Comedian Susie Essman, best known for her portrayal of the profanity-laced character Susie Green, which she played for eight seasons on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO, performed at a dinner show on June 13 celebrating the 40th anniversary of North Shore Towers in Floral Park.
To watch Susie Essman perform, one would never think the Bronx-born stand-up comedian had anything else in mind as she was growing up.
“I never really wanted to be a stand-up comic when I was a kid. It wasn’t on my radar,” she said. “I wanted to be a comedic actress from the age of, I don’t know, 5, a Broadway musical comedy actress.”
It’s natural to think someone who makes their living being funny came from a funny family, but on paper — as the saying goes — with a father who was an internist and a mother who taught Russian language, frivolity would seem to be wanting in Essman’s childhood setting.
“It was a family with a good sense of humor. Let’s put it that way,” she said. “My father was not funny, but he thought he was. When I was 5, I remember my parents brought home “The 2000 Year Old Man” album. I used to play that over and over again. They had all the Elaine May and Mike Nichols records and I used to listen to those all the time. They always took me to see Broadway shows and things like that. It wasn’t a funny family per se, but there was a sense of humor there.”
By high school, Essman focused her acting itch toward being more of a comedic sketch artist in the Carol Burnett mode, “but I never did anything about it,” she confessed.
Despite her desires, Essman wasn’t a theater major in college. She attended SUNY Purchase and in her own words was “intimidated by theater majors.” After graduation, she moved to Manhattan and finally followed her dream, taking acting classes.
It was several years before the comedian even set foot in a comedy club and that was through the urging of her workmates. The year was 1983 at a place called Mostly Magic on Carmine Street in the Village: “When I was 28 years old, everybody that I worked with at the restaurant talked me into getting up at an open mic…and I did. But it still never occurred to me to be a comic.”
Fortunately, the thought did occur to a couple of comedy club impresarios who were in attendance that fateful evening.
“There were these two guys there, Paul Herzik and Burt Levitz; they were opening up this comedy club in the Village called Comedy U on University and 13th Street,” Essman said. “They said, ‘We really like you; will you come work at our club?’ I never thought anything about it. Three months later, they called me. ‘The club is open; do you want to come down here and work; come down and do 10 minutes.’ Like an idiot, I said ‘Yeah, sure.’”
Those 10 minutes turned into many performances. The young owners loved Essman and she became a staple of the club: “They had this women’s night on Thursdays and I met all these other female comics; there was a lot of camaraderie. For the first six months, I only worked there, but it was only after three that I thought, ‘All right this is what I was born to do.’”
According to the comedian, her forthright approach was not discovered as much as being a part of her personality from a young age.
“I was always the kid in class that would say what everyone else was afraid to say. I was always a big mouth. And I was never taught, so much, to respect authority,” she confessed with a laugh. “My father was always kind of a rebellious guy. I picked that up from him. I was always the truth teller. Kids would always come over to me and be like, ‘see if we can get this done today from the teacher.’ I was not afraid to say anything. I think more than being funny as a kid, I was more of a big mouth.”
Ironically, the fearless persona Essman developed in her stand-up routine resulted from sheer unbridled terror. “When you start doing stand-up, you need to develop your persona. For me, it was probably defensiveness, because it’s really scary up there when you don’t know what you’re doing. And in the beginning, you don’t know what you’re doing. The only way to do stand-up is to do it in front of strangers.”
This take-no-prisoners attack mode served Essman well as Susie Green, the profanity-laced character she played for eight seasons on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO. But it has had a weird side effect off-screen, when Essman meets fans, who expect her to scream profanity at them.
“I see sometimes that they’re visibly disappointed when I’m gracious and nice,” she revealed. “It’s hilarious! That’s not me it’s an acting job that I do; I play that character on TV. I see them get visibly disappointed — their faces drop. ‘Sorry.’”
Essman has kept busy since the show went of the air in 2011. Lately, she’s guest-starred on an episode of “Law and Order: SVU,” “Broad City” on Comedy Central and “Weird Loners” on FOX. And throughout, she’s continued to perform stand-up. Her book, “What Would Susie Say?,” recently went into paperback.
When asked her favorite source material, she laughed: “My kids… and my mother. I would say she’s number one; she’s been there since day one. She never disappoints.”
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