Famous for his portrayal of Leon, a fast-talking friend of Larry David on the HBO hit Curb Your Enthusiasm
, comedian JB Smoove started his career decades ago.
Smoove, who just published his new book, The Book of Leon: Philosophy of a Fool
, began his career back in 1999 when he moved to Los Angeles and landed a recurring role on MTV’s The Lyricist Lounge Show
. He also starred opposite Adam Sandler in Mr. Deeds
After a season as a cast member on the sketch comedy program Cedric the Entertainer Presents
, he worked as a writer on Saturday Night Live
before landing the Curb Your Enthusiasm
Smoove, who performs at the Improv on Dec. 8 and 9, spoke to us via phone from Los Angeles.
“I’m up to everything, anything and all things possible,” he says when we ask him what’s he up to at the moment. “I’m in my backyard, doing my thing.”
You grew up in the projects. Talk about what that was like.
It’s like life. It’s the same as any other place. It’s friends and families. It’s good times and bad times. I made a lot of friends and lasting memories. Every city in America has rough neighborhoods and good neighborhoods. It doesn’t make a difference. People are people.
Did you always have a good sense of humor?
Yes. Whether or not it would be taken to the stage or exploded in a wider opportunity is a whole different thing. I’ve been lucky to hang out with funny people who are hilariously funny but would never step on a stage and do it. That goes from high school to college. Everyone I’ve always hung out with had personality and that fueled my drive. I’m almost 30 years into doing comedy. That’s crazy to think about. I quit my day job the day my daughter was born. She just turned 23. It’s crazy, man.
You started writing jokes while selling T-shirts, right?
Yeah, man. I went to school for graphic design and engineering drafting. I went to a two-year college and got a two-year Associate’s degree. I came back home and worked for the T-shirt company. I started doing standup after work three or four times a week. The day my daughter was born, I quit the damn day job. I just started working. I still have my art background. I design my own T-shirts. I always love creative things. I like old cars and put those creative ideas into my cars and my T-shirts and hats and accessories. I’m a business man. I don’t play around.
How’d you start working on SNL?
I went in as a cast member. I auditioned twice. I forgot what year, but it was the same year as Tracy Morgan and that whole crew. I auditioned then, and I auditioned again in 2004. I made it to the test and was one of the last three people. I didn’t make cast. A week later, they called and asked me to be a writer. I went there as a writer and had to put that New York hustle in there. I was in monologues and sketches. I did warm up for the show for two years. Conan O’Brien was downstairs and I probably did Conan 11 times.
How did Larry David first approach you about Curb Your Enthusiasm?
A bunch of things put me in position to be on the show. I was watching Curb one day and thought I wanted to be on the show. My wife said she could see me on the show. I went to L.A. for a buddy’s funeral. I didn’t get renewed on SNL
, but I was working on Curb
less than two months after that. You have to release something for something to come in.
You auditioned to be on Curb Your Enthusiasm. What was that like?
It was awesome. With most places, they put you on tape. I walked into the audition and you improv directly with Larry. He wants to see how you work together. I always like to come into the room as a character. I never like to come in as JB and then turn on the character. I come in as the character so you can see his mannerisms. I go in as the character. Me and Larry hit it off immediately. I figured that because I love improve. I love allowing two characters to blossom and open up. It all worked out really great. I got a chance to be on my favorite show.
What do you bring to the show?
I think my character grounds Larry’s character. I make it a point to agree to disagree or I try to help his ass out. It depends on the situation. If Larry is coming at me with some craziness, sometimes I’ll jump on the crazy train. But sometimes, I go the opposite direction. If he comes to me with a problem he wants to resolve, I try to give him my good-bad advice. It’s an improv show but I never worry about what I’ll say. I like to look into his eyes and feel what his character is going one. And then I think of the craziest shit I can.
What is one of your favorite Curb episodes?
Oh man, there are so many good ones. I love the New York season. I think that’s funny as shit. I love the glasses episode when I’m wearing the damn glasses and Larry thinks I’m smart because of that. Those are my two favorites.
What did you think of Larry’s holocaust jokes on SNL?
That’s like JB telling a slave joke. If he wasn’t Jewish, I would say, “Oh shit.” Comedians have always found a way of laughing through pain. I think there’s a way of dealing with stuff. We take bad and reprocess it and re-present it to you in a manageable form. If you had the real news every day, life would be miserable. You need those late-night guys. It takes the sting off the world. It’s not like slavery or the holocaust happened yesterday. It’s just a comedian’s take on taking the sting off the world. Without us, it would be a sad place.
What was it like to write your new book, The Book of Leon: Philosophy of a Fool?
Oh man, it was so fun. I wrote this book in the pocket, which means I kept it really loose and free. It’s an easy read. It’s an easy read. When you read the book, you feel like you’re Larry. Leon ain’t wrong; he just ain’t right. It’ a great way to looking at life. I am not telling you to live like he tells you. His takes on life is outside the box. I love him. He hasn’t found his lane yet, but I think people can relate to him. People love him. I wanted to write it to coincide with the new season. We hit a fun lane there with the book. I played around with different avenues of how the book should be written, and I think we did a great job with anchoring it in and figuring out who Leon is. That was the fun part of writing this damn book.
Why’d you wear all white for the picture that’s on the book's cover?
I wanted it to be angelic. We had several different ideas for the cover. On the front, it would show him looking into the sky. You don’t know what he’s looking at. The back was supposed to be the back of Leon but you see what he’s looking at. It’s a cloud shaped like a naked woman. I did love that he wanted to be somewhat biblical in his mind. He’s giving you some shit about real life and how to bring that ruckus in some way. He also feels like what’s he saying makes sense. He makes some good points in some of the chapters. Sometimes, he goes sideways. He’s not going to fix the world in just one book. He’ll need two or three more books. I chose white because it looks great on his brown skin. I chose a cool ass white doo rag too.
What will the standup shows here be like?
There’s nothing in the world like a JB Smoove show. I’ve been doing standup for damn near 30 years. People new to the game only know me from Curb. I have tons of branded content, and my standup has been my bread and butter. It’s consistently JB Smoove all these years. I break every rule. It’s a circus and it’s fun and it’s being outspoken. It’s all these great things that people love about a comedy show. I’m not political, but I talk about crazy things that make me laugh. I like to make that show my world. I improv a lot. You can see me two or three times in a row and you’ll never see the same show. I always say that when JB Smoove comes to town, it’s like the circus comes to town. I don’t have any goddamned elephants or tight rope walkers, but it’s just as dangerous.