“Jolly” and “optimistic” aren’t descriptors you’d readily associate with your average hardened veteran comics, but then again, JB Smoove has never been an average comedian. The energetic, frenetic funnyman who rose to fame using his entire body as his instrument on the Def Comedy Jam stage has become even more of a household name after occupying the fictional household of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm as Leon, the bubbly-but-won’t-take-no-shit street philosopher who he befriended three seasons ago.
Smoove returned for Curb’s 9th season to further help Larry avoid his signature self-destruction and dysfunction. He also released a new book, The Book of Leon: Philosophy of a Fool, told through the voice, attitude, and sensationalized (re: silly) sagacity of this beloved character. Leon has always been both the shoulder-angel and shoulder-devil of Larry’s life, and now we have him immortalized in literary form.
JB hopped on the phone with me discuss the new season of Curb, The Book of Leon, his time as a writer on SNL, and the secret to remaining a happy humorist.
Before we get into the latest season of Curb and your new book, I was hoping we could talk about your career in standup a bit.
Let’s do it, baby.
I was listening to you on Barry Katz’s podcast and he mentioned that when you were coming up, you always stood out for having this relentlessly positive attitude even within the hostile, cutthroat environment of comedy clubs. Do you have a philosophy behind remaining a happy comic?
Oh for sure, man. There are a lot of angry comedians. Why do we need one more? I always believe that you pull people into your world. As a standup comedian, all you’re doing is having people like you for a little bit – five minutes, three minutes, an hour, whatever it is. And being a standup is to perform how the world works in your head. I feel like I’m always the life of the party. I’m that dude if no one’s dancing, I’ll start the party and get everyone up out their seats. I’m that dude. I could’ve been a comedian or I could’ve been a DJ. It don’t matter to me. They have a similar function. I feel like if you can go out there and enjoy what you do, people gravitate towards that energy. While you’re giving them your humor, you’re also giving them a take on the world.
So you have a more holistic approach to getting a laugh out of an audience?
I like to offer a take that’s in my head and give them a stress-free environment to entertain the thought of how to move through life a different way. I’m not for everybody, but I think if you can show an audience that that sort of thing is possible, it can open up everybody’s mind. It allows them to think like you for a little while. It allows them to laugh at the premise as opposed to just the punchline. There’s nothing better in standup than when people already start laughing before you arrive at the punchline. The world that you pulled them into already has them laughing. That’s whether I’m telling jokes, telling a good story at a party, going to visit a person at the hospital, whatever it is – they smile when they see me. They know I’m gonna bring a little bit of happiness, a little bit of smiling here and there.
You consider yourself a physical comedian, and you even introduced the tribute to the more physical performers on Netflix’s Def Comedy Jam 25. Do you think physical comedy is an underappreciated art?
I think the world has become so verbal now. The physical comedians are the ones who go on stage and we paint these pictures using our entire body. We take these vivid photos in our head and we bring them to life. It’s hard to do. You have to remember that when a physical comedian falls on the ground and rolls around, he also has to get up — literally and figuratively. If the laugh doesn’t match the physicality that you’re putting out, you gotta get up, brush yourself off, and set the next joke up. So we have multiple jobs. One job is to be verbal. One job is to be visual. Another job is attaching the physicality to all that, which is a lot harder than someone just standing there being clever doing their jokes. If somehow you do both at the same time. — being clever and physical — it allows you to play more than one note for the audience. Being a physical comedian, a la Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey, it’s a very unique skill that we all have. I love it man.
How did you earn the name “King of the Pitch” during your time as a writer on SNL?
The Pitch King, baby! I took the writing gig because even though I’m a standup, I got an offer, so I took it. I went out for cast but didn’t make it. They offered me a writing position. I’m sitting there like, “Man, what do I do? Do I just put aside everything I’m working on and become a writer on SNL?” Then I said I’m gonna do it because it’ll look great on my resume later and that’s a new belt loop I can have. I took my standup philosophy to the writer’s room of SNL.
A lot of guys on that show were real writers. So for me, I was giving it a shot to try to see if I could actually write, although I always still wanted to be in front of the camera. They called me the Pitch King because when it was my turn I’d always pitch, like, four concepts. But I would stand up when I pitch because I felt like I would get the best visual if I stood up as I do on stage. I would just come up with the craziest ideas. As soon as Lorne would say “JB,” everybody would always start laughing. They knew I was coming with something wild. A lot of my sketches didn’t get made, but it’s still about the ideas and just being present in the room. I wanted to be consistent with my style and how my brain worked. That way I was always consistent with my pitches. The room would always laugh. Everybody else would pitch two. I’d always pitch four. Lets you know I’m doing my damn job. [laughs]
Getting into this new season of Curb, your character Leon remains such a standout because he’s this wave of positive energy in a sea of acidic assholes. Did you and Larry discuss that dynamic before filming or does that just play out naturally?
It played out really naturally, man. Leon’s a very particular animal. I think everybody should know a dude like Leon. The type of dude that lives day to day. He really doesn’t know what he’s gonna do tomorrow. He just knows that if you’re dead-ass wrong, this is how you gotta handle it right now. I think he kind of evolved into this yin and yang with Larry. He can call whoever he wants to ask their opinion about something but because Leon’s right there, Larry will always come to Leon to get help with the situations he finds himself in. It’s really one of those good-bad advice type of things that he has with Larry. Leon always says, “You’re not wrong, you just ain’t right either!” I think that’s the philosophy he lives by, and I think from the first time Larry and I worked together, we found out that dynamic really worked because it’s the counter to what Larry is. Leon talks a lot of shit. He’s an expert shit-talker. He’s lived a very vibrant life. I think that’s what Larry loves about him. I think that’s what the fans love about him too.
I interviewed Richard Lewis before the season started and he could not stop talking about how you deserve an Emmy nomination for your performance as Leon. What do you think it is about your style of comedy that the older generation of comics gravitate towards?
I think it’s my honest take on what life really comes down to. Whether you’re black, whether you’re white, no matter who you are, there’s a certain way to think and move in life. There’s a certain way to hustle. There’s a certain way to carry yourself and a certain way to navigate through this world. And I let Leon be the embodiment of that. I think Leon has his own distinct version of how he moves and shakes in this world. I think it touches a nerve in a lot of people. And the older comics can relate to that. When we’re working together — Larry, Richard and I — I will always try to give them something that they didn’t know about Leon, improv some new character detail. I tell them something they never knew about him. That way, it keeps the Leon legend, the myth, going. And Leon is an extension of me. And I love Richard Lewis. He’s been such a great cheerleader for Leon and for JB.
What was it like writing your new book, The Book of Leon: Philosophy of a Fool, through the prism of a character that is practically the opposite of who you are in real life?
There’s some Leon in JB but there’s no JB in Leon. That might sound weird, but Leon is a very particular dude. JB can’t go wrong having a little Leon in him here and there, but in Leon there’s no trace of JB at all. I wanted to make sure that I voiced this character. I actually made sure I didn’t overwrite it. With a character like Leon, he’s a smart guy but smart in his own way. He’s crafty. Not a scholar, but he’s just very intelligent in a specific manner. He acts a fool and you wonder how this dude even survives. They say that roaches will be the only thing that will remain on the earth after a nuclear attack. I believe that if there were a nuclear fallout, all that would be left would be roaches and Leon. That dude will find some way to fucking survive. He’s a survivalist! He’s a self-motivated doomsday prepper. [laughs]
What do you hope readers will take away from The Book of Leon?
When I wrote the book, I wanted to make sure that it definitely captured who this guy is. I wanted to be true to this beloved character. While I was writing the book, I would always put my durag on then put my slippers on and really live vicariously through this dude. That’s what folks love about Leon as a character, and I wanted that honesty to come through the pages.
This book isn’t for everybody. The book is for a certain type of person. It ain’t for people who are married or in committed relationships. Don’t let Leon fuck up your life! [laughs] I wanted people to feel like I’m talking to them like I’m talking to Larry. Imagine the love between Larry and Leon – I wanted to make sure the book voiced that. It should feel like I’m talking to Larry, but I’m really talking to your ass.
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.