“It’s always different. I never plan ahead of time,” said award-winning comedian, actress and author, Susie Essman, appearing at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s “Night of the Stars” on May 16.
Well, of course, she plans ahead of time, Essman said in a recent phone conversation about how she works, but…
“I plan in the sense that, on the way down [to Baltimore], I’ll be going over it in my head. It’s a Jewish audience, so I’ll do more of my Jewish material. But you never know until you stand up onstage and feel the audience,” she said. “It’s a very mercurial thing that you can’t really put your finger on. But when you’re a performer, you just feel a vibe from an audience. And you know where to go.”
“I usually plan what I’m going to open with, because I have to start somewhere,” she added. “Beyond that, I just let it rip.”
Letting it rip is certainly an apt description of Essman’s style of comedy and, perhaps, even her career, which includes more than three decades of work in stand-up comedy, film and television as well as her 2009 book, “What Would Susie Say?”
Essman was 28 the first time she walked onstage, a bit late for any kind of performance career, she admits. But once she was there, she knew she was where she needed to be.
“For two years after I started doing stand-up, I was still waitressing. I couldn’t make a living. The only way to get good is to do it, and you’re always fighting for stage time,” she said. “That’s the big competition. I came up in the mid ’80s when it was the comedy renaissance in New York.”
Yet she remembers those early days with fondness, for the community of comedians and the camaraderie they built.
“None of us thought about being famous,” she said. “We were all working on material and we were young and striving and we all wanted to be great comedians.”
Her education started early. As a girl of 9 or 10, Essman remembers entertaining her brother’s friends after school.
“I would stand on the kitchen table and do song parodies and pull things out of the counters and do fake commercials. I was always doing stuff like that,” she said.
In addition to her funny family, early influences included her parents’ Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner classic comedy album “The 2,000 Year Old Man.”
“I used to play that over and over. I literally wore it out,” she said. “I would recite that entire album, both parts, standing on the kitchen table.”
What struck her later was that she was so young, she couldn’t have understood it all.
“Yet, I knew it was funny because of the rhythms.”
Even now, she will hear herself doing Mel Brooks’ comedy rhythms, “because it’s so ingrained in me.”
Her early women-in-comedy influences lean more toward Carol Burnett and Anne Meara (with whom she later became friends) than stand-ups like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. She connected more to sketch and situational comedy, but eventually became adept and comfortable with a more natural kind of stand-up, more akin to Richard Pryor, who she called a revelation.
“He did a completely different type of comedy than I was used to seeing on TV,” she said. “It was storytelling. It was character. He had an accessible vulnerability about him, which was so amazing. I, to this day, think he’s the greatest stand-up that ever lived.”
Although not brought up in a religious household, Essman said her family “was so Jewish.” Her grandmother, an immigrant, moved from the shtetl to the Lower East Side of New York, left school in third grade to work in a factory and had an arranged marriage. Still, she was “really, really funny.”
That kind of immigrant experience infuses a lot of Jewish comedy, Essman said
“When you’re a comedian, you’re always kind of the outsider looking in,” she said. “But I also think the idea of Judaism and the questioning aspect of it — that’s part of the religious experience. And comedians question everything. They look at everything through a critical lens and an analytic lens. So I think that the mindset of being a religious person is very conducive to comedy and Judaism.”
Essman, who turns 64 in May, brings all of that experience to her work; work that she loves and feels very lucky to be a part of.
“We just finished season 10 [of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’] a couple weeks ago,” she said. “It’s amazing. I show up at work. I yell and scream. I kick Larry out of my house. I curse at everybody. And then they give me money and I go home and they love me for it. I have the greatest job in the whole world.”
For more information on Susie Essman’s May 16 event at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, visit baltimorehebrew.org.