From comedian to writer to actor, funnyman JB Smoove has plenty of identities. But these days, most folks just know him as Leon Black, thanks to his return to the role this year after Curb Your Enthusiasm returned from six years off the air.
Although he is mainly recognized as Larry David's right-hand man on the HBO show, Smoove is actually a veteran standup. He got his mainstream start in 1995 on the inimitable Def Comedy Jam. Curb didn't come along for the comedian until 2007, but since then, Leon has grown to become one of the show's most beloved characters.
So much so that Smoove recently released a book written as Leon. In the tome, dubbed The Book of Leon: Philosophy of a Fool, Smoove gives life advice to readers as Leon, though, as Smoove told us in a recent phone interview, you may not want to actually take any of that advice seriously.
Here, we talk with Smoove about Curb, Leon's new book, and the state of standup comedy ahead of his Friday gig at the Valley Forge Casino Resort in King of Prussia.
Since you’re coming to the area for a standup gig, I wanted to talk about Def Comedy Jam, which was an early break for you. What was going to the 25th anniversary show earlier this year like?
You gotta realize, comedians are very particular animals. Some comedians get along with each other; some don't get along with each other.
In that room was the balance of a family reunion. Like with your reunion, you got that one uncle or auntie you can't stand, or your momma don't like her sister-in-law, or whatever it is. It's the same energy, man. It's like a family, you put things to the side for the betterment of the show. And now, this is the fruit of our labor. It was the biggest thing since sliced bread to be on that damn show.
After more than 20 years in the game, what is it that still attracts you to doing standup?
I love doing things I can only do once. There's something cool about that. Standup gives you that immediate reaction from an audience, and it's something where you can leave that stage and you can feel it.
You get in the car, get back to the hotel, and you can still feel it. You get on the plane to go home the next morning, and you can still feel it. And not just you — the people who came to see you got that. It'll make your week better. Some people come to a standup show to take their minds off what's going on in this crazy world, and that's what we do as comedians.
Comedians are in an interesting spot, culturally. It’s like people are looking to them for guidance in some ways.
We are that next-level of what's going on in the world. We have to have deep thoughts, and take what's going on in the world, take in, process it, and give it to you in a manageable, funny form. Some people don't even like watching the real news because it's so terrible. They'd rather watch what a comedian says about it.
Still, though, plenty of comedians have remarked the political correctness is hurting comedy. Is P.C. culture something that you think hurts standup or comedians’ approach to it?
The world is so P.C. right now. It's sad how everything we say now is being looked at. It's always been that way with comedians. We've always taken the world and made light of it. That's what standup always should be. If you're a comedian and you have to think about every word you say very carefully, you are not a comedian anymore. You're thinking too hard about what you better not say.
Even with the new Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’ve noticed that backlash. People are obviously happy that it’s back, but many who say that it is politically incorrect, or disliked the way the show joked about same-sex marriage or some other topic.
Curb has been that since the first season the show ever came on. If Curb had been off for years and it didn't come back the Curb you remembered, it would still be criticized. So what do you do? Do you come back and hit home runs and go for the jugular vein? Or do you come back and pull back?
I think they need to do the show people want to see. Otherwise, it wouldn't be the show people expected. They'd say, 'Ah, they sucked it up and fell into the pattern of what everyone else is doing,' which is being silenced. Which has never been the purpose of comedy. Comedy is always out there, and it should be that way.
It's like me doing a slave joke. I can't do a slave joke and make light of it? It's history; it's not something that happened yesterday, like, "How can you talk about that so soon?" This isn't a "too soon" moment.
Comedians go so deep because it's the pain that we turn into the comedy that makes light of the world. If we can't make light of anything, it causes you to get the direct, blunt strike of what's bad about the world. I think we are going to look back on this time in history where we allowed the ills of the world to consume us to the point where we can't make light of it or deal with it.
I think everyone is trying to be “woke,” and understand everything, and that’s a noble, important goal. But maybe we should also try to understand what comedy is.
Not just what it is, what it's always been — the essence of it.
I'm a black man, I know that on those plantations there was one funny dude who stood up on that soapbox and made everyone laugh when the masters went back into their house. You need someone who is funny, who takes the sting off what we're going through. Someone better take the sting off it.
With The Book of Leon, why did you want to do it in character?
At first, I was going to do a JB Smoove book. I was on the set with Larry one day, and we were in between shots. I said, "You know, I'm writing this book. I want to do a Leon book, but I wasn't sure if I could do it or not." He said, "No, you should do a Leon book. People would love it because they love the character. Do it."
I went back home, scrapped everything else, and started playing around with it. I would actually channel Leon. I would put my du-rag on and get into that Leon mode because he's a very particular animal. I wanted to make sure it was true to the character.
How did you approach writing?
I wanted to make it feel like he was talking to you as if you're Larry. The show is improv-based, so I wanted the book to feel like it was Leon just spewing out these crazy thoughts. At the same time, I didn't want to write over Leon's head. There are certain things Leon would know about, and I wanted to make sure I stayed in that pocket of not being too smart. Not that Leon's dumb — he's stupid-smart. That old, "He ain't wrong, he just ain't right. Leon will [screw] your life up.
One of the things you’ve said since the book came out is that “JB has some Leon in him, but Leon doesn’t have any JB in him.” What is the difference?
I think there's a lot of Leon in JB. I think everyone should have a little Leon in them, because it will allow you to separate yourself from a situation. That's what having a little Leon in you will do — the ability to change gears, and the ability to say something, to have confidence in your movement. At the same time, I don't think there's any JB in Leon, because I don't think Leon has the capacity to have a certain set of manners, or carry himself a certain way. And that's cool.
Leon seems more survival oriented, just trying to make it through the day.
If there was an apocalypse and the world ended, they say roaches would survive. They're the only thing that would survive the apocalypse. I say that roaches and Leon would survive. You'll see all these roaches crawling around, and then you'll see Leon hiding under a baby pool. He'll crawl out from under it like, "Whoo, that was close!'