High School Reunion
In the summer of 1973, when they last saw each other, Jane and Susie were a couple of frizzy-haired Jewish girls on the letter “E” page of the Mount Vernon High School yearbook. Now, older than their mothers were then, and with seven children and stepchildren between them, Jane Eisner is the editor of the Forward while Susie Essman is a renowned stand-up comedian, the foul-mouthed Susie Greene of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and author of “What Would Susie Say?: Bullsht Wisdom About Love, Life and Comedy” (Simon & Schuster). Here are highlights of their recent conversation at the JCC in Manhattan about love, life and advances in hair products.*
Jane Eisner: Here’s us next to each other in the yearbook.
Susie Essman: Look [at] our hair! In those days there was no product. We used to dry our hair over the orange juice cans — put some Dippity-do on it, and then spend hours drying it right. Then one rainy day, and I’d have sphinx hair — no mousse, no gel.
In Mount Vernon, you were either black, Italian, Jewish or the principal’s kid. Do you remember we had no prom because they were worried there’d be a race riot?
I didn’t hear it was anything to do with a race riot.… We were hippies, so it wasn’t really a time when everyone had a prom.
Do you remember any of the teachers?
We were together in 7D, weren’t we? Then I was kicked out of advanced math by Mrs. Smith into 8C — remember her? — and realized that the smart kids had to work hard, but it was easy to work less hard if you were in a class with the mediocre kids.
Before we leave the yearbook, tell us about four years of chess club!
Lies, all lies! As I recall, we turned up for the pictures — which were all at the same time — and just sat in as many photos as possible.
You tell the story in the book about making Alan King laugh at a Friars Club roast of Jerry Stiller and becoming accepted as a woman.
Stand-up was beyond a boys’ club. I started in 1983, and in the club scene, no male comic thought women were funny. Richard Belzer and Jerry [Seinfeld] were supportive. They… weren’t threatened by women. And Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, who got on “Ed Sullivan,” had to be self-deprecating… because you couldn’t be an attractive, funny woman. It was too threatening.
So what changed?
Joy Behar and Judy Gold say, maybe…younger guys are nowhere near as sexist, maybe because their moms are out in the workplace.
Why are so many comics Jewish?
Not true anymore.… I think it was because of the assimilation; younger generations are not outsiders anymore…. For the same reason, there’s an influx of black comics like Chris Rock, coming from Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.
Why are there so few great women stand-ups?
There are a few — Wanda Sykes, for example — but it’s much more aggressive than doing sitcoms like “I Love Lucy”…. There are some really good lesbian stand-ups, because they are happier with power, not like straight ones trying to be nice young ladies.
Now that you are successful, is it different?
I still get stage fright, but now it’s because everyone’s coming to see me. I’m the draw. I still come offstage and think, wow, I fooled them again!
Do you think it’s a female thing to say, “I’m not good enough”?
Yeah, sure. Joy and I used to come off and critique ourselves. The men used to come off, after having been awful, and go, “I was great!” Larry [David, creator of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”] wasn’t like that [though]; he was always like us, self-critiquing.
Lots of women find Susie Greene freeing. How did you come up with the character?
Larry had this idea and scene in mind, but no budget and no script. He wanted me to fly myself to L.A. to audition. I told them no way. For the first two years, I was only paid day scale. There was no shouting to start with. I just looked at the home and thought that this woman has no self-doubt. She wears wacky outfits, lives by rules and has absolute confidence…. But she can scream, yell, curse her head off.
Do you sometimes slip into the Susie Greene character?
Yes…like when someone grabbed my daughter’s behind…I just freaked out and totally went Susie Greene on him. My daughter just rolled her eyes at me. The same guy walks up to the next guy on the street and asks for a cigarette, and I shout, “Don’t give him one!” People are visibly disappointed when I’m nice to them.
Did you always think you’d be where you are now?
No, not really.… I never wanted kids when I was growing up, because they bored me. When I met Jimmy I was 48, the kids were 10 to 15, and all we did was drive them around: gymnastics, cheerleading, soccer. It was mind-boggling, but I took to it. You know what they say: “Make plans, God laughs.”
Why did you write the book?
People had been hocking me to do it for a while, and then my manager put a gun to my head. He said, you have to write a book and plug the Web site http://www.susieessman.com! But I sat down and realized I had a lot to say. I wanted to tell my stepkids what I’d gone through; I wasn’t just an overnight success. Over the years, people had kept coming to me for advice. Most of it was funny, but there’s some serious, poignant stuff.
More of a sermon than a stand-up! Did you go to synagogue back in Mount Vernon?
I never went to the synagogue, not me. No bat mitzvah, nothing. Are you religious?
Yes, as a Conservative Jew.
You know, my grandfather read the Forward. My mother’s grandfather was in Yiddish theater. Leo Fyodorov was in the Russian Grand Opera Company; that’s how we came over. He was in silent films, in Lon Chaney’s “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”
Your husband, Jimmy, he’s not Jewish, right?
No. My accountant is Jewish, my manager is Jewish, my lawyer is Jewish, my husband isn’t. But he did finish our basement!
Watch Eisner and Essman discuss their high school days :
Dan Friedman is the editor of the Arts & Culture section of the Forward.