Susie Essman and Richard Lewis-veteran stand-up comedians and stars of Larry David's hit show Curb Your Enthusiasm-will perform together in an evening of stand-up comedy at the Jewish United Fund's Vanguard Event, the first public event of the 2013 JUF Annual Campaign, on Monday, Nov. 5, at the Sheraton Chicago. In advance of the big show, I interviewed the two comics over e-mail, where we talked-well, typed, to be more precise-about adlibbing on Curb, the joy of making people laugh, and comedy as cheap therapy.
JUF News: How did you get your start in comedy?
Richard Lewis: Basically with the fear of being unable to do anything else. After writing for other comicswho returned all the good stuff which as it turned out was all about me, I went on stage and the rest is history.
Susie Essman: I started out wanting to be a comedic actress. Stand-up never occurred to me…I floundered around for many years, earning a living as a waitress mostly and pretty lost. I was in a deep depression and a bad relationship and my friends suggested I get up at an open mic night. I did and there were two guys there that told me they were opening a comedy club in a few months and asked for my number. I didn't get on stage again because I was just too scared and intimidated. Then a few months later these guys called me and asked me to work at their club…I became a comedian by default. After doing it for a few months I realized it was what I was born to do.
Were you funny your whole lives? How did you discover your comedic talent?
Richard Lewis: Being thrown out of school as the class clown was a good omen.
Susie Essman: Yes I was always funny but more than that, I always had a big mouth. I was always the one who said what everyone wanted to say but were too afraid to say it. I drove my parents crazy. My father used to say that I had "last worditis". I always had to make my point.
Mr. Lewis, you've let audiences sit in on your therapy in a way through your many years in Stand-up. Is being a comedian a form of therapy for both of you?
Richard Lewis: Yes. I have tons of dysfunctions and being fearless on stage expressing my problems and getting laugh validates my depression and makes me feel less alone.
Susie Essman: Well, yes, it is very cathartic being up on stage and letting it all out. You are using yourself and mining your own fears and neurosis through the humor filter. If I wasn't a comedian I think I'd really be nuts. I have an outlet. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a great outlet also. All those screaming and yelling scenes I have to do are like primal scream therapy.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Richard Lewis: Too many to mention but Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor are the two comics who set the standard for me.
Susie Essman: Richard Lewis of course!
What were your Jewish upbringings like?
Richard Lewis: We weren't [too] religious but I was always proud to be a Jew and what Jews had to fight for from the get-go. I take great pride in keeping my Judaism alive and well-respected.
Susie Essman: I was not brought up religious....we celebrated the holidays with family but there was not an emphasis on the religious aspect. There was a tribal sense of being Jewish, but not a religious one.
How does being Jewish play a role in your lives-as well as your professional lives-today?
Richard Lewis: It is something that I wear as a cloak and with the utmost respect for all those in my faith.
Susie Essman: Well I'm very proud to be part of such a long and meaningful legacy of Jewish comedians. I believe that Jewish immigrants shaped comedy in this country and in turn, shaped the culture. So many of the comedic founding fathers saw the world as outsiders and it gave them a unique take on the American experience. Comics always feel like they are outside looking in. I also think that the Jewish tradition of Talmudic thinking, analyzing, and questioning are compatible with the comedic mind.
What's the best part about working on Curb?
Richard Lewis: Working on perhaps one of the greatest sitcoms in TV history with a friend, Larry David, who I've known for 50 years.
Susie Essman: Making Larry laugh. Every time I yell at him, he gets the giggles even when he knows it's coming. I just love making him laugh. It's pure joy.
I know that the show has a loose script but that you ad lib your lines. How do you enjoy that process?
Richard Lewis: A dream come true for a comedian who writes his own material.
Susie Essman: Oh I love it. I love not having to memorize my lines and being continually surprised and delighted by what my co-stars throw my way. We have so much fun and it's an incredibly creative way to work. You've got to be very present.
Do you ever pinch yourself and think how cool is it to get paid to make people laugh?
Richard Lewis: Not only is making people laugh a great way to live your life to make people forget their woes, but being able to meet and get the respect of my childhood heroes and those who came up after me is something I never dreamt would happen…It's a thrill to somehow have the gift to command a stage and get people to enjoy themselves, get away for a while from their own depression, and laugh at me.
Susie Essman: Oh yes, [I pinch myself] all the time. I make a living cursing at people! Not what I planned on happening but my grandmother used to always say, "You make plans, and God laughs." I've got no complaints.
The JUF community and the Jews of Chicago are excited that you're performing here in November. Are you fans of Rahm Emanuel's city?
Richard Lewis: Chicago has been perhaps the most important city in my career.
Susie Essman: I love Chicago. It's one of my favorite cities. I've never had a bad audience there and I'm looking forward to coming back. I'm a fan of Rahm's city and of Rahm himself. After all, his brother is Larry's agent so it's all in the family!
A minimum gift of $5,000 to the 2013 Jewish United Fund Annual Campaign is required to attend. To inspire future generations and to ensure the continuity of the traditions of tzedakah, you are invited to bring your children 18 years and older as your guests. Please note that our featured guests' performance may contain adult language and subject matter. Couvert is $100 per person. For more information, contact Stephanie Pritzker at (312) 357-4563 or Vanguard@juf.org.