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Susie Essman’s Un-Curbable Comedy

As ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ enters its 11th season, Essman’s Susie Greene isn’t just one of the HBO show’s most reliable sources of comic relief. She’s Larry’s undefeated final boss.

Warner Bros./HBO/Ringer illustration

As the longtime high-octane housewife Susie Greene in the HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, the actress and comedian Susie Essman zooms in and out of scenes with the eye-catching, bird-flipping verve of a fancy, temperamental sports car changing lanes. Gaudy and gutsy, she honks and purrs and blows past stop signs, never bothering with the rearview mirror. Tightly coiled from head to soul, she needs almost constant maintenance: She’s a real piece of work, as they say. And it requires only the slightest nudge to rev Susie up instantly from zero to 60 million miles per hour. Like that time, in Season 3 of Curb, when it takes her all of 10 seconds to accelerate from gracefully offering a tour of her new home to her best frenemy—played by the show’s misanthropic creator Larry David—to gracing Larry with a now familiar refrain: “Get the fuck out of my house!!!!”

After 20 years and 10 seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which debuted at the turn of the millennium and is set to premiere its 11th season this Sunday, there’s a whole lot more where that came from, a veritable L.A. freeway’s worth of “You four-eyed fuck!!!”s and “You car wash cunt!!!”s all cutting each other off. In a series full of comedians, Susie is one of the most reliable sources of comic relief. While just about everyone in Curb Your Enthusiasm can be, at one point or another, almost pathologically stubborn, Susie has an even more powerful trait that makes her the perfect foil for Larry: Just like him, she is totally shameless.

“They have a lot of similarities in that way,” says Essman, speaking by phone from New York after just having returned back home from the show’s red-carpet premiere in L.A. “They both take no prisoners, and they both speak their mind, and do not care about the consequences.” In Essman’s estimation, viewers connect with Larry because he speaks their mind, saying the things they can’t, and “you know, he’s almost always right,” Essman says. “Susie, I think the thing that people respond to the most about her is her complete and total comfort with her anger. I think people always think, ‘Oh, it’s the cursing, it’s the language.’ But I don’t think that’s what it is. I think, especially with women, it’s her comfort with her anger. And she never apologizes.”

In Season 2, Susie looms on the driveway in an animal-print vest, glaring from behind her sunglasses at two dissembling desperados (Larry and his manager/her husband Jeff, played by Jeff Garlin) while spaghetti Western duel music plays. “The kid is home hysterical because her doll, Judy, has been decapitated!!!!” she screams. “Stop scratching your balls and tell me where it is!!!” In Season 4, she opens her trunk to show Larry her fabulous new venture: a bunch of bedazzled NFL logo sweaters that Larry admits are not his cup of tea. “You know what? Fuck you and fuck your tea,” she replies.

She throws Larry’s BlackBerry into the sea, does detective work over a found pair of some other woman’s undies, and threatens to beat the shit out of Larry with a piece of wood—and that’s all just in the seventh season alone. And then there’s that time in Season 8, when Susie’s philandering husband Jeff foolishly remarks that if the two of them were ever to divorce—contra all their more miserable, litigious friends, such as Larry—he’d make sure to do so with a dignified 50/50-split.

“You take whatever 50 percent you want, I’ll take what’s left,” Jeff offers, thinking he’s being … chivalrous? efficient? … and it’s a lot like watching the goat being lowered into the raptor cage in Jurassic Park. Susie wastes exactly zero beats before responding. “What are you, fucking kidding me?” she says. “You think we’re gonna have a nice divorce if we ever get divorced? No fucking way! I’m taking you for everything you have, mister. I’m taking your balls and I’m thumbtacking them to the wall. You’re gonna get nothing out of it. You mention the D-word once in your fucking life, you’ll rue the day you ever met me!” For most people, this would be the outburst of a lifetime. For Susie Greene, it’s just lunch. In a show that is basically all about Larry’s antiheroic journey from one personal conflict to the next, Susie remains the man’s worthiest adversary after all these years, his (mostly!) undefeated final boss.

Essman had known David for about a decade and a half when he called her up and asked her to join his show. A New York native, she had made a name for herself on the 1980s New York comedy circuit, emceeing at Catch a Rising Star and spinning in the same orbits as Joy Behar (still her best friend), Gilbert Gottfried (with whom she still has long, cackling phone conversations), and David, who used to sit next to her at the bar and complain about his love life, stories she’d later recognize when they came from the mouth of Seinfeld’s George Costanza.

When Sally Field began producing and starring in Punchline, a 1988 movie about a comedienne, “I was her coach, her stand-up comedy coach,” says Essman, who also had a small role as a hairdresser. “It was my first job, a thrill to me.” She remembers hitting up comedy clubs with Field’s costar, Tom Hanks, at the time, as he tried his hand at stand-up to research his role while Essman worked on her own new material. Over the years, she and Behar were cast in a TV spinoff of the film Baby Boom that lasted a season; she got gigs on Johnny Carson and appeared in stand-up specials on VH1 and HBO.

Essman would go on to work in a variety of mediums and formats. In the early aughts, she was part of the cast of Crank Yankers on Comedy Central, playing a profane elderly woman. “When we would call places in the South, it would really work well because they were always so polite on the phone for a really long time,” Essman says. “Then you’d call Brooklyn and they’d be like, ‘Fuck you.’” In 2008, she voiced the character of Mittens the cat in the animated film Bolt, a gig she recalled, during a live podcast with her pal Gilbert Gottfried, as featuring a scene in which Mittens was being chased and Essman had to breathe heavily, and it all sounded like a porno. (Good practice for this scene in Curb!) And she was part of one of the most satisfying pieces of casting in recent memory, playing the mother of Ilana Glazer on Broad City. Essman says she was moved by the work of Glazer and her creative partner Abbi Jacobson. “They did everything,” she says. “They directed, they edited, they produced. When I was coming up, being able to do all that—it just wasn’t on the menu. Even what I was doing, as a female in stand-up comedy, was off the menu.”

But in terms of Essman’s career’s trajectory, her biggest break arguably came in 1999, when she was participating in a rather raunchy roast of Jerry Stiller at the Friars Club in 1999 for Comedy Central. Watching her performance, David realized she’d be perfect as the volatile and vulgar Susie Greene in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Essman told the Los Angeles Times that when he reached out to tell her so, she asked him to send along a script. “There’s no script,” David told her. “There’s no money. You have to fly yourself out and put yourself up.” She was ultimately able to negotiate the travel reimbursement, at least.

In its earliest seasons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which evolved out of a 1999 one-hour Larry David HBO special, was a sort of experimental distant cousin to HBO’s hits The Sopranos and Sex and the City. It was “slapdash,” as Essman puts it, and made on a shoestring budget. The cast had no trailers; the crew had no porta-potties. The makeup guy had to moonlight as the hair guy, too. Essman doesn’t remember there being any sort of in-person premiere event. She was employed not as a series regular but as a day player, a setup that somehow lasted years: it wasn’t until Season 8 (!) in 2011 that Essman officially joined the main cast—at which point, Curb then went on a six-year hiatus. (Cue the tuba music.) She likes to joke that she’s been with her on-screen husband, Jeff, for longer than she’s been with her real-life husband, Jim. Like so much else on the series, the observation is funny because it’s true.

When Essman filmed one of her very first Curb scenes, for the show’s second episode, David directed her to be meaner to Jeff, and then meaner still. Finally, he told her what he really wanted—for Susie to go after Jeff’s weight. “Call him a fat fuck or something like that,” Essman recalled David saying in her 2009 book, What Would Susie Say: Bullsh*t Wisdom About Love, Life and Comedy. “That was all it took,” Essman wrote. “I was unleashed, and the genie never returned to the bottle.” And thus, a modern on-screen legend began to grant our every wish.

“Every scene that we do is just stuff that we make up,” Essman says to me. “Every single one. It’s really the most fun way to work, for me, as a comic.” She’s not exaggerating. Take, for example, a scene from the show’s upcoming season, in which Susie is hosting a dinner party in her home and gets annoyed when one of her guests—I’ll give you one guess—won’t make eye contact during a table-wide cheers. Here’s how it goes down in the episode:

SUSIE: To friendship!
LARRY: ...
SUSIE: Larry, you can’t look me in the eye and toast?
LARRY: Look you in the eye?
SUSIE: Yeah.
LARRY: Towards what end?
SUSIE: Because that’s what people do. They look each other in the eye.
LARRY: What is this, a seance? We’re raising people from the dead? C’mon, gimme a break.
SUSIE: [Her face curdling, her volume rising.] No. We’re connecting, and having some intimacy!!!!!!!
LARRY: I don’t need to connect, OK? I’m connected.
SUSIE: [Eyes narrowing.] What are you afraid of?
LARRY: What does it do?
SUSIE: You’re saying hello, I see you, I acknowledge you, I connect with you …
LARRY AND JEFF: [In perfect unison, while staring deep into one another’s eyes, in a mocking, falsetto, singsong tone that will absolutely be referenced around Thanksgiving 2021 dinner tables near you this fall.] Helloooo! I seeeeee you! I acknooooowledge you! I connnnnnect with you!

It’s a very funny exchange, and it all begins with Essman’s needling interpretation of what was written in the Curb “script,” which is really more like a bare-bones plot outline than a traditional outlay of dialogue. In an appearance two weeks ago on The Today Show, Essman recalled what it had actually said on the page: “Susie does a toast, Larry doesn’t look her in the eye, and Susie takes him to task.”

On the phone with me, she sounds almost dreamy when she talks about the idiosyncratic, iterative process. “I think for all of us, it’s just so thrilling to be able to work this way, because you really are writing the script in your own way,” she says. “There’s nothing like having to make it up in the moment.” Guest stars, she said, are rarely even handed the broad outline, for fear that they’ll lie awake in bed the night before they come to set, dreaming up “you know, bad sitcom lines,” Essman says. But more often than not, when a scene falls apart during shooting, it’s David’s fault: He’s known for being the first, and easiest, to break into laughter.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Essman says, “because Larry has the greatest laugh, and he’s so enjoying himself. So to me, I love making him laugh, and luckily I make him laugh—otherwise, I don’t know if I would have had this job for 20 years. I just, you know, I take the good with the bad. Yeah, he ruined some of my best takes, but that’s fine. I got more in the tank.”

Going into the show’s 11th season, Essman is particularly excited about a story line involving guest star Tracey Ullman (with whom she describes working as “one of the joys of my life”) and about the nature of the show’s broad narrative arcs. “I think this might be one of the most complex story lines the show’s ever had,” Essman says of the latest Curb, which is set in a sort of post-pandemic landscape but still acknowledges the existence of COVID-19.

Often, when Essman is asked about her influences for her character, she mentions some classmates from her past. “There were these girls I went to high school with,” she told Bob Saget on his podcast, “and they would be so average. Everything about them would be average and dull. And yet they were so secure! They must have had mothers who really loved them or something. They were so secure, and so absolutely certain in their rightness about everything.” Essman, a neurotic and overanalyzing comedian by nature, couldn’t relate. “I was always just like, ‘Wow, what’s that like?’” she told the Los Angeles Times. “And I think that I tapped into that when I was putting Susie Greene together, that’s why she dresses the way she dresses. She believes she’s got the greatest taste in the entire world.”

A mama bear wearing a choker. A tiptoeing high-ponytailed failed tooth fairy in Pucci. An incorrigible soul screaming obscenities over a water ring on a coffee table as giant yellow peace signs dangle from her earlobes. The character of Susie Greene literally wears many hats. And she has an ageless essence that spans many generations of women, physically and psychically: In addition to teenaged mean girls, Essman’s treatment of Susie also clearly finds inspiration in women of a more certain age. She communicated her vision to the Curb Your Enthusiasm wardrobe designer as “kind of like the Russian women in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn,” she recalled in her book. “I told her to go to the Back Room at Loehmann’s.”

And decades ago, when Essman appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air in 1992, host Terry Gross played a clip from Essman’s old stand-up act. In the routine, Essman mimics her aunt alternating back and forth between speaking in dulcet tones with a girlfriend over the phone and screaming at her lousy good-for-nothing husband in the next room in a combative register that now scans as extremely proto-Susie. “I said it was my aunt and uncle, but it was really my mother,” Essman admits to me now. “She did have multiple personalities she could switch on and off.” So, too, does Susie, the ur-bickerer, the only person who has as much argumentative endurance as Larry does. “Their behavior never changes because that’s comedy,” Essman says. “In comedy you don’t grow and learn, and you just keep on making the same mistakes over and over again.”

If you can’t spot the Susie at your dinner table, you may be the Susie. But for the rest of us, there’s an escapist appeal to watching a human so unafraid of straight-up marinating in anger, so comfortable luxuriating within a dispute—whether that dispute is about liquored-up 7-year-olds; potentially murderous surprise parties; oyster shuckers; cheating realtors; or the “ugly section” at a restaurant. “I just know, anecdotally, how many women have come up to me and told me, you know, how great that is for them to see, how much they love it, how it’s great that I’m screaming and yelling at my husband,” Essman says, laughing. “So I’m breaking up marriages all across America.” (No word on whether any of these potential divorcees have slung threats about thumbtacks.) There is a barometric nature to Susie’s outbursts: They are so electric, so thunderous, that often they actually clear the air.

For all the hate between her and Larry (and her and Jeff!) there is also an almost unconditional love. “She and Larry will have some huge fight and she’ll ban him and kick him out,” Essman says. “And then the next day she’ll be like, ‘Hey Lar! What’s up?’” Some women forgive but never forget. Susie Greene forgets almost immediately—but she’ll never forgive.