‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’s’ JB Smoove Teases a Leon Spin-Off: ‘We’ve Only Scratched the Surface’
Larry David’s right-hand man talks about the iconic show’s return and his new self-help book ‘The Book of Leon.’
A few days after Curb Your Enthusiasm’s new season premiere aired, JB Smoove calls The Daily Beast from his vacation in the Bahamas. “I’m taking the time out to talk to you,” he says. “I could be anywhere. I could be waist-deep in a hot tub or a jacuzzi or something like that, but no!”
Talking on the phone with Smoove feels a lot like talking to Leon Black, the character he started playing during Curb’s sixth season. As a late, but crucial addition to the cast, Smoove still says “they” instead of “we” when describing the show, despite the fact that he has now been involved for more than a decade.
Smoove, a veteran stand-up comedian who spent three years writing for Saturday Night Live in the early 2000s, has been in character as Leon from day one. As he told James Andrew Miller for his excellent Origins podcast about his audition, Smoove entered the room as Leon and promptly told Larry David, “I don’t know Larry, I might fuck around and slap you in the face.” Larry looked around the room and said, “Who the hell is this guy?” And the rest is history.
This week, The Book of Leon, a “good-bad advice” hardcover “written by” Leon Black that Smoove hopes will help readers “keep the ruckus alive” in their own lives, goes on sale. And whether or not there is a 10th season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Smoove wants to keep Leon in his life, even teasing the possibility of a prequel spin-off. “There’s so many unanswered questions about Leon,” he tells us. “Who was this dude before he came to Larry’s door?”
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
How does it feel to have Curb Your Enthusiasm back in the world?
Man, it’s amazing, man. We’re all excited to be back. It’s kind of like that countdown, almost like Christmas or your birthday. You know it’s coming up and you sit there, waiting, waiting, waiting. Once we finished the season, they gave us an air date, it became that thing where you sit there and wait it out and time passes by and people approach you all the time and ask, are you excited about it? Some people live their life by this. They’ve been waiting six years for this! That last week, the countdown, people started going crazy.
What kind of feedback have you been getting from fans so far?
People love it, man, they’re loving it. I try to create these little moments within my character that people love. I kind of already know what they love about Leon, so I try to create these little pockets. Like “get in that ass, Larry,” all those cool little phrases Leon comes up with. And now we have “lampin’” which is from late ’80s, early ’90s. “Cold Lampin’” by Public Enemy and Flavor Flav. It became a lost word, a lost phrase, so Leon’s bringing it back to the forefront, why not? Now everybody’s lampin’. Lampin’ is back, brother!
You can take credit for that.
Yeah, man, lampin’ is back. And then, you know, this social media thing has changed everything. Back when Curb was originally on, this wasn’t the monster it is now. Now, oh my god, I’m getting tweets all day! People who DVR it, they’re watching it. People got busy schedules so people catch up. Even today, someone sent me, “I’m lampin’ today instead of going to work.” So it’s fun, man, and it’s good to have the crew back together again.
In the premiere, we got to see you as Larry’s assistant, which is a new role for Leon. He seems to think the whole fatwa thing is your fault because you didn’t relay Jeff’s message. What do you think?
Nah, Larry can’t blame that shit on me! Larry did that shit. He can’t blame it on me. He went up there and did his thing. That wasn’t my fault!
I’ve seen some reviews of the new season that criticize it for being politically incorrect about issues like same-sex marriage or people with disabilities. What do you make of those criticisms?
Man, let me tell you something, man. This is the issue that we have as comedians. It is the nature of the beast. But I find it to be this thing we are going through as comedians where the world has changed, dramatically. I get it, as a comedian, I totally get it. That’s why when you see Dave Chappelle’s Radio City show, he had everybody’s cellphone confiscated. Because you want this safe zone where you can just have fun. And involve everybody in the conversation. If you exclude people, you’ve got a problem. If you include people, you’ve got a problem. If you ignore people, they get offended because they feel like they aren’t part of anything.
I did a comedy show one time and there was a guy in a wheelchair after the show. He said, “Man, how come you don’t have no wheelchair jokes, man?” I was like, wow. I have to give the guy a hug, because I was like, you are a brave individual to want to be included. He felt more embarrassed sitting there in my eyesight and noticing that comedians were editing their material because they didn’t want to offend him. He felt left out, like, if I’m making you uncomfortable as a comedian, then I shouldn’t even be here. You can’t pick and choose what to laugh at all the time. Genuine stuff that people laugh at can come across as bullying or whatever like that. And that happens all the time on social media. Or, hell, our president! Shit. He’s a bit of a bully sometimes. But I do believe people like to be included in things that are funny to them.
Yeah, I mean Curb is definitely inclusive in that sense.
If Curb came back and it wasn’t the Curb you remember, you would be so disappointed. You’d say, “Oh, they’re being safe. Oh no, this is not the Curb I’d thought it would be! I need to be refreshed. I need Curb to be able to be in the moment with where the world is. Oh no, they pulled back! Oh, this is terrible!” Folks would feel disappointed, because they would feel like I had an outlet for something that is real and felt like they took chances and did some things. If they didn’t take those chances, it wouldn’t be Curb Your Enthusiasm.
I think a lot of people also expected the show to take on President Trump in some way, whether in the premiere or later on. Is that something we can expect at all?
I don’t think Curb has ever been political in that sense. I think that’s what makes the show so refreshing. It’s a show that has really found a way to make light of the cringe-worthy moments, all these little nuances about the world that are funny. Larry has this mind where he doesn’t have to go for the quick, easy laugh. That’s what makes it relatable is that it’s not political. It’s just whatever Larry feels like is funny and there’s so many buttons to push in the show. You can go any direction you want to go with these characters and it’s always going to be fun. People love Susie, they want to see Susie curse Larry out. They want to see Leon, they want to see Funkhouser pop up, they want to see Richard Lewis pop up. They have so many tools and so many weapons at their disposal that it doesn’t have to go political, ever. It never has to mention the president, it never has to mention anything going on in the world directly. That’s the cool thing about what it is. I’m not political at all. I can barely keep up with all this shit that goes on. And I think it puts the show in a different light when you do that. There’s enough people covering the political stuff. The late-night guys cover it extensively. I don’t think we need a show like Curb to tackle that.
Once you experienced the freedom of getting to improvise and essentially write your own dialogue for this show, did it make more traditional acting more frustrating for you?
I think it’s the opposite, actually. I think what happens is people see you on Curb Your Enthusiasm and they want you to come in and do what you do. That’s a great place to be. I’ve been blessed that I get to work with people who actually allow me to take control of the character and make the character my own. Now the playing field is even wider for an improv actor. Because you can come in there and do it as written and then they’ll say, “I’m going to let you get loose on the last five takes.” And you’ll say, “Ooh, beautiful.”
When I started doing stand-up—I’m talking about late ’80s, early ’90s—I was already improvising in my stand-up. And then I took an improv course because I wanted to fine-tune what I wanted to do on stage. And years later, I ended up on Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is an amazing process. If you get me in there, if you let me have fun with the character, I will write a whole new movie, a whole new scene for you, just off the top of my head. I’ve been lucky, all the movies I’ve done, they’ve actually allowed me to have fun. It’s kind of like, if you bring Jordan to your team, you don’t bring Jordan to pass the ball, you bring Jordan to shoot that ball.
So I also want to ask you about your new book, The Book of Leon, which you wrote as Leon Black instead of as yourself. Why did you want to write the book in character?
I was going to do a JB Smoove book, that was my initial idea. And then I was like, man, I wish I could do a Leon book, but I knew that I didn’t own the character. HBO owns the character. Then I was on set with Larry one day and I was telling him I was writing a book. He said, “You know what? You should write a Leon book. People would love that.” And I was like, “You know, man, I’ve been thinking about that the whole time, but I didn’t think I could do it.” He said, “Yeah, you could do it. Why not?” I could write a JB Smoove book anytime, but this is a different type of book. I felt like Leon’s voice should be heard. The way folks love how Leon speaks to Larry, I wanted to write the book in a tone where it’s as though I’m talking to you like I’m talking to Larry. I really had to put my doo rag on, put my flip-flops on, and channel Leon when I sat down to write this book because I thought I would get the most out of it by thinking how I think on set. What’s the first thing that Leon would say? I wanted it to feel like a first-time writer, like Leon was writing the book himself. Even how the book starts. “Fuck a Forward” is so stupid, but it’s so Leon. I just felt like his good-bad advice would help keep the ruckus alive.
What do you think regular people can learn from Leon?
Oh, they could definitely learn a lot! They had this term back in the day called, “You could learn a lot from a dummy.” And you can learn a lot from a dummy! I feel like it’s good, sound advice. Even in the foreword, he’s like, I’m not telling you to do any of this shit. It ain’t for everybody, this shit ain’t for everybody. If you have ladies, if you have wives, you can’t do none of this shit. So if you feel like this book isn’t for you, then don’t take any of this advice. Because I don’t want to be the one to fuck your life up. That’s what Leon thinks. But there is a wide population out there that lives free and they want to know how to bring that ruckus. And how to live their life a certain goddamn way, until they settle the fuck down and get themselves off the market.
When you got cast on Curb back in 2007, did you ever think you’d still be playing this character 10 years later, let alone writing a book as him?
I did not. You know what? I always try to go into whatever opportunity I have at 200 percent. I always come into auditions as high as possible. Not high, but with my energy level as high as possible. You plant these seeds as an actor, you plant these seeds as a comedian. And you want to impress, you want to give them what they love about you. I’m going to have to ask Larry one day, what were their intentions for my character? But I do know that me and Larry hit it off from the first day, from the audition process. We hit it off so well that they really wanted to explore that even more. So when my family left [in Season 7] and Leon stayed, I felt like that was an opportunity for Larry and I to really have some fun and really open the character up. I think we’ve only scratched the surface. Maybe Leon will spin off. Maybe that’ll be my next job, who knows? I could see Leon in a spin-off. I could see him being one of the only characters on this show to spin off from this show. There’s so many unanswered questions about Leon. You don’t where the hell he came from. If I did a spin-off of Leon, I would love to do a prequel. Who was this dude before he came to Larry’s door and knocked on that door? Who was that guy before he said, “Is Loretta here?” Where was his apartment at? How was he living? Who was that guy?
When you were on the Today show with the rest of the cast, everyone said you are the easiest to crack in terms of spoilers. So what is one crazy thing Leon gets into later in the season?
Oh, I can’t give you nothing! Let me tell you, I really honestly watch the show as a fan. I do my scenes and I fucking leave. Because I don’t want see it. I barely read the outline. I only read the outline just to figure out what I’m supposed to do. Because I really love to be surprised by what happens. I don’t know what happens. I don’t know shit. And I like that. I’m telling you, I was a really big Curb fan before I got on the show. And me getting on that show was an absolute blessing, man. To be able to be on my favorite show and still be on my favorite show? I really watch it as a true fan of the show. I like to watch it for the first time and laugh my ass off like the true fan I’ve always been.