The voice. Her nasal, New York intonation is unmistakable. I half expect her to be hurling expletives à la TV alter ego Susie Greene on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but instead she is apologizing for missing an earlier phone interview appointment. Susie Greene apologizing? Something doesn’t seem right.
But this, after all, is not Susie Greene calling but Susie Essman. Essman may have invented Susie Greene and has deeply loved playing her for seven seasons on the HBO show but the actress and real-life comedian is quick to point out that she is not Greene, nor is Greene’s point of view necessarily compatible to that of Essman’s.
That’s a good thing to keep in mind should you see Essman, 54, when she appears at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival Tuesday night to talk about her new book, What Would Susie Say? (Simon & Schuster, $25). Then again, Essman, herself, is so fully formed, with sage and humorous observations and opinions on everything from marriage to parenting to career development to getting older, that a few minutes into the conversation you’re apt to realize, “Wow, Susie Essman does have something to say.”
“A lot of people have been asking me for a long time to write a book. My manager and my agent have been hocking me and hocking me, ‘Now’s the time, now’s the time,'” says Essman, who is Jewish and lives in New York. “I knew if I was going to write a book that I was going to write it, not a ghost writer. But I’ve never written a book so I didn’t know if I would be a decent writer.
“So I sat down and wrote out a treatment — a list of everything I might want to include. And I looked at it and thought, ‘I might have something to say here.'”
Essman adds that another reason she wrote the book at this time is because of her four stepchildren, ranging in age from 16 to 21. She and her husband, a commercial real estate broker named Jim Harder, married in September of last year after dating for six years. It is Essman’s first marriage.
“I wanted my kids to understand what my life had been like before I had success — all those years of struggle,” she says. “I told them about it but they didn’t listen. Now that it is in writing, they actually have to pay attention to it.
“I want them to understand that careers take a long time and dedication and hard work. How you treat people in the business you’re in, the kind of person you are, really does matter.”
Although in the book she says that her strategy for getting her stepchildren to love her was to buy them everything- “they’re like Russian mail-order brides –the more you spend, the more they love you” — it’s clear from talking to her that she genuinely adores them and being a parent. She confesses that the most surprising thing about marriage was “the stuff people tell you but that I didn’t want to believe is really true.”
“I do feel more secure and safer,” she explains. “And the kids feel more secure, too, especially the youngest who was very little when her parents got divorced. She used to crawl into bed with me and say, ‘You promise me that you and my dad won’t split up.’ Now, I think (the kids) feel much more secure and that we are truly a family unit.”
The book details Essman’s biological family as well, where she jokes that her 83-year-old mother, according to her self-diagnosis, has been dying since 1963. “Disease was discussed at the dinner table with regularity,” she writes. “Between the soup and salad, we usually had botulism, stroke and retinitis pigmentosa.”
Essman, whose father died in 2001, says she worried about her mother’s reaction to the book, but is pleased to report she likes it very much. “When I first told my parents I was going to be a comic, you can imagine they weren’t thrilled,” recalls Essman, who majored in urban studies at the State University of New York at Purchase. “But my parents, smartly, were not the kind of parents who really imposed what they wanted for their kids onto their kids. A lot of Jewish parents do that by saying, ‘You’ve got to go to medical school or an Ivy League school.’ Mine were hands off. Of course once I became successful, they were truly fine with it.
“But what really affects my mother now is that her friends all like the book. There was a piece about me in the New York Times and on CBS Sunday Morning. All the things important in her world have been validated. She’s a little star in Larchmont (N.Y., where she lives).”
Essman’s book, which is part memoir, part rant, but in a very entertaining way, also chronicles her early career doing stand-up in New York clubs and friendships with colleagues including Curb’s creator Larry David, who also co-developed NBC’s hit Seinfeld. She describes David as a “comic’s comic,” and explains that she met him in the mid-1980s when they were both working the New York comedy club circuit. “All of the comics stood in the back of the room to watch when Larry was on because he was so funny and his material was completely original,” she writes. “There was no one else like him.”
In December of 1999, he called out of the blue and asked her to play Jeff Garlin’s wife on a new comedy David was developing for HBO. He explained there was no script, she’d be in three episodes and it was really low budget.
There’s no money. Will you do it?’ he asked.
“Yeah, OK,” she replied.
Essman says that when she arrived on set, she took one look at the house that was supposed to be Susie Greene’s and how it was decorated and the character just came to her. “I know who she is inside and out . . . I put on those wild outfits and just become her,” she says, adding that to her delight, Susie Greene was so well received, she has been with the show through its entirety.
Of course I asked about the outcome of the Seinfeld reunion unfolding in the current season of Curb and whether Larry and (his TV wife) Cheryl will get back together. And of course Essman refused to reveal any details. On the subject of whether there will be a Season Eight she said she wished she knew. “Larry will just call and even though we have other things going on in our lives, we all somehow figure out how to clear our schedules because we have so much fun doing the show together,” she says.
Essman wouldn’t mind doing another TV series, though she thinks it would be hard to do another comedy. “I get these sitcom scripts that are so lame compared to Curb,” she says. “I’d love to have a talk show or play a comedic character like a cop or a judge or a psychiatrist on a more dramatic series. What I don’t want is be in a bad sitcom with bad writing.”
Meanwhile, she is excited about her first trip to St. Louis, and participating in the festival. Oh, and don’t be surprised if she touts her beloved, World Series bound Yankees, though she expressed disappointment at the undoing of the Cardinals in the playoffs against the Dodgers.
Essman will be interviewed by local actress Stellie Siteman as well as read from What Would Susie Say? and answer questions. “My hope is that what people will take away is that life is difficult and there is a lot of struggle but if you are able to laugh at yourself and find humor in the world around you, it’s a whole lot easier to get through,” Essman says.
“If we treat each other all with respect and kindness, life is a whole lot easier to get through, too.”
And that’s what Susie would say.
WHO: Author of What Would Susie Say?, a conversation with local actress Stellie Siteman
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3
WHERE: The JCC Staenberg Family Complex in Creve Coeur
HOW MUCH: $20 or free with a series ticket ($60)
TICKETS: 314-442-3299 or www.brownpapertickets.com