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The actor: Before J.B. Smoove became known as Larry David’s housemate Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm, he made his name on the stand-up circuit in the early ’90s, appearing on shows like Def Comedy Jam and Short Attention Span Theater. Since he started acting in the late ’90s, he’s had stints on Saturday Night Live, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and Cedric The Entertainer Presents, as well as supporting roles in Everybody Hates Chris and a number of hit movies. Besides playing Leon, Smoove continues to do comedy via his new website, theruckus.com.
Saturday Night Live (2003-2005)—Various characters
Late Night With Conan O’Brien (2003)—Various characters
Cedric The Entertainer Presents (2002-2003)—Various characters
The A.V. Club: You weren’t an official cast member when you were on SNL, right?
J.B. Smoove: I was not a cast member at all, ever. Just a writer, who just happened to be, you know, they stuck me in like a utility guy. They stuck me into little things here and there when they needed it. It would depend on what character it was. They just kinda threw me in there. You know, I went for cast; I was one of the last people chosen between—like, three of us were left. Keenan Thompson, Finesse Mitchell, and myself were the last three who did a NBC test. And those two got it, and I ended up coming back to L.A. Then they called me up to see if I wanted to try writing. I said “Sure, I’ll give writing a try.” I played a bunch of characters, I did a bunch of monologues, I did warm-up on the show, and while I was at NBC, I did a lot of Conan O’Brien’s sketches. So I’ve done more sketches on Conan O’Brien’s show than I did on SNL, actually.
AVC: You wrote for Cedric The Entertainer Presents, so you knew that kind of variety of sketch format pretty well, didn’t you?
JBS: Yeah. I was a cast member of Cedric’s show, and then… I had only known that kind of format exactly, so me working on Cedric was great, because I got a chance to do sketch comedy. I had already done a little bit of sketch stuff on The Chris Rock Show too, so… I was on The Chris Rock Show two or three times. And also, when I went to Cedric, that was kind of like what I wanted to do, was do some sketch, do some film, and that kinda stuff. Everything I ever done, basically, has actually carried over to each other. In some weird way, I was preparing myself for something, whether I knew I was doing it at the time or not. And that’s with everything I’ve ever done.
AVC: With SNL, at some point were you wondering if they were going to put you in the cast?
JBS: You know, even coming in as a writer, my mindset was, “I’m gonna go over here and create some awesome recurring characters, and then they’re gonna turn one of them into a movie, and I’m gonna be as popular as Wayne’s World and Austin Powers and all these different characters that came from the SNL cast.” So I went with that mindset, once I knew I was going in as a writer. I kind of figured that somehow, some way, I would work my way into the cast, hopefully. It didn’t turn out that way, but you know, it was definitely a great experience. I’m kinda happy I got a chance to work both sides of the wall, you know what I mean?
AVC: By acting and writing?
JBS: Yeah. I’m happy I got a chance to do everything over there. I mean, going over there and having four jobs, you can’t ask for anything better than that?
AVC: What were you doing at Conan, as opposed to SNL or Cedric? Was it different?
JBS: Oh yeah. It was definitely different. I mean, it was little sketch stuff, me playing a character, me coming in. The good thing about that is, I’m upstairs basically sitting behind a computer. All the guys down there were friends of Louis CK, and friends of mine that I knew that were writing there. And they found out I was working upstairs, and they were like “Hey, JB Smoove’s upstairs as a writer. We already know him from working with Louis CK on a bunch of his projects, and we already know him anyway from stand-up world and from different things.” They were almost surprised I was upstairs writing, as opposed to me trying to be in front of the camera. So I guess it also comes about one of those things where we got a funny character, we use a funny black guy in this, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] So it was perfect for me, because at one point, I was the only black writer there. So it worked out great. And I got a chance to actually do what I do. And they kind of knew my energy and my character a little bit, so I went down there and they had things just perfect for me. Because they were calling me on my phone. I’ll be at my desk and they’ll call me, “Hey man, you wanna come down do a sketch?” “Hey, I’m in the building. I’ll come down, do a sketch, have some fun, you know, get another paycheck.” It’s just all about the paychecks, man. I came in there with that New York hustle, see. You know, I came in there on the writing side, next thing you know I’m doing monologues, I’m doing warm-up, I’m doing sketches on Conan. For me, it was great, man.
AVC: So SNL’s lack of diversity worked to your advantage?
JBS: Man, I got in there and I put the black on their ass, you know what I mean? I had to get in there… ’Cause you know, I’ll throw out one of Leon’s Leonisms, and then I had to go in there and white it up. “White it up” means I gotta go in there and change gears a little bit and see what they’re working with. [There were] a bunch of white folks over there, so I gotta white it up a little bit, but at the same time, I still gotta be black-ass JB.
AVC: What’s an example of doing that?
JBS: An example is, I come in there, I can apply myself to any situation. I can apply myself to the format of SNL, I can apply myself to the format of Conan, but at the same time, I’m still being JB Smoove. I’m not changing up my style, I’m not changing up how I think, what’s funny to me, my delivery, the way I carry myself. I’m still the nice dude. I’m the same JB, but at the same time, I gotta fit within the mold of what they do over there, so I gotta do it how they do, but I gotta attach my personality and what I do, force-feed it. Sometimes you can make friends, and sometimes you can take friends. Sometimes people want to be friends with you, and you gotta be like, “Okay, I can deal with this person’s personality and be their friend, but not necessarily do I have to change who I am. I’m not gonna change myself to be their friend.” So there’s taking friends, and there’s making friends. Over there, I had to make friends, but at the same time, I gotta take. Because I gotta be aggressive in how I’m moving about over here in this new show. You know, this is a new experience for me.
AVC: You wanted to get noticed.
JBS: Yeah, get noticed. I gotta come on time, I gotta work hard, but at the same time, I gotta be me. I gotta force my sense of humor, my style, my presence, my personality, I gotta force all of that into a circle going into a square. Because I have to learn as well as I have to do what I do. But at same time, I gotta learn so I can be more well-rounded, so I can see how this machine works, this SNL machine, this Conan O’Brien show. So once I know how everything works, I can really apply my personality, and really apply what I do more aggressively. If you go in there too aggressive at the very top, you turn people off. “Well, this guy’s too… he’s doing too much.” If you come in there and you are confident and fun, and people like being around you, you’re already in their head that “Hey, we gotta put this guy in more stuff,” or “We gotta use him more.” You gotta go in there, and you gotta take it. You gotta kick that ass sometimes. You gotta kick ass.
AVC: How long had you been doing stand-up before you started getting acting roles and working in the sketch shows?
JBS: Man, I started doing stand-up in like ’80-something… ’89, something like that. I started doing stand-up in the city after work. I would go downtown and do some stand-up. And then I started to do colleges, started branching out. And then I was on the first season of Def Comedy Jam. I was on the first season of BET’s Comic View. I was on Kamikaze, you know, on MTV. I was on Comedy Central’s Short Attention Span Theater. I was on MTV’s first TV pilot, called Project 2F. I did a lot of “first,” know what I mean? My personality and my style kind of fit what they needed at that time, you know, a fast-talking, loud-mouthed black dude who’s also fun, who can fit in with anybody. I’m like everybody’s friend. I’m one of those dudes. I can be friends with anybody. Any race of person, any personality, I can kind of deal with them. I accept different types of people.
Law & Order (1998)—“Levon”
AVC: Were you the criminal of the week?
JBS: Yeah. It’s me, the criminal of the week. But see, here’s another thing I’ll tell you. When I go in to do a role, I go in with the direct intention of getting more from less. So as I did that character, they actually talked about maybe bringing that character back one day. I always go in there with the intention of turning it up so high that I want to try to get work from work. It’s like word of mouth; it’s like a dude who goes to a strip club and another guy tells him “Hey man, that girl right there, she does great lap dances.” You can make your own referrals, or you can have people refer you. So I go in there with the intention of, you know, showing up on time, having fun with the character, meeting everybody. You know, that’s my whole drive. But that character was fun because it gave me a chance to work on one of my favorite shows, and although it was a crime drama, I came in there as a character, as a dude who these guys always seem to run into. You know, who they all seem to deal with. But it’s like one of those things. I mean, I think everyone’s done at least one episode of Law & Order. [Laughs.] It’s just one of those shows.
AVC: If you’re an actor in New York, it’s almost graduate school.
JBS: Yeah, the proving grounds. You go out there, you do Law & Order, you put it on your résumé, and it’s all good. It’s kind of like being a black extra in the movie Malcolm X, know what I mean? Everybody did. Everybody played an extra in Malcolm X, because they needed so many damn black people. They needed like thousands and thousands of black people to march. And you need all types of black people. It’s kinda like that. [Laughs.] Or a Million Man March movie or something like that, you know what I mean?
Pootie Tang (2001)—“Trucky”
AVC: You’d worked with Louis CK a number of times before Pootie Tang, right?
JBS: I’ve actually done at least five projects with Louis CK. I mean, everything he’s done, from “Tomorrow Night,” which was a short he submitted to one of the festivals, I did that with him. I did several of his movie shorts, of his sketches. Then I worked with him on The Chris Rock Show. I actually moved to L.A.; it’s weird, you live in New York, you move to L.A. It’s like you move to L.A. to go back to New York to work. So my first week in L.A., I did the Comedy Store. I ended up going back to New York to do stand-up on The Chris Rock Show; I was only one of maybe three or four people to ever do stand-up on the show. So I saw Chris at the Comedy Store, ended up coming back to New York to do Chris Rock Show stand-up, came back to L.A., to end up going back to New York again to do Pootie Tang. So it was crazy, man. You really don’t know how this game works. You just kind of go with the flow, and you just keep doing what you do, you know. Pootie Tang was awesome, because I got a chance to work with Louis. And the movie Tomorrow Night that he actually shot, the first movie I was ever in with him, he actually rewrote the film and added a mailman, and I played the mailman. But then when I did Pootie Tang, we were already familiar with each other; it worked out perfect, man, because I got a chance to be Lance’s right hand man, Trucky. That was a fun movie to do. We shot that right in New York, and we had a great time doing that, man. That’s like a cult classic now.
AVC: Louis has said that the movie got away from him when the studios got involved. Did the finished product look like what you thought it would?
JBS: Well you know what, I personally like a director or the creator’s take on everything. Because I think when you have a great idea, the freshness of it, and what makes you excited about it, is the initial idea. Sometimes a project becomes a product of the premise. You know, it’s kind of like throwing out a funny premise in a bar, and you’re all laughing “Aw, shit, that’s hilarious!” But then when you add other pieces to it that you need to get it done, that’s when things start to get diluted. It’s kinda like, yeah, it’s in stages. It’s kinda like a woman going through a period. You know for a week once a month, you know it’s gonna be a little tedious. So you gotta sit there and ride through it a little bit. But when you get control of it again, you know okay, she’s off her period, I’ma get some more. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] It’s kinda like you gotta ride that wave a little bit. But that’s the price you pay for trying to make something successful, and you’re hoping that the people who come on board see your vision in it and you can actually get it done the right way.
It’s like you meet a new girl, and it’s like “Man, she’s beautiful. Man, I love her. She’s hot, we were in the club dancing all night.” But then you start to develop a relationship with her, you’re like “Oh shit.” She leaves the bathroom door open all the time or something stupid, you know what I mean? She can’t cook, she’s a slob, or whatever it is. Somehow, you sit there like, “Fuck. I brought her into this project, into my world, and I don’t like all the moving parts now.” That’s what happens when you get a movie idea. The studios get involved, with other producers. Everyone gets involved in it, and everyone has their two cents. What happens is, you have to gain your points. You gotta build up your rep as a big-time director, your rep as a big-time producer. They don’t trust you. They don’t trust your eye, they don’t trust your vision, they don’t trust your idea, they don’t trust that you know this project and this project is yours, and you know it and you got it. “You guys loved it when I pitched it, you guys loved it when we decided to do this movie, you guys put money into it.” Well, once people dig into their pocket to put money to a project, it’s almost like, not selling your soul, but it’s almost like you have to give up something. That’s the bad part about film and television. You are a product of the people behind it.
AVC: Do you find it interesting that the way Louis does his current show is they just give him a bunch of money and he goes off and does what he wants?
JBS: That’s what I mean by “You have to gain those points, man.” It’s kinda like when I talk about The Ruckus. When I talk about The Ruckus, I mean you have to gain these points throughout your life. You build your Ruckus points. Louis had to build his. That’s why he’s done so many stand-up specials. He had an HBO show. He had different projects. He did all these stand-up specials. He had to build up all this stuff to get to the point where they would say, “Here man, go. You’ve directed, you’ve produced, you’ve done 20 stand-up specials, you’ve done your own show on HBO. Just take this, take this and go. We know your vision, we see who you are, we understand, we get your humor.” Then you are allowed to do what you want to do. You can only do what you do when they allow you to do what the fuck you do, know what I’m saying? But something’s gotta get to that point. It’s like a new boss coming on. It’s like you got a job, but your boss is only gonna allow you certain responsibilities when he’s confident that you can be there and you can represent the company when he’s not there. You can represent the company fine on your own, and he doesn’t have to check on you all the time. He can say “Hey, I know Thompson’s got this shit. I don’t gotta check on him. I trust him as a supervisor. He can do it.” That’s why it’s called a supervisor. Because you are the motherfucker runnin’ shit.
Everybody Hates Chris (2007-2008)—“Manny”
JBS: Love that character. Love Manny, man.
AVC: A lot of people didn’t really appreciate that show until it left the air. What made it different?
JBS: You know what it is? The thing I love about those type of shows, Everybody Hates Chris, The Wonder Years, these are period pieces. Period pieces do well, man. Because it makes people who grew up in that era, it’s like a throwback for you. It’s cool as fuck being a part of a throwback show. It’s kind of like you meet a chick, and she has her clothes off, and she has the old-style bra or some shit like that? You say “Hey, look at that throwback bra.” Some people appreciate that throwback shit. Some people appreciate old cars. Me, I’ll watch a show about a different era because I grew up in that era. Me and Chris Rock are the same age. I grew up in the same era that he did. So everything he’s doing, I understand it. And I appreciate that show for the overall theme of the show. I appreciate everything—the parents, the friends, the dude in the barbershop who can give you words of wisdom. I enjoyed being that character, because I remember that character. I remember that dude in the barbershop who would give you good bad advice. [Laughs.] Good bad advice.
AVC: Like what?
JBS: Like about girls. Advice about how to get better when you’re sick. You know, old remedies and shit like that. “Put some alcohol in a bag and put it on your knee for knee pain” and shit like that. Sometimes a barber became more than just a barber. A barber became your doctor, he became your matchmaker, he became your daddy, he became your brother, everything he could be at that time. A barber’s like a goddamn bartender. A barber and bartender have the same fucking letters in it, because they both do the same shit. They get you right.
AVC: Do you think the show was misplaced on UPN or the CW?
JBS: I think no. I think it was great where it was at. I’ma tell you how a network works. Network doesn’t really understand everything. Even when they say “yes,” they really don’t mean yes. They mean “yes” for whatever they need at that particular time. Now sometimes yes means “Yeah, this is gonna be on for 10 years,” and sometimes yes means “We’re gonna shoot a pilot, and we’re gonna see, because we’re already investing money into holding deals and shit. We’re gonna do a pilot, and that’s gonna be it.” You know what I mean? Sometimes it means “We’re gonna give you six episodes, no matter how good it does. It doesn’t fit what we wanna do, but we already put money into it.” For me, I think the show had the best chance from where it started at on that network, because it got a chance to get done. There was no competition. It didn’t have to fight for much. Sometimes it’s better to go to networks that need programming, as opposed to networks that do programming. Sometimes they need a specific thing to fill a certain slot, and sometimes that’s the best opportunity to take. You get more episodes, you’re guaranteed episodes. You also get a chance to be creative on a show. There’s not so many hands in the pot, telling you how to do it.
It’s weird when you are doing a certain type of show, and you know that the people giving you direction never lived in that era, or are too young to live in that era, or just never experienced Run-DMC, or experienced getting bullied and running home every day, or experienced going to an all-white school as a black guy, or who had a father who penny-pinched every little dime around the house. [Laughs.] Or who had a big younger brother, you know what I mean? Yeah, that’s what made that show great!
AVC: Were there people working on the show who didn’t connect with that experience, or did Chris make sure that everybody who was working on the show had a connection?
JBS: I think everybody on that show was connected to that experience. I’ma tell you how things work, though, man. It’s weird. I think being involved with that show was great. I’ma tell you why, and another thing. The young Chris [Tyler James Williams] on the show, I met him… He came to SNL when I worked there. I wrote a sketch, and we were in it. He was so good in the sketch, I said “Man, you are gonna have your own show one day.” Right? This was like years before Everybody Hates Chris was even thought about. I told his mother, I said, “This little guy is talented. He’s gonna have his own show.” And she said, “I hope so!” Four or five years later, lo and behold, the same little kid plays Chris. Isn’t that amazing? I saw his mom on the show, and she was like, “You said it five years ago that he was gonna have his own show, and he has his own show. You know, I don’t know what you did, but when you said that to him, I guess the stars lined up that he got his own show.”
But everybody on that show… Sometimes pieces come together in weird ways, man. Everybody who Chris knew from The Chris Rock Show, you know, he grabbed a lot of those guys. Because like Chris said, he likes to work, when it’s fun, that’s when you get the best out of every show. When it feels like work, and it feels like pulling teeth, that’s when it’s no longer fun. So me being on The Chris Rock Show doing sketches, me being a friend of his, me doing Pootie Tang with him, you know, Ali LeRoi, one of the producers on the show, all these people are pieces of that show that make that show go. You know, that made it go. That made it stay on the air, yeah.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2007-present)—“Leon”
JBS: Man, I’ma tell you how Leon started. Leon is a weird story, man, and this is all about a journey, and it’s all about [how] you really don’t know how you prepare yourself. I would jump back a little bit. Because the first thing I ever did when I wanted to do stand-up was, I took an improv class at the Improv Comedy Club in New York, just before they closed down. That summer, I took an improv class. Because I wanted to find out who I wanted to be onstage, and my presence onstage. I remember Marty Freeman was the teacher. And I took that class not even thinking remotely connecting that one day I would be on one of the greatest improv shows ever. You know, I just took the improv class just for my stand-up.
What happened was, I was working at SNL in ’04, 5, and 6. Season four of my contract, I didn’t get renewed. So I’m just sitting at home, watching Curb. I mean, we would always talk about Curb before we started writing on SNL, and I loved the show. And I was sitting on the couch one day, me and my fiancée at the time, she’s my wife now, and we were just talking about the show. I’m sitting there laughin’ my ass off at Larry David. I said, “I love this damn show! I would love to be on this show one day.” Then my wife said, “You know what, you gonna be on that show one day. You would be so perfect on that show.” Chris Williams played that character Krazee-Eyez Killa [in the episode], and we’re sitting there laughin’ our ass off, man. So I’m lookin’ for a new agent, I’m tryin’ to find a new agent, right? I met these guys from APA, and then they came to New York, and then I went on the road to do some stand-up. And I’m in Atlanta, and I found out that a buddy of mine had passed away in L.A. He was a producer and he did the song, I know you know the song, “This Is How We Do It.” It’s a party song. So I said, “You know what, I gotta go to L.A. for at least a day or two,” because they had a jam session here for him.
While I was in L.A., I said, “You know what, I’m gonna meet with my new agents. They want to meet me, and I can tell them what I want to do for the future, since I’m a new client.” So I came in town. That same night, they had the jam session for my buddy who passed away. So I go, the next morning, I go to APA. And they assembled a bunch of people, so I’m in the office of the head guy, and we’re talking about what I want to do for the future. And I say “I’ve been on the computer for a while. I think I’m gonna step out from behind the computer, right in to get back in front of the camera.” So then while we’re talking, an agent comes in late, right? And he says “Hey, I’m sorry I’m late. Good to meet you, JB. I have an audition, are you free?” I said, “Well, I’m just in town because a buddy of mine passed away. I leave town in the morning.” He said, “Well, I have an audition… Do you think you could make it over there now?” I said, “Yeah, I can go right now. What’s it for?” He said, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I said, “What?! Fuckin’ man! You’re fuckin’ kidding me, right? I fuckin’ love that show!” They said, “Man, they got a character… a Katrina family moves in with Larry.” I said “Man, I can go. I can go right now. I’m on a redeye tonight, but I can go right now and get in there.”
So I head over there. There’s tons of other actors and stuff in there going in for the Vivica Fox role, going in for the Leon role. I saw two comics I knew, I said, “Damn.” You know I’m thinking like, once I read the signs, I said, “Man, I know exactly who this dude is. I know exactly who Leon is, because I know people like Leon.” And Leon comes in all shapes and colors, man. You know, Leon’s a dude that lives day to day, who’s looking for the come-up. You know, some people are in a certain place in their life where they need a little nudge to get going? So I said “I know this dude.” So I waited around, they called me in the room, and I’m thinking I’m gonna go on tape. You know, the producers put you on tape, and they review it later on, and they give your agent a call if they want you to come back for a callback. I had no idea what the situation was. So I get into the room, and Larry is standing in the middle of the room. And they say, “All right, JB, now you gonna improv with Larry.” I said, “Oh shit!” I have this thing I do where I always come into the room as the character I want to portray. So that way I’m already turned on. I come into the room as the character all the time; they get an initial feel for who the character is before I even read the signs.
So I came in the room as Leon, basically. I came in there doing the Leon head-tilt, the little Leon hand-on-the-chest thing, you know, that little one-eye-halfway-closed, wrinkles-above-my-eye look. You know what I mean? That skeptical look and shit. So Larry immediately started to smirk, right? I said, “Okay, I got him. I said I got his ass now. He already smirking, so I already know that what I’m giving off before I even say anything is fuckin’ funny to him.” So I said “All right, Larry, you want improv, right? Let’s do this shit, Larry.” That’s exactly what I said. “Let’s do this shit, Larry.” I said, “I don’t know what the fuck gonna happen, Larry. I may fuck around and slap you. I don’t know, man. It’s improv. Anything can fuckin’ happen.” Larry just started busting up laughing, right? So I sat down in the chair and we’re gonna start the scene. And I just sat in the chair, and he just stared me for like, it must’ve been two to three minutes, he just stared at me fuckin’ laughing. And he said, “This guy is fuckin’ crazy, right?” And from then on, we had the funniest fuckin’ audition I’ve ever been in, man. We laughed. There was one point that was so fuckin’ funny, Larry had to turn around and walk into a corner and turn his back and say “All right, gimme one minute, gimme one minute.” Everybody’s getting mad at Larry, “Come on, Larry!” “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! This guy’s killin’ me!” And from then on, it was like a match made in heaven, man. Leon and Larry hit it off, man.
AVC: The speech a lot of people point to with Leon is, “You gotta get in that ass and spray-paint it.”
JBS: [Laughing.] “Get in that ass” is words to live by!
AVC: Because of that audition, is that why he let you go off and be all the Leon you could be?
JBS: I think so, man. The first day of work, we had the funniest fuckin’ day. We did the cum-stained-blanket scene, where there’s cum on the blanket and I’m like, “I gets mine, Larry.” You know, the ejaculate scene. And that day, we had a break, and he told me, he said “Man, it feels like we’ve been working together for years.” He had no idea who Leon was. I heard from one of the writers that Larry had no idea who Leon was until [I] walked into the room. Sometimes I guess when you’re casting, you really don’t know what you’re gonna get until someone gives it to you. Sometimes you have an idea of a character, but you don’t know the character behind the character. So there’s a character behind the character. They had signs that, the description of what type of character they wanted. They wanted someone to play Loretta’s brother who lived in L.A., who came over because he heard that this family from New Orleans were living in Larry David’s house. And from then on, I played it like I didn’t know who the fuck Larry David was. I didn’t know who the fuck Seinfeld was.
I played it like I didn’t know shit about anything, but the come-up. You know, we call it the come-up. You know, I get a chance to live in a mansion, I get the chance to just walk into a white man’s house and take over, and live there. So for me, it was okay, once we started working together, it became like Larry just allows Leon to be Leon. I think that’s what was genuine about our scenes. It is an improv show, and because we do get an outline, I don’t find out anything. I kinda prefer it that way. I prefer coming to work that day, I don’t get sides sent to me early, I don’t get outlines sent to me, I don’t get shit. I like coming to the set, getting my Leon clothes, my Leon wardrobe, I like walking to the set, I like getting on the set, I like finding out what the fuck is going on, and action! You know what I mean? I don’t want to overthink it. I go from, once I’m Leon, I automatically start thinking like Leon. I don’t think about anything else. I just come on set and I automatically, I am Leon once I put those dirty sneakers on, them jeans, and a tank top. You know what I mean? So for me, once Larry found out who Leon really was, he allowed Leon to be Leon. Which I think is a smart way to do it.
AVC: How much of what you say as Leon is Leon, and how much of it is JB? How much is your life philosophy in there?
JBS: Most of the time, it’s Leon’s philosophy. Once I get the character in my mind, I can only, while I’m taping, I can only speak like Leon for some reason. I just automatically channel him, and I just automatically think how he would think, or I would say something, or I would act how he would act. I mean, once I start walking around that house in those slippers, and I’m like taking over Larry’s house, I’m in “take over Larry’s house” mode. My brain can only think about drinking out of a milk carton, and hanging out, and giving Larry fucked-up advice, or fucked-up takes on what he did today, or ask him why he did something when he shoulda done this. Or how Leon woulda done it. You know? “Oh, I wouldn’t done it like that. Here’s what I woulda did. You know what I mean?”
AVC: Is it a surreal feeling to be on this show that you enjoyed for the first half of its run, and now you’re on the show and people have become fans of yours because of Leon?
JBS: Yeah! Yeah, it’s a great feeling that for some weird reason, this character connects with a lot of people. And a lot of different types of people. I mean, I get stopped by businessmen in first class who fucking live by Leon. They absolutely get it, and they say they apply what he says to their life, it feels like. One guy told me, he said before he goes into meetings, the first thing he thinks of is gettin’ in that ass. He said it just puts him in the right frame of mind, because he knows that at any point, all that shit could be over. So he just feels like, if he goes in there full-throttle all the time, he can take that philosophy of going in high and having someone pull you back a little bit rather than going low and try to turn it up. It’s harder to turn it up than it is to turn it down, for some reason. If someone says “Turn it up,” you don’t know how high. You can’t gauge how high. Then you go so high that you irritate them. So if you already come in high and they say, “Fall back a little bit,” you can. Then they get you.
AVC: Where did that speech come from, the “Get in that ass” speech?
JBS: “Get in that ass” is just something that, you know what? I’ve had like, I write down little things I think of during the day, right, and I put it in my Blackberry, or I’ll put it in my little notebook. And I’ll say, you know what, “One day I’ma be able to use this ‘get in that ass.’ I’m gonna use this one day.” I think I did it onstage maybe once ever. Like somewhere way out in a comedy club somewhere real far, where I needed it. Because I’m also a comic who flies on never going onstage with a plan. I like going onstage with bullets in my holster, but I also like to have my mind open. I always had it in my book. Then, you know, I was on set and we were about to do this scene, and I said “Larry let this skinhead call him a Jew faggot.” So immediately, I’m thinking like, first of all, “You’re a man. Right? You’re a man first. Then you’re Jewish. And then you gotta defend who the fuck you are. First. First of all, you’re a fuckin’ man. So first of all, you gotta get in his ass for disrespecting you as a man. Then you gotta get in his ass for calling you a faggot. Then you gotta get in his ass for calling you a Jew faggot.” So all these different things Larry had to work with. So the first thing that came to my mind was, “Larry gotta get in that ass.”
Now I’m gonna tell you, that scene is funny because Larry had no idea what “get in that ass” meant. A lot of times I surprise Larry with shit, and it’s a natural reaction on camera to what he thought about it. We don’t go over this shit beforehand. We don’t do any rehearsal. All we do is block the shot. And all we do is say “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” We don’t say anything. We just hold it, right? So when the scene started, the first take on that was, “You gotta get in that ass, Larry.” And Larry was like, “What do you mean?” “You open his ass.” But then he caught on. So the way I would explain it to him, he knew. He caught on that you gotta defend yourself as a man, you know. Although I said it in a metaphoric kind of fucking phrase, a Leonism way of seeing it, how I thought he’d explain it to me, I’m taking it how I woulda handled it and how I see it. And he, that first take was, his face looked like he didn’t know what the fuck I was talkin’ about. [Laughing.] Which is fuckin’ hilarious to me. A lot of people didn’t know what “get in that ass” meant until I started explaining it and breaking it down to them. But he caught onto it, and the second take, he knew what the hell I was talking about.
’Til Death (2008-2010)—“Kenny Westchester”
JBS: It was difficult doing Kenny on ’Til Death, because see, a lot of times, writers and producers, rather than create something different, they have a tendency to try to do what’s already been done. So you know, me going to that show was great, but my argument always was, “I think this guy should be different.” I don’t want to play the same type of guy all the time, but at the same time, I had ideas of how the guy could be played, which would still give him, you know, what they wanted, but not make him too much like Leon? So a lot of times, networks latch onto things that cable is doing, and they try to do it in a clean, wholesome, more presentable way that fits the network format. In cable, we do the hell we want to do. We can curse, we can do content that we want to do. In network, you can’t do that. So my thing was, “Why don’t we do something different? You know, we can still have him outspoken, we can still have a certain character, but we could do something different so that he stands out from what’s already been done on Curb.”
AVC: But did they want Leon again?
JBS: Well basically, it turned into the same thing again. Because I ended up—the show started with me having my own place. Then they added a girlfriend who threw me out, and then I end up living in Brad Garrett’s house on ’Til Death, which turned into Leon, basically. Me living in the same house, it’s the same situation I’m doing on Curb. So I didn’t necessarily like that take on it. Because I felt like it was just doing the same thing. I’d rather keep my apartment on the show, then Brad Garrett’s character had a chance to come over and get away from his normal life. Like, I got a friend who lives in a bad neighborhood. I can go over there and relax, put my feet up, and be around the guys. As opposed to bringing a guy into your house. For me, it seemed funnier that he would come over there, because one funny part about my character was, every time he would come to my house, I would answer the door, and I’d always be in a towel, which is funny. It’s hilarious that I’m always either into something, or I’m just getting out of the shower all the time. Just something funny about one of those friends. And it’s already a shady neighborhood, and you got a knock on the door, it’s fun to me. It made my character have a base to work from. That was my zone. I didn’t care if you never saw the inside of the house. There’s something cool about “Give me a minute, I’ma get dressed. Let me put some underwear on.”
AVC: Fox didn’t really pay a ton of attention to it, but it kept going. How is it, working in that atmosphere? Is it different than Curb, which gets Emmys and praise and network support?
JBS: You know what, it becomes “a job’s a job” when it’s your show. When it’s not your show, you are just trying to give the person who brung you to the show what they need. That’s their project. So for you to come in, you gotta work with what they’re trying to present. It’s their show. So they have to fight for their show a little differently than you have to fight for their show. You are a part of the pieces of the puzzle. All I can do is come in and do what the writers write. I can throw a few ideas out, but it’s not up to me to determine what they do on the show. But I know how it works, because the show was always teetering on being canceled, or it was being pre-empted by stuff all the time. That’s when you know a network doesn’t really respect the show, when it’s pre-empted here and there. They gotta think about whether they want to do enough episodes to go into syndication. They always have to pull teeth, and that’s really a strain on the actors who are part of the show, because it’s making so many changes all the time.
I’ll admit, at one point, I almost lost it. Because I kinda only go where I know I can go. I’m at my best when you allow me to do what I do. When you take me out of my comfort zone, then I have to adjust to what you want. It takes me out of my zone a little bit. I would only take a role that I know I’m comfortable in and I can do. I’ve turned down plenty of things because I’d feel it’s not me, and I wouldn’t want to come on someone’s project and flip that. But if you give me indication that you’re gonna bring me in, and you’re gonna allow me to do what I do… If you’re telling me you love me on Curb, and you know it’s an improv show, and you know I do what I do, and you know that’s my voice, and you want that, you gotta let me do it. You can’t bring me in there and handcuff me and make me do whatever that format is. If you’re gonna bring Michael Jordan to your basketball team, you ain’t gonna just bring Jordan in to pass the ball. You gonna let his ass shoot, shoot, fucking shoot. Shoot the fuckin’ ball as much as you can and score some points. You ain’t gonna let him come in there and pass the ball all damn day, you know what I mean?
AVC: Did the fact that the show was always on the precipice of getting cancelled weigh on Brad Garrett?
JBS: You know what, I think it weighs on everybody. If you start changing it, people get frustrated, man. And then the writing suffers and you have to have rewrites, and shit just starts to get crazy, because no one gets it. Sometimes when you try too hard, you start fuckin’ up, because you forget the fuckin’ ingredients. When McDonald’s has their 99-cent Big Mac sale, right, people love the fuckin’ Big Mac. But because it’s 99 cents, everybody fuckin’ wants ’em, right? People order four, five at a time. But now, the people who work there gotta rush. They gotta fuckin’ rush to make the fuckin’ Big Macs faster, because everybody wants ’em. They’re fuckin’ 99 cent! But, now they’ve fuckin’ rushed them so fuckin’ fast that every once in a while, you’ll bite into a Big Mac and it’s missing one of the goddamn ingredients! Everybody knows it’s two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame bun, right? You fuck around and bite the Big Mac and one of them missing special sauce, you’re like “Fuck! There’s no special sauce on this motherfucker.” You bite another one, the pickles ain’t in the shit. You know why? Because motherfuckers is rushing. It takes time. You gotta make the shit how it’s supposed to be made. When you start rushing the burger, you open the shit up, the burger crooked and shit. What the fuck? The burger’s hanging halfway off the goddamn bun, because they fuckin’ rushing, and they not doing it. You gotta make it how the ingredients was initially pitched to the person, and how it’s supposed to taste, and how it’s supposed to look, and how it’s supposed to feel. And that’s what the problem is when you start to make too many fuckin’ changes to shit. And you don’t know what the fuck they want, because they don’t know what they want.
JBS: Franken-motherfuckin’-hood. Okay. That movie was so goddamn fun. You know, it was a crazy idea for a movie, but you know what? Sometimes you do a movie because of the pieces and the parts, the moving parts of it. You know, the people who were in the movie were friends of mine. Sometimes you’re free for a month or two or something, and you’re like, “You know what, this is the fun of this shit, you know.” I got some good tape out of it, and it was a good little movie. Some people like it. You know, it’s a crazy concept, sure, a big Frankenstein monster enters a basketball tournament. But you know what? There’s some really funny moments in that movie. It’s like one of those movies that you rent at Blockbuster. You’re like, “Okay, I’m gonna check this shit out.” Or you just have it, or it comes on HBO one night and you’re watching it all and shit. It’s just funny. It’s a silly-ass movie.
Mr. Deeds (2002)—“Reuben”
JBS: Fun movie. I love that [Adam Sandler] is so comfortable when he’s working, because he’s working around people he trusts, people he loves, and it was a great experience, man. And that’s another thing, where you start to plant seeds, and you know, you get one thing from another thing, and that’s how I’ve always worked, man. It’s kind of like a good contractor. If you got a good contractor, man, you don’t even have to promote yourself in the Penny Savers, or the newspaper. You don’t have to go out and buy ads and shit. Word of mouth, sometimes that’s the best way to go. Because people know what they’re getting. Chris Rock actually told Adam about me. After I did Pootie Tang, he knew he was trying to find a character for this movie. I went in there and met with Adam, and the next thing you know, man, I’m on Mr. Deeds. And that’s how things work, man. He’s a great guy, man. We had a great time and met some great people on the show, and next thing you know, I’m pitching a movie idea to him, that they ended up buying, The Revolution. It’s so cool how one thing leads to another thing, which leads to another thing, and how I’m building these relationships for people that I know I’m gonna work with in the future again.
Date Night (2010)—“Cabbie”
JBS: Awesome, man. Worked with Tina, Tina Fey was the head writer at SNL when I was there, and that’s another relationship, man. You know, I heard what happened was, I knew some of the producers behind the movie, they were talking about things, and then I heard my name came up, and Tina was like, “JB Smoove! Him!” You know what I mean? It was just like, Tina knew my work already, Tina knew I was funny. And you know, that’s from being cool with people. I’m one of those guys, man, where I truly respect the art of building relationships and how things end up paying for themselves in the long run.
AVC: How was Tina as a boss?
JBS: Tina was great, man. I consider Tina Fey one of the smartest women I’ve ever met, as far as knowing what she wants to do, knowing the industry, knowing what’s fuckin’ funny. And she’s an amazing writer. I mean, proof is 30 Rock probably will go down as one of the best shows ever. I mean, Alec Baldwin and her are amazing on that show. Tina Fey is amazing, man. Amazing. I mean, so far everything she’s touched has been successful. Because she’s smart about it. She gets the right pieces, she knows the right people, she knows how to write a joke. She’s great, man. And I’m gonna say another thing; me and Steve Carell were in Tomorrow Night together. Me and Steve Carell, that’s crazy! Steve Carell had a scene, we didn’t work together in our scene, but Steve was in the movie too! And there was a bunch of comics who were just starting out, and comedic actors. Amy Poehler was in the movie. Amy Poehler didn’t even have a line! She just walked through the scene. And she just got water sprayed on her or something like that. I forgot what it was, but Amy Poehler was in the movie.
Steve Carell was in the movie, in Tomorrow Night. Chuck Sklar was in the movie, who’s also a great writer right now. It’s crazy, man, how things work, man. And next thing you know, I brought the movie up to Steve that we were in Tomorrow Night, and he said, “Oh my God! You know how long ago that was?” His path is amazing. He had one scene in that movie, and look who Steve Carell is now. Look who Tina Fey is now. She wasn’t really even on camera [when I got to SNL]. When I got there, she was just the head writer, one of the head writers. Who knew that she would end up doing Weekend Update, doing Mean Girls, and 30 Rock, and Date Night, and all these different things. And we had a great time on Date Night, man. It was really a fun little scene.
AVC: And of course, look where you are. And now you’re Leon.
JBS: Yeah! It’s the path, man.
AVC: You could end up being known for being Leon. Are you okay with that?
JBS: I’m totally okay with that. Because I think in some ways to perform, as crazy as Leon is, there’s a purpose to this character that really touches a wide range of people, man. And that’s the thing I love. I love meeting different types of people, I mean old, Jewish women; black people; Irish guys… I walked by an Irish bar, and a guy was like, “Oh my god, fuckin’ Leon!” People of all walks of life, man, everywhere I’ve been, I meet someone who is inspired, who lives by Leon. One guy pulled his phone out and on his first page of his phone, it says “Bring the Ruckus.” He looks at that when he wants to talk to a woman, when he wants to get a new job, and he’s just like, you know, getting in that ass. Creating the Ruckus. That’s how I do’s it. Always flip that shit.
All these different things that this show has allowed the character to do, you know, I don’t mind being known for Leon. You can always find something in what he said that makes some sort of sense. I think that’s all people really want, is to make sense of something, or have someone who can make sense of it for them, who can point out the right or wrong and how to navigate through your life. Of course I gotta have some sort of Leon in me personally, because it is a way he speaks, it’s his taste, it’s his quick thinking, it’s all that stuff, which naturally would have to come from JB Smoove in order for Leon to exist, you know what I mean? But I think it’s a great way of thinking. Because I think whatever Leon thinks, would say, JB Smoove is also able to say and channel and use in some way, in interviews, and in, you know. It all works somehow together.
AVC: We’ve covered just about every part of your career at this point.
JBS: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of stuff coming up, yeah. Yeah! We Bought A Zoo is coming up, with Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson. That’s gonna be fun, man. It’s gonna be a lot of fun working with them. The first day I worked with Matt Damon, I said “Man, I wanna do one of those Bourne Identity movies. I want to chop somebody in the fuckin’ neck, you know what I mean?” I would love to chop somebody in the throat, man. That’s a vulnerable part of your body, man. You’re vulnerable on your throat. You gotta get the sense of the shit. Because somebody hit you in the fuckin’ throat, you gotta catch your breath first of all, then you gotta say “Oh shit, he just chopped me in the fuckin’ throat,” you know what I mean? So you gotta catch your breath. So I did that movie, I did The Sitter with Jonah Hill and Sam Rockwell. I did a voice on Ice Age. I play a boar. It was fun.
What else is coming up? Oh, I’m shooting my Comedy Central stand-up special in November at the New York Comedy Festival. I’m also debuting at the end of the month, a website called TheRuckus.com. TheRuckus.com is gonna be awesome, man! The cool thing about it is, it’s gonna be a little more interactive, a little more able to almost touch the fans, and they’re gonna be allowed to submit video and that kind of stuff, and we’ll vote on what’s hot, what’s not hot, and we’ll also be able to… We’re also doing a sweepstakes, where we’re gonna allow some videos to also get chosen, and if you win, you’ll be able to actually do some video with me, a sketch with me. We’ll do a sketch together, do something funny. So everything’s kinda falling into place, man. My thing is, tackle one thing at a time, be good people, you know, enjoy the ride, don’t burn any bridges. Just have fun. I’m working with some good people now. I’m a very, very happy man. I think I’ve got some great things coming up, too, and that’s the fun thing, I think, that’s fun about my ride. I’m one of those guys that’s satisfied with food on the table and satisfied with the lights being on, you know what I mean? I’d rather have the phone keep ringing rather than the phone stop ringing after one major project. I’d rather do a bunch of little things and meet some cool people, and when it’s time for the big stuff, the big stuff’ll come, man.