong Show and spending the whole night alone, dancing on tables and knocking drinks out of people’s hands.

“Everyone was like, ‘Who is this fucking asshole with the paper bag over his head?!’” he says, laughing. “That shit made me laugh because it was unpredictable. That’s always been me, man.”

After college in Virginia, he returned to New York City and worked a variety of gigs, from graphic design to perfume formulation to selling fire extinguishers door-to-door. By then, he’d already become obsessed with stand-up, honing his craft at the Uptown Comedy Club in Harlem, which helped nurture the careers of nearly every young black comic of his generation. The name J.B. Smoove came from the alias (J. Smoove) he’d assumed during a brief stint as a hip-hop dancer. If there’s an obvious underlying side of J.B. that informs Leon, it’s his love for hip-hop. The mere mention prompts an immediate, uninterrupted “Losing My Edge”–style oratory that needs to be seen unabridged in order to be fully processed:

“Let me tell you something, bruh. Let me tell you something about hip-hop. I was everywhere. You fucking name it, I was there. I was at the party where the fucking Disco 3 changed their name to the Fat Boys, I was there that night at Roseland. I was at the fucking Fun House when Jekyll & Hyde was performing. You fucking name it, I was there. The Larry Love—la-la Larry Love—I was at that concert. I was at the fucking Tougher Than Leather concert at Madison Square Garden where they was like, ‘Who’s house? Run’s house.’ I had my fucking Levi’s in between my mattress for a whole fucking week with starch on the motherfucker to make sure my crease was fucking perfect. I had my fat-lace fucking Pumas laid all out. You name it. I was fucking there. Fucking UTFO. Oh, you name any rap group back in the day, I was there at their inception. That was the ’80s yo!”

From there, it was the tedium of the grind. Def Comedy Jam and ComicView helped him tour, but most of his ’90s were spent on the road driving back and forth between gigs. New York to Tallahassee, Atlanta to North Carolina, and all points in between (“This is a very specific journey, you’ve got to be willing to be punched in the face sometimes”). In Living Color passed on him. He landed a recurring role on MTV’s short-lived The Lyricist Lounge Show and some guest spots on HBO’s The Chris Rock Show but nothing that fully rewarded his skill set. Rock and Louis C.K. were fans though, which led to his first major role in Pootie Tang. So was Cedric the Entertainer, who recruited him as a cast member for his Fox sketch show, Cedric the Entertainer Presents. It lasted only a season.

The big break was supposed to be SNL. In 2003, Smoove made the final cut, but was passed over for Kenan Thompson and Finesse Mitchell. A few days later, the producers from the late-night institution called to dangle a consolation prize: a spot as a staff writer. Nearly a decade older than most of the freshman class, Smoove leapt at the opportunity. And like David’s experience two decades earlier, Smoove’s SNL stint was relatively undistinguished. His biggest role was probably playing JJ in a Good Times skit. But rather than sulk over his inability to leverage it for stardom, Smoove hustled relentlessly, writing sketches, serving as the audience warm-up comic, penning monologues, and regularly guest-writing for Conan O’Brien (then still at NBC).

“I knew it would look good on my résumé,” Smoove says. “If you go into SNL saying, ‘This is my dream, this what I always fucking wanted to do,’ that’ll fuck you up for the rest of your life. You’re going to blame everything on not making it as a cast member … or on Lorne, or the head writers, or the cast members. But for me, it was wonderful. To be on TV? On air? I had fucking four goddamned checks when I was doing it. That’s some New York shit.”

After the 2006 season, the producers declined to renew Smoove’s contract. He was 40, unemployed, and decided to fire his agents. After spending the previous decade shuttling between New York and L.A., it’s easy to imagine someone with his talent being bitter or resentful at a fickle industry. To compound it all, his friend Oji Pierce, the producer of the 1995 Montell Jordan hit “This Is How We Do It,” died from a rare lung disease. They’d become close a few years earlier on Cedric the Entertainer Presents, where Pierce was the music supervisor.

While attending the funeral in L.A., Smoove received the call to audition for Curb. If he hadn’t been dropped by SNL, he would’ve been under contract and unable to take the life-altering role. Instead, he appeared in character as Leon and threatened to slap Larry within a few minutes of meeting him. The producers later admitted that they didn’t even know what the role really was until that moment.

“No matter what happens, you have to find some way to erase your failures,” Smoove says. “I had a bad memory for losses because I know that life is short. We haven’t got a lot of time to achieve things, and if you sit there and dwell on some shit that ain’t gonna matter in a month or two, it’ll fuck your shit up.”

Of course, Curb changed everything. Since joining the cast in 2007, he’s been practically ubiquitous in American pop culture: roles in over a dozen movies (Hall Pass, We Bought a Zoo, a voice in The Smurfs 2) and constant television work (roles on network sitcoms ’Til Death and The Millers, and alongside Kevin Hart on his reality parody Real Husbands of Hollywood). Smoove received his own Comedy Central special and has made millions doing commercials for everyone, from Crown Royal to Nike to McDonald’s. He continues to consistently tour as a stand-up, but his work on Curb is what will enshrine him in the pantheon.

In this most recent season, Leon has transcended his origins as a tolerated houseguest to become an essential linchpin to Larry’s schemes. When David needs a manager for his spite store, Latte Larry’s? Leon steps up and gets shit handled. When Mocha Joe hits Larry with “It’s all about the beans” taunts, Leon finds them. In fact, the season opens with Larry and Leon wandering through Brentwood, snapping selfie sticks and ruminating on coloration. (“You’re like a porridge,” he tells Larry, “a cream of wheat, a farina.”) There are too many other canonical lines: “Do you think the maid will charge for me this massage?”; “This right here? It’s called tappin’ hours. There are no late-night yacht clubs or garage sales, older white men should not be out”; “If I lived in the fuckin’ ’40s, and some girl said ‘Poop-poop-a-doop,’ I know I’m tappin’ that ass.”

For as much as the vernacular has stayed consistent, Smoove’s Leon has genuinely evolved. “Mature” might be a stretch, but he’s become a respectable member of society—and like Jay-Z on Vol.3…, he never had to take the do-rag off. If Dave Chappelle is the definitive sketch comic of his generation and Chris Rock is the best pure stand-up, Smoove’s Leon might be the funniest scene-for-scene television character of the last dozen years. If Smoove hasn’t yet received one of the 43 Emmy nominations bestowed upon Curb, it’s only because the work seems so effortless—even more evidence of its genius.

“When I worked at SNL, we’d always come in on Monday, and for the first 20 minutes of work, we’d sit there laughing our asses off about how much we loved this fucking show,” Smoove says. “I had no idea I’d end up on it. One day my wife said, ‘You’re going to be on Curb. I can see you and Larry together. That’s how the universe works. You put energy into something and somehow it ends up driving you towards where you’re supposed to be. It’s almost like Larry and Leon met in another life and their souls reconnected. Because when you tolerate somebody, that means in another life you’d had dealt with them because otherwise you’re gonna throw Leon the fuck out of that house!”

By now, it’s lunchtime and several people have begun to trickle into the billiards hall. One of Smoove’s friends has arrived, and there are professional obligations to handle. But Smoove has been regaling me with his life story for the last 90 minutes, and now he wants to sneak in a game of pool before the next appointment. Goodbyes are said, pleasantries exchanged, etc. But as I start to walk out, I can’t help but hear a series of loud “whoops” and “bows.” I turn around and Smoove has sunk a few shoots in a row. He’s getting in that ass and letting his friend know. And I know it’s J.B., but at least for a second or two, I can’t help but think that it sounds an awful lot like Leon.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.

Jeff Weiss is the founder and editor of POW. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and GQ.

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