INTERVIEW: Susie Essman Stays Red Hot

The popular star discusses returning to the stage in Williamstown’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers, her work on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and her stand-up comedy career.

Susie Essman
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Susie Essman
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

Susie Essman has a busy summer ahead of her. For the first time in 35 years, the potty-mouthed comic, best known for her work on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, will be taking on live theater at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where she will be performing in Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers, July 11-22, followed by a special benefit performance of her stand-up show on July 23.

Then on August 20, she brings her comedic chops to the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, before headlining the Catskills Benefit Comedy Concert at the Belleayre Music Festival on August 25. Essman recently spoke with TheaterMania about her return to theater, her role on Curb Your Enthusiasm and what the Catskills mean to her.

THEATERMANIA: What is it like to return to theater after having been away for so long?
SUSIE ESSMAN: I’m a little scared, but I’m looking forward to it. The rehearsals are exciting too, because that’s something that I don’t normally do in my life. I like to stretch. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, we improvise. This character, Elaine, is really complicated. I’ve been thinking about her for a while now, and just trying to figure out who she is.

TM: In which ways is Elaine a complicated character?
SE: On the surface she’s acerbic and sarcastic, and she’s kind of quick-witted with her quips. But I think she’s a deeply unhappy woman, and she uses her comedy defensively. Gee, I don’t know what that’s like! (Laughs) I’m trying to find the layers underneath because I can always deliver a funny line, but I want her to be a three-dimensional character. What attracted me to the play in the first place is that it’s not really dated. These characters are not just cartoon characters. Neil Simon is so brilliant the way he does that. He puts these characters together that have so much depth and so many layers but it’s not apparent. The way he constructs the scenes reminds me of Larry David [the creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm], because Larry is one of the greatest story tellers that has ever lived.

TM: Do you still enjoy playing Susie on Curb Your Enthusiasm?
SE: Yes. Susie Greene is much more complex than people think she is. They just think it’s all the cursing and the yelling. But I think what people respond to in her is her total and complete comfort with her anger, and her ability to live in her skin. A lot of women have trouble with that. Larry hits a chord for a similar reason. He’s saying what a lot of people want to say, but are afraid to. You always want to find a character that resonates in some way. That character is not me in any way, but that resonates with a piece of me. I never want to play myself, since I do that enough in stand-up.

TM: What is the funniest line of yours that fans of Curb say to you in passing?
SE: The most awkward thing happened the other day. People ask me to curse at them all the time, but recently it happened at a wake with the open casket right behind me. It was like, “Ah, I don’t think so.” It’s crazy. I really hate when they start cursing at me at places like Yankee games when there are kids around, and that makes me feel uncomfortable.

TM: Is there any word on the future of the show, which has been on hiatus for a long while?

SE: That’s the most common question I’m asked! I wish I had an answer. Right now Larry’s working on a feature, and he has not said yes, he has not said no. This time he is taking way longer in deciding. But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to do it. I think time’s going to pass and he’s going to miss us. We have so much fun doing that show, and he has a blast doing that show. But I think after eight seasons he just needed a little break.

TM: You are doing this benefit next month for the Catskills Park Resource Foundation. Why is it important to you?

SE: The Catskills holds meaning for me in the sense that when I first started doing stand-up I used to work at all those famous places, The Concord, Raleigh, the Nevele, and none of them exist anymore. That was where so many great comedians who got their start in those days. Plus, it is such a beautiful region. It was very hard hit lately — this past winter they had no snow, so all the ski resorts suffered. Hurricane Irene really did a number on the area and lot of people also lost their homes. People don’t really know about that, and that’s why I’m doing that benefit.

TM: You’re also doing stand-up at Williamstown and Bay Street. How do you decide which kind of comedy is appropriate for each venue?

SE: That’s always an issue. I really don’t know until I step on stage and I can feel it out. I change my act all the time for everything, which is one of the most anxiety provoking things imaginable. Every audience is different. I always tell people it’s “For Mature Audiences Only,” so I don’t really worry about that. You want to bring your kids? That’s your problem.

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