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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. We’ve paused here before and do so again today to consider the philosopher-comedian-king or queen and their place in our discourse, whether to inspire change, relieve stress, or uplift our spirit. Not so long ago, fellow Curb Your Enthusiasm co-star Susie Essman joined us, and today we’re lucky to host comedian J.B. Smoove, or as fans know him from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Leon.
Perhaps the most overt criticism of the Seinfeld show, though beloved, adored, of course, was the absence of African-American voices, comics, actors. Imagine Woody Allen merged with Chris Rock but even better. Smoove now hosts Four Courses on the MSG Network, a conversational program around a table, eating and chatting mostly with assorted guests from the comic world, the athletic world, and of course Hollywood.
J.B. said something poignant, “Everything funnels through the comedian(s)”… We’re the ones who actually “have to gauge when it’s the right time to take the tension off or to put a spin on something.” In a recent CBS interview he continued, “…We take issues and it comes through us, we reprocess [it] and we make [it] manageable. That’s [kind of] …the plight of the comedian.” Powerful words from a very thoughtful comic, J.B. Smoove, welcome to The Open Mind.
SMOOVE: Oh, I love the title, The Open Mind. And what is a mind, like myself, but open at all times to all people, to all times, to all uh, stretches of time and space? I went deep that time, real deep,
HEFFNER: Oh, that’s, that’s deep.
SMOOVE: And, and why not go deep?
HEFFNER: Why not go deeper?
SMOOVE: Why not go deeper? There, there is no depth to deepness, am I right or wrong, you know?
SMOOVE: Where, where does, what, and where does it stop? The universe is endless, they say.
SMOOVE: Is it endless? Has anyone been there? Has anyone traveled that far to even say it’s endless? I mean how does science work, you know? The science of the mind is endless, am I right or right?
HEFFNER: You’re right,
SMOOVE: Am I right or right?
HEFFNER: You’re right and right.
SMOOVE: Am I right or right? [LAUGHS] Of course I am…
HEFFNER: You’ve given us endless possibility to imagine comedy and in that infinite space that is comedy, but I have to ask you, uh, what is essence? What is your essence?
SMOOVE: I think uh, me as a comic, me as a, I think, it’s that old, it’s that old phrase, it’s the sum of its parts, of its pieces, you know, I think I’m a um, I’m a puzzle man, I’m a puzzle that’s not completely done yet. You ever walk in a park and you see some older person sitting in the park doing one of those thousand-piece puzzles, you know what I mean? I’m that thousand-piece puzzle, you know? I’m that thousand-piece puzzle, I’m that puzzle that’s not done yet, you know? Hell, I might even get to the end of that puzzle, you might get to the end of that puzzle and realize one piece is missing, you know what I mean? You might get the whole, that whole thing is done, you got 999 pieces done to that thousand piece puzzle and realize that, that box was missing that one piece, but what is that one piece? Does that one piece uh, uh, sum, sum my career up? Right? Or does that one piece I have to find take me to another level?
SMOOVE: Maybe I’m, I’m not done yet. Maybe that puzzle is not supposed to be done yet. Maybe I’m supposed to get to that 999th piece, piece, and have that one piece left over ‘cause I gotta find what that piece is. You know, that’s the, that’s the, that’s the, the beauty of being a comedian, ‘cause time changes, uh, everything changes around us, you know, and we have to gravitate towards that and, and make sense of it all, you know, I don’t want to find that last piece of, of puzzle. I don’t want to find that last piece puzzle could mean, you know, the phone stops ringing, you know? Maybe the phone will stop ringing if I find that last piece of puzzle. But who wants that last piece of puzzle to be found if said career is just rolling and said career is not ready to conclude as of yet? [LAUGHS] Because I, I truly believe that uh, as time changes, as, as we change, as we mature, as our careers start to progress, as we, you know, step forward, as we step back, as we meet new people, as we network, you know, we become better people, better comics, understanding, you know, you know, you know, like the movie Top 5 – I did, I took a, I took a, I took a little leap towards a little more of a dramatic feel to uh, you know, Chris allowed me to do something a little different. You know, J.B.’s always um, let’s talk about sometime in the third person. So sometimes J.B. himself is uh, the over the top J.B., but Chris allowed me to go somewhere, somewhere totally different, you know, and I, I respected that, taking on that role in Top 5 playing his best friend, where I got a chance to actually do something different, I, you know, I played a little more reserved J.B.
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: Which in turn, helps me out because it increases my range and this goes back to that thousand-piece puzzle, you know? That one piece that’s missing may be my dramatic turn a la Jim Carrey’s, a la Steve Carrell’s, who also took a dramatic turn, you know? It doesn’t, you don’t lo—lose you comedic abi—ability, this is just another extension of who you are as an actor, as a comedian, you know, and as a person really.
HEFFNER: Well you’ve certainly journeyed for us inside the creative mind, and that’s a, really a coveted thing to, for us to think about. When you were working with Larry, um, and the storyline evolved that uh, he and his wife were adopting, uh, a family from Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, uh, and he uh, cast you, um, was, beyond – I know the show is largely done spontaneously and most of what you were saying was off the cuff, right? Beyond that, uh, in terms of your own persona in, in the media, um, as an articulate, thoughtful person of color,
SMOOVE: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: And uh, what still is dominated by uh, non-people of color..
SMOOVE: Mm hm.
HEFFNER: Were you, were you thinking about that at all?
SMOOVE: This stretches beyond just being a black character on, on a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm. You know, he was, he was uh, he’s a guy that’s free, you know, I liked the character ‘cause he was a free character, you know, he, he, he lived in a moment.
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: Which is what, you know, which is a great character to have ‘cause you know, especially, it’s not just a character, it’s where the character’s at, you know? Being on a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is improv-based, an improv-based show, you know, one of the probably the greatest improv shows ever, you know, being allowed to create your own storyline, your own fork in the road, and I could choose any route I want to take. If someone tells you as an actor I’m going to allow you to come on and play this character, the character has no ending, the character has no beginning. You have no idea where he came from and you have no idea where this character’s going, that’s gold for an actor, and it’s improv. You mean to tell me I can say what I want to say? And I have no beginning and I have no end. You give me that, you give a person like myself who loves to improv, who loves to create in the moment, who loves to, you know what, so in some sense, I like to be in the moment, Leon is in the moment, and this is what I think the freedom of it really, really uh, uh, made me want to take on this character and, and enjoy it.
SMOOVE: And, you know I realize, I’m creating this guy’s life as I go along. There is no script. There is nothing etched in stone. What I say is bond. If I say he’s from here, if I say he had an ex-wife, if I say he, whatever I want to say, it, that’s it, you have it, as my actor and my fellow improv actor, you have to take what I’m giving you, and that is what improv is. There is no, there is no, there is no dialogue. All we have is a six page outline and that’s where the show, the base of the show is born.
SMOOVE: And that’s, that’s really big knowing that there is no beginning and there is no ending to this character.
SMOOVE: So that allows me to fly. And it allowed me to think about how I wanted to be, how I wanted to portray this guy, you know, I didn’t want to make him too over the top, I didn’t want to make him too, I wanted to make him smart, I wanted to make him uh, give Larry sound advice, you know, protect my, you know, Leon is a guy that uh, if you have his back he has your back. That was kind of how I played it, you know? Leon says some really profound stuff. Sure, it was a different route to get there. You know, I call Leon, [LAUGHS] I call, he makes stupid sense, which sometimes you need. Sometimes you, if you are blunt with someone or blunt with a character, sometimes it’s too blunt. Sometimes it’s too, too uh, telegraphed.
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: But I could take you in the way I see it as the character, it’s always a long way around, I’m going around, I’m going around the opposite way of the rotation of the Earth if that makes any sense and I’m coming about, but I’m gonna end up in the same place you are, but I’ll get there a little faster, you know why – ‘cause I’m going against the Earth’s rotation. So wherever we started at, I’m gonna get there a lot faster, but it’s gonna be a weird route…
SMOOVE: You know what I mean? So that, that way I see how the character…
SMOOVE: Can be seen in a lot of different ways. But he touches a lot of people.
HEFFNER: Right. So it was more him being extemporaneous than him being black that gave you the freedom to create a compelling character.
SMOOVE: Exactly. This is what actors thrive on, this is what actors love to have at their disposal is the arsenal that, you got an arsenal in your own head. Imagine having a, imagine, let’s just say jokes, that jokes were bullets.
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: And you have an unlimited amount of shots, you know what I mean? You can shoot as many times as you want, you can miss, you can hit, you can miss, you can hit, you can miss, you can hit, but those bullets don’t stop. Because there is [LAUGHS] there, you have an abundance of ammunition, you know, and some of ‘em are gonna be big ones, bazooka, boom laughter, you know what I mean?
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: Some of ‘em are gonna be set-ups, and that, that is what it is in that, in that element, uh, of Curb Your Enthusiasm, that is what it is. That is a machine that Larry, the genius Larry himself, you know, he, it’s like playing um, it’s like playing um, um, it’s like playing uh, … softball, you know what I mean? He gives you a lot of underhand pitches.
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: And all you gotta do is hit it. Just hit the damn ball, you know?
HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] But you hit it out of the park.
SMOOVE: There is, you know, there’s no fastballs. There’s no fastballs coming your way, it’s just underhand and all you gotta do is just, you know, and then once I figured it out, who the hell that dude Leon was, I was off and running off to the races, man, you know?
HEFFNER: If, if we can, um, J.B., let’s talk about the state of contemporary comedy. This year,
HEFFNER: Saturday Night Live celebrated a 40th anniversary.
HEFFNER: You have the more snarky, you have the more satirical. You have sort of a …
HEFFNER: Plethora of options at, at your disposal. What’s the state of American comedy, uh, and in a world that is increasingly globalized, uh, and increasingly stressful economically, um, and even painful to the average American, you bring them something so special.
SMOOVE: I think we, I think, I think we as comics, you know, I want to say just comics, I want to say comics, I’ll say filmmakers, I will say um, um, poets, I would say…
SMOOVE: Artists, I think on some level we all are in the same boat. You know, as the world changes around us, you know, we have to find some way to keep up with it but also find some way to slow it down a little bit.
SMOOVE: And smell those roses a little bit more. You know, as we move so fast, we have a tendency to overlook what really, you know, a sense of calmness has got to prevail in some way because you know, if, let’s just say, let’s just say, let’s just say if all you got was the regular news every day, you would lose your marbles. You would lose your mind, you would turn it off because if you just only saw that view constantly of just straight news, no one joked about it, and, and, and I don’t say joking meaning like make fun of it but no one took it and, and like we said earlier, we processed it and gave it to you in a different light, you know,
SMOOVE: If no one at work had an opinion about it or tried to you know, take the sting of it off a little bit, you would just get straight news all the time. It changes the, it changes the world. Music also, hey, what is, music sometimes captures an era, you know? Um, take Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” you know? It captured an era of war, you know, an era of poverty, you know, he captured that with that one song. This is the same thing that you know, filmmakers, comics, poets have to do, you know, someone has to make things manageable and this is I think uh, the plight, I think where, where we are going is that here’s another thing. The internet is fast. You get things faster now. You can watch comedy everywhere on the internet. You know, is there room for the comic to get on stage anymore, you know what I mean? The real, the rawness of being on stage in front of an audience, you know, are we losing that? That’s another thing we got to ask ourselves, are we losing that? Hell, people post you know, you can go on stage one night just working out material and people could film you and post you just trying out jokes. And people will think oh, he’s not that funny, because he’s trying material, you know, there’s, I put it out there because that’s what, how fast the internet is, the internet is fast, man. Influences a million people with one post.
SMOOVE: So we, you know, we have to figure out what is, where is the state of comedy going at? You know, if people are, tons of people are funny on, on YouTube. Tons of people are funny all over the internet, they post funny things every day. You gotta ask yourself, and that makes the, the comedian work even harder to be original, you know, to get his brand out there because what ha—what have people not seen? Which is almost like what’s going on right now, you know, okay think about this movie. 50 Shades of Grey. What have people not seen? You know what I mean? What have people not seen as far as erotic, you know, you know, movies? You know, we’ve seen it in, what, Nine and 1/2 Weeks of summer movies. You know, that makes a movie like, you know, you know, 50 Shades of Grey have a hard time entertaining anyone when you’ve seen it all, you know what I’m saying? When you see it all, you’ve seen it all. Same thing with laughter, you know, you see all, there’s millions of funny people on the internet. We see funny videos all the time, we see funny, uh, uh, producers produce amazing funny YouTube pieces, funny stuff. You know, they’re not comedians who hop on stage, but the content…
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: I’m talking about the content. Overall, funny is funny, you know? Do you separate the people who are on the internet from people who hit the stage or is funny funny and have people who do frequent the internet a lot and watch comedy and watch funny stuff all day long, are they, are they stagnant? Are they stuck in one place? You gotta go way overboard to make them laugh now, or you gotta have a tremendous brand behind you or people can just kind of love you.
SMOOVE: And when they love you, they love you, you know, and your style never gets stale, you can keep on going, you know, so we gotta ask ourselves where is comedy going and will there be a, is there a ceiling? Is there a ceiling to comedy, I don’t know?
SMOOVE: We may hit a ceiling and they’ll be like oh, we can’t go any further than this, you know, it’s possible, it’s possible.
SMOOVE: But the true comic, I do, I do believe the true comic will never be extinct, you know..
SMOOVE: People are always gonna want to get out of the house, get from the front of the computer, and always want to have some entertainment. It’s up to us to progress and make ourselves relevant constantly.
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: So that what’s going on with the internet, all the funny people in the world doesn’t, you know, make that amazing experience of being in a comedy club, in a theater watching live comedy, you know, so that won’t go away, you know…
HEFFNER: The struggle to be relevant.
SMOOVE: The struggle to be relevant, it’s powerful, it’s really powerful, and you know, and we have, you know how many times I reinvented myself? I’ve rein—I’m telling you, I have reinvented, I have reinvented myself so many times because not only do you have to entertain your audience, you have to entertain yourself, you know? If you’re having fun on stage, people have fun with you. If you’re not relevant, and, and you’re not finding some way to always be ahead of the curve and always find some way to, to make yourself laugh which in turn allows you to write funnier, which in turn allows you to be in the company of funny people…
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: Which allows the phone to ring constantly, allows you to do more movies, more TV, more everything, you have to continue to grow as a comic, as, as, as entertainer, it still is entertainment.
HEFFNER: I see why you say you have to have a crazy tolerance for pain, [LAUGHS]
SMOOVE: You do.
HEFFNER: Both introspectively, but also responsive to your environment, which is, which is what you’re describing.
SMOOVE: Exactly. You really have to… we have to have this level where we can take anything. A lot of times we realize, when a comic’s on stage saying oh, my dad left when I was five, more than likely his dad left when he was five…
SMOOVE: And the only way he can spin and make it funny, his way of dealing with it. He deals with it by being funny about it, which, which in turn is like a, it spreads like, it’s like wildfire. ‘Cause somebody in that audience also probably had the same situation…
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: But it makes them feel better now knowing that okay, he went through the same thing, you know what I mean?
SMOOVE: Right, and he put a funny spin on it. Which in turn I’m laughing at it now ‘cause I can do, it makes me laugh watching this comedian on stage talk about his terrible family life,
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: You know, but I had the same situation, so now I can laugh at him, you know, it, it eases the pain. We are therapists, believe it or not, we are therapists and there is no way, shape, or form, we are therapists, somebody has to do this.
HEFFNER: You’ve been a comic, hilarious one, in the pre-YouTube era.
HEFFNER: And one of the things that I think is brilliant about Four Courses is,
HEFFNER: What we, we aspire to do here on The Open Mind.
HEFFNER: Re-learn how to talk to each other.
SMOOVE: The Internet is the greatest worst invention in the history of inventions because no one is, has direct contact with each other anymore. That’s why I’m saying, you know, to hear true comedy and be connected with people, nothing better than being in a room full of 400 hundred people, be all laughing at the same damn thing,
HEFFNER: Mm hm.
SMOOVE: You know, cracking the hell up, elbowing the guy next to you, you don’t even know this guy, [LAUGHS] you know what I mean? You’re laughing on the way home in the car, you, you’re enjoying it.
SMOOVE: You enjoy that moment. And here’s another thing: We as comedians, we do not get residuals on you taking that joke home, laughing in the car, you know, we don’t get paid, you, that’s free.
HEFFNER: But you’re heartwarmed. [LAUGHS]
SMOOVE: That’s for you, no, when we on stage, these jokes are for you to take home with you.
SMOOVE: You know, we don’t get paid, the promoter, the club owner pays us to perform that night.
SMOOVE: They make money on drinks, they make money on admissions, they pay us.
SMOOVE: But we give you a performance for free.
HEFFNER: Resilience, a resilience, right, resilience of comedy.
SMOOVE: You can tell it at your family reunion, you can retell these jokes, you can retell ‘em in the car, you can claim these jokes at work, you can just keep going, these jokes go on and on and on and on. We don’t get paid every time you tell that joke,
SMOOVE: Wouldn’t that be something? If they found some way to, to, to use a satellite system and somehow every time you uttered the words, a, a punch line from one of my shows, or one of my Leonisms from Curb, I get paid. Wouldn’t that be something else?
HEFFNER: [LAUGHS] I’d owe you a lot of money then. [LAUGHS]
SMOOVE: You’d owe me a lot of money. But that’s not how it works.
SMOOVE: That’s free, that is for you to take home and to enjoy for the rest of your life.
HEFFNER: And it should be, and it should be that way, right?
SMOOVE: It should be that way, of course. Of course, we, we are the heart, heartbeat of the world, we are the heartbeat of the world, that’s for you to take home.
HEFFNER: What happens when that core in comedy, uh, turns out to be a false core? And I can’t help but think about Bill Cosby. I don’t know if he was a formative figure in, in your comic journey, but in your case, you really get what you see and that’s authentic and I can tell you that from being off-camera with you just for a few minutes.
HEFFNER: When you’re, when you’re wronged as a, as a consumer of comedy that’s supposed to give you some relief and then you, you turn out, it was bogus, it was a lie, and this familial love, loving character or loveable character was a hoax,
SMOOVE: Again, because of the nature of what we do and what we give and you know, it’s a, if, if, if one of your heroes you know, you’re talking about someone whose, whose ability to make someone laugh is, is, is just um, …unprecedented, I mean he success in what he does very well. If that’s who inspired you as a kid growing up, that part doesn’t change. You understand? It doesn’t change. You know, you can go throughout history of someone who inspired you, of what they do, and later on in life maybe that changed. What, if you grew up loving O.J. Simpson, let’s just, let’s just throw it out there, and you want to play football and you followed his whole career, football, football, football, football, every time you got on the field you wanted to wear his number, you wanted all his stuff. Him, let’s just say this. He inspired you to be a football player, right? You, all your moves, you emulated everything he did. You in turn took all that stuff you did and you used that to propel yourself into a football career. You were great, all they compared you to was O.J. Simpson. They say he has all the moves, it’s almost like he, he copied every move O.J. ever did on that football field. He holds the ball the same way, he runs the same way, he even did a commercial like O.J. when he jumped over the, in the, in the airport. Everything. Then all of a sudden you found out something else happened, right? You know, some, some crime was committed. Now if they said, hey man, I know he inspired you but because he inspired you, I’m gonna have to take all that away.
SMOOVE: I’m gonna take every last thing you ever got inspired by that man away from you, you know? I know you’re already in the NFL, but I’m gonna have to take all those skills away, ‘cause you took it from O.J. Can’t hold the ball like that anymore, O.J. holds the ball like that. You can’t run that fast anymore ‘cause that’s how O.J. ran, you know?
SMOOVE: Does it change anything? Does it change who you are? Should it change who you are?
SMOOVE: So you, should you be, should you not be inspired? Should you, should you throw everything that inspired you and motivated you to do this profession? Should you take all that away from you?
HEFFNER: As is true to form, J.B., it’s,
SMOOVE: Going deep.
HEFFNER: It’s a deep question,
SMOOVE: You know I go deep.
HEFFNER: And I’m so glad that I, [LAUGHS] you did go deep. And also,
SMOOVE: I put it, I put it clearly.
HEFFNER: You did,
SMOOVE: You gotta ask about what, what,
HEFFNER: You provoked, I,
SMOOVE: A thought. Think about it. Does that change?
HEFFNER: And as a devout Woody Allen fan as well as a J.B. Smoove fan,
SMOOVE: There you go.
HEFFNER: You have to contemplate these questions about separating the integrity of art and the integrity of, of humanity, it’s a difficult question, J.B., I’m so sorry to say, we’re out of time, if you can believe it.
SMOOVE: Oh, darn it.
SMOOVE: Time flies. But you know what? This is how I go in. Laughter is laughter, fun is fun, and you have to find something to relate them together. This is a science.
SMOOVE: This is a sweet science, you know, like boxing, boxing’s a sweet science, right? The southpaws, the knockout punches, there’s, there’s power punching guys, there’s guys with sluggers, you know, this is what comedy is, this is the essence of it, you know what I mean?
HEFFNER: Essence, and on that, [LAUGHS]
SMOOVE: And I hope to come back some time and finish this conversation ‘cause I feel like we, we only skimmed…
HEFFNER: The preface.
SMOOVE: The preface of the mind of J.B. Smoove and how I think. All the motivation of it all, brother. I appreciate you having me too.
HEFFNER: Brother, thanks so much.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.