Interview: JB Smoove Never Stops Thinking About 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'

After six years in limbo, Curb Your Enthusiasm picked up right where it left off Sunday night with the season nine premiere. The season kicked into gear with Larry talking about his years-in-the-making FATWA! project on Jimmy Kimmel Live!... which resulted in him getting an actual fatwa declared on him. Along the way, he foisted a constipated assistant onto Susie, interfered with the nuances of a lesbian wedding, and tried on a truly hilarious disguise.

We talked to actor JB Smoove about the return of his character Leon, who is now living in Larry's backyard and working as Larry's new (temporary) assistant. He told us about real life Curb scenarios he's experienced, what it's like performing improv with Larry, and going into Curb mode in his brain.

Tell me about that premiere. How did it feel to be back? Man, the first episode when we are officially back, it's so surreal man, it's like wow. When someone told me it's been six years, I was like, 'Really?!' because it didn't feel like that. Even when you're not performing, you're not shooting, you're always reminded of Curb. People asking questions, people yelling out Leonisms, yelling out Curb moments. Or if you're traveling and you're sitting next to a guy in first class and he's calling you fucking Leon the whole trip. [Laughs]. Or, you're doing a TV show, a late night show, they introduce you and they say, "Oh, you know him from Curb Your Enthusiasm." Whatever it is, you're always reminded of the show and you really become those characters.

And most of the characters on the show, at least their first names are being used. Like Jeff is Jeff, Susie is Susie, you know, Larry's Larry, Cheryl's Cheryl. I'm one of the only characters that has another name, Leon. So most people hear their own names all the time, you're constantly reminded of the show. Your body never relaxes, you're always in Curb mode in your brain.

Do you feel like you're performing when people recognize you? Kind of. When we got back on set it felt like we never left. Once I got dressed again, I sat there like, "Has it really been six years?" It just didn't feel like six years to me. But I think what happens is you shoot, you wait seven to eight months until it airs and you count those months, of course you count those months. And the same thing with this season. You shoot, you wait seven to eight months before you see it, but even that goes fast, you know. Now we're only like three days away.

It almost sounds like an existential thing. Right, it's crazy. You get on the set and you don't miss a beat. Nobody missed a beat. Because we're so anchored into our characters, I guess. I've done movies, a ton of movies, TV shows, everything since season eight. But you're still locked into these characters. They're really cool characters to play.

When you're actually filming it, getting into the improv, does it go by really quickly? Is it like your wedding day, where everything is a bit of blur in the moment, because you've been anticipating it so much? You know what, it does. It does go kinda fast. Because what happens is, once you start laughing, you're comfortable around people that are friends that you love, it really does go fast. When you're having that much fun it goes fast. But if it becomes tedious, and you gotta get these little pieces, and all this stuff is coming, you feel like shit. You gotta amass your energy over and over again and keep doing this.

But what I love about Curb is Larry gets what he needs and moves on. What's the next funny thing, let's nail the next thing funny, he comes to me on that. Otherwise it becomes worn down. It declines a little bit you know. You want to keep your energy up and you don't look at time anymore. You look at them and this moment is funny. Goddamn, it's funny. And, because you're doing improv it changes. You're not doing the same robotic lines over and over again every day. In different ways, you can change your opinion, you can change your mind and all this shit if you want to, unless they need something specific to tie in something else, but otherwise you create your own storylines.

Do you prepare at all for doing the improv? How does one prepare for those scenes? I don't prepare for shit. [Laughs.]

I just show up and I ask [executive producer/co-writer] Jeff Schaffer, "What's my motivation, man? What's going on today?" He'll tell me exactly what we need to do, what I'm mad about or what I'm gonna question Larry about, and I go from there. I don't like to overthink it, but I like to have a general idea. I also go by what I'm listening to—with improv you listen just as much as you speak. So I like to listen and hear what the fuck is going on, and say, "How can I fix this shit, Larry?" [Laughs.] I sit there and like...it's always something crazy. So you sit there and it's always easier to comment on something crazy as hell, how idiotic this shit sounds, than it is to agree with somebody.

So there's time when you get to agree to a fault, but say, "I agree with you, but how 'bout this shit. How 'bout you do this right here instead, that way it won't look so offensive, or won't be so bad." Or you have a total different take on it, which is funnier, because you get a chance to argue with Larry or whatever. That's what I think makes it all work with these two characters, man. And, you know, I don't do a lot of scenes with anybody else. It's either me and Larry, it's Larry and I, or it's Larry, me and somebody else.

Like when Susie comes. Yeah, Susie pops in the door or Jeff or Funkhouser, but it's never anything extended with us. It's always Larry giving me some shit about something he's going through, and me trying to help him get through this shit. And Leon is thinking, so that's always fun to do it like that.

In the season premiere, Leon becomes Larry's assistant, which is great because we get to have Leon around more and it also is an organic way of getting him into storylines. He's not just living in the backyard still. Is that going to continue all season? [Laughs.] You know what, I don't know what Larry's gonna use because it never comes out exactly what you think it is, never. Every time we've shot, we shoot a lot of shit, and you never see it again. I was like, "Hey, man, what happened to... ?" He was like, "Ohhh we changed it," and I was like, "Oh, shit." So, I dunno what's gonna pop up but see, I watch the show as a fan, so I'm one of the guys even though I'm on the cast, I could see the episodes, but I never want to see them.

I want to see them when they come out. I wanna be the same guy that loved Curb before I got on it, who just like, gets butterflies before Sunday, I can't fucking wait to see Curb. Before I got on the show, my wife and I used to talk about Curb like this shit was the greatest thing on Earth. We would sit there like, "Oh my God. Oh, I can't wait till next Sunday." And through the week we'd countdown til Sunday. And we would sit there in front of the TV like, "Oh, shit, baby, here comes Curb! It's on the TV!" "I'm coming, I'm coming." And we'll sit there and watch that shit like...

So you have a whole ritual around that. A ritual around it, and that's the way I shoot and tape. Sometimes I shoot my scene, I'll just leave. I don't want to see who's the special guest. I don't want to see what the fuck they're doing after my scene. I shoot my scene, do my business, they got another scene to do in between my next scene, I'm in my room saying, "I don't want to see shit." Cos when it comes on I want to be surprised like everybody else and watch it like, "wow."

So it was your first time seeing the first episodes at the premiere. What did you think of them? Yeah, yeah. I loved it! I loved it, man! And some of that shit I don't remember saying. When you're in that pocket, in that zone, I sit there like, "Oh, shit, I said that? I don't remember saying that."

Pure inspiration. It's really fun. It's a fun thing because you feel like you're really separated from the character. Let the character do his thing. I really try my best to think of the funniest avenue I can give him. And then, whatever happens within the blanks is kinda like extra, gravy. Cos I know they're gonna edit it down so I just fucking motormouth. I just motor the fuck, motormouth my ass off, with any weird angle I can say, cos I know that's what's expected from Leon. Larry's going to tell him something. Leon's gonna tell Larry some off-the-wall story, or some roundabout way to get back to square one, which, I love his journeys. I love Leon's journeys, the logic. He feels as though he has to paint a perfect picture for Larry to understand what he's getting himself into, which I find is funny advice. Most psychiatrists should really work like that. They should elaborate on some shit and go way the fuck off and come back, so you can get a clear picture of what you're fucking dealing with, you know. "Why you laying on that goddamn couch?" [Laughs.]

But I think that's what makes him fun. I think that grounds his character, and that's what makes working on the show so fun, cos you really don't know. It just stays fresh, because you really don't know what you're gonna say. I don't know what to fucking say sometimes, but I'll find something, some little tidbit that will allow me to open it up a little bit. And we've got great writers, Jeff Schaffer and these guys, and Larry, who also add their two cents to it, which makes it even better, cos they get what they want out of the scene. So the show overall has a nice balance to it. I think the show has a balance of hilarious moments, hilarious opinions, a few cringe moments, you know what I mean? That's the balance that Curb has always had. It's going to make you go, "Oh shit, Larry's fucking crazy!"

Some people have a hard time watching it, because it's like watching a horror movie for them. They can't handle the situations because they're so real. Yeaaaaaaah. They sit there, "Shit, that just happened to me yesterday. That fucking guy." Holding a door, ohhh, whatever it may be, you'll find something in it. "Ohhh, that fucking guy doubled parked man, right in front of my goddamn car and didn't come back."

Do you have moments in your real life where you're like, "This is a Curb plot line. This is a story right here." Plenty of times. Plenty of times. Oh my God, man. Lord have mercy. Lord, I've been through some shit. I was in the bathroom one day man, and this fucking guy recognized me, and this guy is like, "Oh my God." We're both pissing at the urinal. "Oh my fucking God! We gotta get a picture together!" I'm like, "Man, you can't hold that shit while we're fucking peeing? Is it really that important right now? I'm not going nowhere! We're both pissing! Why are you...why?" I'm like, "Yo, give me a minute!" He pulled his camera out, started to take a picture in the bathroom. I said, "You really think I'm gonna stand here with the urinals in the background? Oh, come on man, let's go to the hallway. The last thing I'm gonna do right now is take a picture with urinals behind us." He's like, "Oh, yeah you're right, you're right, you're right." [Laughs.]

Urinal selfies, that writes itself. When did that become popular? Come on man! [Laughs.]

I've always wondered: in terms of Leon's phrases, his witticisms, his slang, are those all things you come up with during improv, and then Larry picks up on them and starts using them throughout the episode, or do the writers ask you to come up with specific things for Larry? For example, in the premiere "lampin" becomes a thing... Lampin is a real word. That was a real word. Lampin is just like chillin'. Lampin's been around for a while, but Larry's not privy to this shit. You know, "get in that ass" has been around, but Larry just doesn't know. That first time we shot that scene Larry didn't know what the fuck "get in that ass" was.

And I'm explaining to him, I'm over-explaining it, so it really came across well because he really didn't know what the fuck "get in that ass" meant. Once I said, "You gotta get in that man's ass when he do that shit to you. You know, you open his ass..." there's a whole metaphor. And Larry acted the whole thing out. "Now you're in his ass. Fuck his whole asshole up." Throw paper pant on the floor. There's like four or five versions of that same scene with different scenarios.

But you're still saying the same phrase during each take? There's still "get in that ass" but there's different things happening in the ass, you know what I'm saying? So there's different variations of things happening in the ass.

One involved setting a fire in his ass. One involved putting some kerosene all over the place and lighting a match, and you set that ass on fire. I open that ass again, and you step on that ass and watch that smoke come out his fucking asshole. [Laughs.] So there's like four or five versions of that one scene, in that ass.

So when Larry picks up on something like that, and starts using it throughout the episode, that's all from the improv, and it just tumbles down? Exactly. It tumbles down, and he makes it make sense, it's like a figure eight. You start here, you find somewhere later to make that make sense. He goes back, approaches the skinhead, he comes back around. There's so many ways of doing it. So in essence, although the outlines are written, we're all a part of that process because we're creating these avenues that segue back, that end up being callbacks later on in the season or later on in the episode. That's how you plant these little seeds that mean something.

Now all that stuff we did in that first episode, a lot of that shit's gonna come back. Because Leon's in a different place now: he's not in the house anymore, he's trying to be more independent, he's trying to do cool shit. He's trying to let Larry see him in a more responsible role.

Right, he's trying to show that he can carry his weight. Yeah. Matter of fact today, they just posted a clip [see below] with Larry trying to see what I had going on in the room, and it's me pushing Larry back. "You don't gotta come in here." He's saying, "What's going on here, what's going on in that room?" And we're playing around, I'm pushing him out. I said, "You don't gotta see shit in this room. The only time you come in this room is if you wanna lamp. That means you go in the house, change clothes, you come back with the boxers on, some slippers on, some t-shirt and you come back. I might let your ass lamp in here." [Laughs.]