Fresh off the finale of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, J.B. Smoove, who plays Leon in the comedy, chatted with us about his latest book, The Book of Leon, whether he thinks Larry David will write another season of Curb, and what he thinks of the current state of comedy.
Your character, Leon, was hilariously funny this past season of Curb. We get more of him in your latest book, but how did he get the way he is? Do you actually know people like Leon?
J.B. SMOOVE: Oh yeah, I know a few Leons, a few guys who haven’t found themselves yet. They know who they are, and they’re really confident, but they see more in themselves than people see in them. They just survive on the hustle. They got your back as long as you have their back. I think that Leon character would find a way to survive through anything. He has the power of hustle, the gift of gab. They always say if there were a nuclear apocalypse, that the roaches are the only things that will survive, but you’ll see all these roaches crawling and then you’ll see a baby pool turned upside down and it will move a little bit, and then you’d see Leon climb out from under that baby pool and say, “Phew! That was a close one!”
When do you think we'll get Season 10 of Curb in? I need my Leon fix.
JS: I don’t know. We are at the mercy of Larry David. If he does, I don’t think he’ll wait five years again, that’s for sure. I told Larry, "You're old as hell. You can’t be taking five-year breaks between seasons. You’re too old to be screwing around like that." I hope he does do another one. I said, "Larry, you can’t be playing around with my money. You got to do it. Don’t wait until I'm doing something else to talk about Curb. I got to keep my checks rolling in."
I also told him to stop on a good number of seasons because you want your box set to look great on the shelf. I told him, "Don’t pick no goofy number where the box looks stupid on the shelf." It could be his lucky number, it could be a number he loves, but I told him, "Make sure it’s a round number so when you’re at Target or Best Buy, the box looks good on their shelves."
Were you at all tempted to pull out that old Pootie Tang script and read from it when you first auditioned for Larry David?
JS: [Laughs] That movie is something else! It is a cult classic, and people love that movie, man. I remember I told Chris Rock years ago, cause I always get asked if there’ll be a Pootie Tang 2, to do a Pootie Tang 3 and just skip two because people will just be saying, "Holy cow, they did a part two? I didn’t even see part two." That'll promote Pootie Tang 3 for free! I don’t know if there's a movie that has ever done that before, but I told him Pootie Tang 3 would be hilarious.
How did you even find out about this role?
JS: Ya know, once in a while, you have to do a purge of people surrounding you. It’s kind of like going through your cell phone and eliminating people and names of people you don’t really mess with anymore. I ended up doing that and got rid of my agent. I told myself if I fire my agent, I’m probably not going back to Saturday Night Live because he had a bunch of people over there, and if you don’t have those people over there to speak for you, it’s kind of like severing ties. When they didn’t renew me at SNL, I was free as a bird. But then a buddy of mine passed away in LA, whose funeral I had to go to. So the one day I went to LA, I went to my new agent's office and told him I was only in town for one day. He ended up having an audition for me, and when I asked him what it was for, he told me Curb Your Enthusiasm.
So I went straight over there, I did the audition, and I swung for the fences. I always believe in going in high energy and just to allow them to pull you back. I hate going to auditions low and then have to turn on the character. I always go in the room as the character. So I walked into the room as who I thought Leon was. You get to see his moves, you see his mannerisms, and I jumped right into it. We just laughed a lot and had a great time. I said, "If anybody else gets that role, well God bless him because Larry and I had a great time." Once I left, I went to do the show, went back on the road, and ended up getting a phone call from my agent saying I got Curb and I was like, "Wow." I still believe things have to move out of the way for new things to come in. Even if it’s a manual or automatic change, I think a change is a change, and a change opened the space up, and that space had to be filled with something. If I had gotten renewed for SNL, I would not have been in LA to have heard about the audition.
Is there ever a moment on stage that's almost perfect, but you're afraid of pushing because you don't want to go too far?
JS: I think we as comedians are in a funny place right now being too PC or too blunt. It’s really thinking out loud. Thinking out loud allows you to find this little safe place as a standup. I still feel the standup comedian is the only one who can relate the world in a better form. Some people don't like the news. It's become too depressing for them mixed in with their own problems. I think the comedian should be allowed to think out loud without it being a personal thing and keep it as a joke. It’s meant to keep the sting off and not add to it, and that’s with the comedian's role has been all these years. Some folks don’t watch the real news, and they wait till 11:30 p.m. for the late night guy's take on the world. Some people like that better. We have to find a way now to navigate through all that.
There is a place on stage sometimes where we have to edit, and some comedians would rather perform. Comedy itself was built on that. A lot of comics went to jail for saying things that they couldn’t say. Do you know how many comedians in those years were taken off stages for saying things they shouldn't have said? There’s a lot of struggle through that for the comedian, and to be right back where we were years ago is weird. It's a weird place to be at for comedy to be so PC and to be taken so literally. Really? You’re taking this how I really feel? It’s just a joke. It’s structured so that we can talk about it, it's structured so people can feel in common in the room, and a lot of times you have to pick and choose what to complain about also. A lot of comedians take their real pain and turn into something funny. We are allowed to take our real pain and make light of it to make ourselves feel better, but we’re not allowed to address issues in the real world without repercussions? It’s such a weird place to be at.
Comedian J.B. Smoove takes the stage at Carolines in NYC on January 25, 26, and 27. For information about tickets, visit carolines.com.
Photography by: Photography courtesy J.B. Smoove