When JB Smoove greets me over the phone from Los Angeles and I ask how he’s doing, the veteran comedian tells me he’s “kicking it Willie Bobo style.” I’d never heard the phrase before, but the 51-year-old is quick to offer an explanation. Willie Bobo was a legendary jazz musician known for his cool demeanor and “kicking it Willie Bobo” simply means relaxing, taking it easy. “Everyone should learn how to kick it Willie Bobo,” Smoove says.
Over the course of his 20-plus years as a comic and actor, JB Smoove has mastered the art of making hard work look similarly effortless. He got his start in the ‘90s on Def Comedy Jam and has since appeared in countless specials, shows, and films. With the return season of Curb Your Enthusiasm underway, and a new book on shelves written as his character Leon, JB Smoove is entering his late-career prime. In a wide-ranging interview, Smoove told me about attending Def Comedy Jam’s 25th anniversary special, never leaving his Curb character, and his ideas for a Pootie Tang sequel.
Def Comedy Jam is where you got your start and the show just celebrated with a 25th anniversary performance. What was it like to be in the building for that?
It was absolutely amazing. At that time, when Def Comedy Jam came around, this was like the heyday of black comedy. We all went downtown to perform in the comedy clubs but we didn’t have our own personal show. It was a tone, a style of comedy that Def Comedy Jam represented. And it wasn’t only black comedians either, it was comedians that had a certain flavor to them, no matter where they lived — New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit — all around the country. You found out about these different comedians through Def Comedy Jam.
When you’re performing in your own circle, you don’t realize that there are tons of other people out there. This is a bad example but it’s kind of like The Walking Dead. You’re going through your own zombie shit in your neighborhood, everybody’s zombied the fuck up, but you don’t realize that there’s zombies all over the place. Everybody got zombies in their backyard. I met new comedians and I had no idea who they were until I did Def Comedy Jam. So, all these years later, this amazing event was a reunion. We got comics that made their way out of the pack and became huge stars, and you got comedians who you never heard from again. Being in that building was like the A to Z of comedy. Without Def Comedy Jam, none these people would have had a platform. Even if you didn’t perform on Def Comedy Jam, you were inspired by it and benefitted from the fact that it existed.
You’ve had success in black comedic spaces and on mainstream sitcoms. Do you think the way those two things are viewed by Hollywood and the larger public has changed over the course of your career?
I made it a point to spread myself around. I did a lot of firsts: some of the first stuff on Comedy Central, I did Comikaze on MTV, I did it across the board. As great as Def Comedy Jam was, I wanted to make sure I had some sort of variety in my career. For me all of that helped out and helped change the whole scope of what comedy is and what people laugh at. You gotta realize, if you live in a major city like New York or Chicago, your audience could be mixed and they’re laughing their asses off because they understand what you’re talking about. That material couldn’t work anywhere, you wouldn’t see someone out in Alaska doing those jokes back then.
Now, times are different because we have social media and so many other outlets. You can go anywhere in the world and perform in that style. Back then, you were limited to where you could go with it and you got cornered into a certain style. Or they would assume that people wouldn’t laugh at what you were talking about because your only major credit was Def Comedy Jam.
After Trump got elected, Dave Chappelle made a comment that “Trump is kind of bad for comedy” because comedians now feel required to talk about him. Have you found that to be true?
I’m from the school of “you talk about what you know about.” There’s a global way of relating to people and then there’s a way of relating to people in the experiences that you’ve been through that connect with your audience.
I don’t talk about Trump at all. I’ve never had a political joke in my life, and I’ve been doing comedy for 20-something years. I think the only bit I ever did was about how Obama always sidesteps off of Air Force One. Did you ever see him walk off Air Force One? He always did a cool little trot down. You would do the same trot when you’re coming out your crib. I would be like, Damn, he got the coolest swagger down those stairs. His body’s always at 2 o’clock and he’s trotting down.
But there are comedians who like being political because they can find ways to make light of whatever the situation is. I think some comics feel compelled to do that, I’ve never relied on it at all.
When did you find out that Curb Your Enthusiasm was coming back?
I call Larry all the time. I check on him, see what’s up, stop by his office and see what’s up. Every once in a while, I’d bring it up or he’d say he was thinking about bringing the show back. And thinking about it is way different than saying, “I don’t think so.” I kept testing the waters all the time. One time, I told him, “Hey man, if your ass don’t come back, you better spin me off and stop fucking around.”
I never knew if he was definitely coming back, but I always got the most questions about it. I was doing a lot of interviews, a lot of TV shows, and they would always ask me about Curb. After a while, I got tired of answering questions about it, so I started making shit up. They’d start putting shit out like, “JB Smoove says Larry’s coming back,” or “JB Smoove says it’s a possibility.”
How did it feel to get back on set with Larry and the rest of the Curb Your Enthusiasm crew after the long hiatus?
Oh man, it was amazing. It felt shorter than it really was. Until someone told me that it was five or six years, I didn’t even realize that it had been that long. I live my character almost every day. When you’re on a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm, everybody always refers to the show and bring up your lines so you never feel like the show’s been gone. I sat next to a guy in first class once, and he talked to me all the way to New York and called me Leon the whole damn trip. Everybody started calling me Leon. It became like that was my real name.
So even though the show wasn’t taping, I still felt like I was living this character because people love the show so much. It didn’t feel like five years since we were gone. It felt like we just picked up where we left off.
Leon is known for his catchphrases, and I’m curious how these things come together on set. Is it all improvised?
We get an outline of the what the show is and what it’s about. There isn’t any lines. When we rehearse we just say, “Blah, blah, blah,” while they’re setting up how the shot is gonna look. I like to say we create branches, meaning we create our own story line. When I’m on set, I always try to give Larry something different about Leon that he didn’t know about. I throw shit out there and most of what you see is just off the dome. Larry is basically underhanding that shit to you, all you gotta do is hit the damn ball. Everybody can’t do it. Not everybody has that gear to go all improv. It’s like walking on a tightrope with no net but I love it. I think it’s the most amazing form to work in. I don’t like to know the whole story line; I go on set, shoot the scene, and I leave. When I watch the show, I’m a real fan, I’m watching it for the first time like everybody else.
You were saying you never really left the character. How is Leon different from the real-life JB?
Here’s what I think: JB has some Leon in him, but Leon has no JB in him. Leon is a different animal. I think everybody needs a little bit of Leon in them if you wanna survive out here. He thrives and finds some way to survive. He uses his mouth, his wit, everything at his disposal. I truly believe that if the earth ended tomorrow — you know they say the roaches would be only thing left — I think it would be roaches and Leon. Those two would survive a nuclear holocaust. The philosophy of this dude is up there with the great philosophers.
That brings us to The Book of Leon. How did that come together?
I was already writing a book but I wasn’t sure if I could do it or not because I don’t own the character. I mentioned that I was writing a book to Larry one day and he was like, “You should write a Leon book.” I went back, changed all that shit around, and wrote the book thinking about who Leon is. I would put my durag on, put my slippers on, pull my socks up to my knees and write. I had to channel him. I wrote the book so I’m talking to you, the reader, like I talk to Larry. Look, this book isn’t for everybody. A lot of you mothafuckas can’t bring the ruckus. If you’re in a relationship, or you got a regular ass job, you don’t need this book. This shit ain’t for you. I don’t wanna fuck your life up.
I’d feel remiss if I didn’t ask you about one of my favorite films of all time, Pootie Tang. What do you think is the legacy of that movie now?
Sadatay my main damie. That movie was so fun. Of course that character came from The Chris Rock Show. I work with [Pootie Tang star] Lance Crouther all the time. He got rid of the ponytail; I said, “Where the fuck is the ponytail?” For years, I’ve been talking to Chris Rock about doing a sequel where Pootie Tang goes on a singles cruise to the Bahamas or some shit like that. I told Chris he should do Pootie Tang 3 and then muthafuckas would be like, “Wait a minute. I don’t remember number two coming out.” Come on man, give me the rights to this. That movie’s a cult classic.