JB Smoove is responsible for some of the most hilarious lines on television as Larry David's fast-talking, frequently misbehaving housemate Leon Black on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. But Smoove's glib appeal isn't courtesy of a script. The 46-year-old actor/writer/comedian has the profanity-laced, verbal stamina of a man half his age, readily producing unexpected metaphors to illuminate particularly important points.
Forgive us for giving into the waiting pun, but, yes, JB is a smooth talker. Which may be why director David Gordon Green saw him fit to play Julio, the loyal sidekick to a flamboyant drug dealer (played by Sam Rockwell) who terrorizes Jonah Hill in the new R-rated comedy The Sitter. And, according to Smoove, that's the same reason why acclaimed director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) choose him to play a charmingly compassionate realtor alongside alongside Matt Damon in the family flick We Bought A Zoo (in theaters December 23rd).
Complex caught up with the animated entertainer to chat about the perils of babysitting, the visceral reaction he craves from audiences during stand-up performances, and what it truly means to "bring the ruckus." Though we still have no idea what it means; like we said, the man is a fast-talker.
Interview by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)
The Sitter centers around a babysitter who isn't equipped for the task. Have you ever looked after someone else's children?
Babysitting is a challenge. That's some horrible shit right there. When you're babysitting a kid, all you're seeing is a version of them, a small dosage. All you're doing is getting a glimpse of a little asshole before they become an adult asshole. You're seeing pre-asshole, before they become a full-, sized, functioning asshole in life. They're a little kid, so you don't want to call them an asshole, but they are out there! They're bred early.
What was it like working with Jonah Hill? Did you have to show him the comedic ropes?
That dude is off the hook. I learned from him. The man is fucking good. He was born to do this shit. He's super professional and surprisingly physical. He's a great physical comic.
And, have you seen that guy lately? That dude looks amazing right now, like Jake Gyllenhaal. I like that it was a gradual thing. It's kind of like the guy at the office who had grey hair for years and he starts using that Grecian foam and gradually goes from grey to charcoal to black again, and no one really notices it. You know why? It's a slow burn. You don't want to lose "I'm on crack" weight. You want a gradual, slow, healthy burn.
It was your first time playing a villain. Was it a nice change of pace to play the bad guy rather than the funny guy?
I like being a bad guy! I'm a damn good bad guy. I like chasing people. When I did We Bought A Zoo with Matt Damon, I said we should do an action movie together because I want to chop somebody in the throat. I want to kick ass in a movie. I'm putting it out there right now! I like threatening people and stopping them and saying, "Imma kill your ass!" That right there, that echoes!
We Bought A Zoo is a big, dramatic production that was a major shift for you in terms of what you normally do. Was the material more demanding than what you're used to?
It's great when a director like Cameron Crowe can take what you do and fit it into what he's doing. If someone's a fan of you already, they can take what you do and make it work for what they're doing. You don't know their vision, and you're thinking, how is this guy going to take what I do and make it work in this movie? But It takes a great director to see the pieces of the puzzle.
It's a major movie, and I'm just happy that he saw something in what I'm doing that could add some levels to his movie. Because there are so many levels in the movie, and no matter how serious it is or how it looks, you still need levels.
Will we see more of your dramatic side in the future?
Some of the best dramatic actors have started in comedy. A lot of comics take tragedy and pain and turn it into funny. There are always levels to a comic. You have to be able to turn that switch on and off when you need it. It's like when you're growing up and you get immunized to protect you from bullshit diseases. When you're a comic and you're on stage, you can feel terrible, you could have been through a whole lot of shit just before you went up on that stage, but somehow you have to gather yourself and you have to turn that energy into something different.
Your stand-up routines are certainly different. What inspires your act?
Comics acquire pieces throughout their life and experiences that we apply to our material. There are comics that do jokes and comics that use experiences. Anybody can tell a joke. It's how you apply that joke to your life and your style. To be a true comic you have to have a signature move. You ever watch wrestling? And your favorite wrestler has the one move that he always does to finish his opponent off, right? Like when he climbs on the rope and he always jumps off the top rope and finishes off his opponent—that's what a comic has. Every comic should have a signature move that people recognize that's always there.
So what's your signature move?
I'm a physical comic, so my finishing move is I never have a finishing move. My thing is, you'll never know. You have no idea what I'm going to say. And you can apply that to your life. Never let anyone known when you're finished doing what the fuck your doing. Then when you leave they'll be like, "Oh, shit, I had no idea she was finished." That's how you do it. No matter what you're doing—I don't give a damn if you're making love, I don't give a damn if you're buying a car, talking shit, or playing. Whatever you're doing in your life, you never let them know when you're finished!
What kind of reaction do you hope to get while performing?
You're trying to make someone vomit. You're trying to make somebody spit their drink on somebody in front of them. You're trying to make someone wet their pants and you're trying to make somebody crap in their pants. That's the motivation of a comic. Who else has that power?
Funny people aren't going to make you swoon or throw your panties on the stage. If you find a comic who's done that, he's broken a new level in stand-up. Laughter generally does not make you take your panties off.
Have you encountered any memorable hecklers?
People be yelling out Curb Your Enthusiasm Leonisms in the middle of my show. And I have to choose if I want to address them and calm that person down by giving them the Leonism back or just ignore them and keep talking.
You have developed quite a following from those Leonisms.
Leon is like a motivational speaker now. You can apply all these things to your life! These are words to live by. You gotta take them and use them in the right way and they will motivate and inspire you to tackle life head on.
Well, there's no party motto quite like "I bring the ruckus."
It applies to babysitting, it applies to driving your car—it's a way of life. There's no better way to building your ruckus up! You gotta go into attack mode. You can't just assume the ruckus will come to you automatically. You don't acquire it. You bring the ruckus and then you use that ruckus. Double your ruckus up! Quadruple your ruckus up! If you cant handle the ruckus, do not ask for the ruckus. Accept that wolfman when the wolfman arrives.
Whats your favorite improvised Leon line of all time?
The one I love the most is where Larry [David] wanted me to snatch the purse and give him the purse so he can be a hero. And I'm like, "Nah, I can't do it half-speed, Larry. Somebody gotta get fucked up, Larry." If you do it half-speed, it's gonna be half-assed. You gotta do it full fucking throttle. And that's what I mean when I say, "Somebody gotta get fucked up, Larry."
To what extent does Larry David let you improvise? Are there lines drawn in terms of veering off the script or subject matter?
There is no script, so for us it's just an outline. He allows us to go as far as our character would go, as opposed to saying the most outrageous thing. I know who Leon is. When I'm doing Leon, we all know what Leon would say. In that way, I always know I'm within range of what my character would say. I never step too far outside of that. Everything my character says is always controlled.
It's hard because you're still trying to stay within the context you're talking about. Improv relies just as heavily upon listening as it does you speaking. Sometimes the most powerful things aren not what you say, it's the fuse you light. That can set the whole scene off. It's just as powerful shutting your ass up as it is trying to be the dominant person in the scene.
Considering the show's high improv content, does Leon have a lot of you in him?
You can have some Leon in you, but Leon can't have shit in him from you. It's just an aggressive way of speaking and applying yourself in a different way. He's a character that lives day to day and has no idea what his plans are tomorrow. He's in the moment. He's guy you can pull into your world, but you cant do it the other way around. He's a dude you can bring with you. He's a condom in your wallet it and you pull it out when you need it.
Where did you get the name "JB Smoove"?
I used to be a dancer for A hip-hop and R&B group in Mount Vernon, New York. Dancing is also an expression like stand-up is; it's an expression of your energy and your feelings in that moment, and you in turn give it to the audience who in turn claps and cheers because they're feelin' it. My partner was J Groove and I was J Smoove. How I spelled "smooth" came from the ending of groove. When I started stand-up, I added the B and became JB Smoove. Yeah!
I see you're on Twitter. Does being funny in under 140 characters challenge you?
It does challenge me. I don't do a whole lot of jokes on Twitter. I try to inspire a lot more than just being funny all day long. I try to keep it within what I do and stay true to my character and true to myself.
Is it hard for you to be succinct when you're used to being given more time to entertain?
You can say a whole lot of shit in the least amount of words. The shorter the better. The longer you go, the more they see who you really are. It's kind of like being in a damn hospital bed and you have that god-damned intravenous hooked in your damn arm. It's a drip. That's what I am: I'm a drip. I drip! You still get hydrated, you still get your nutrients—just a little at a damn time.
How do you think social media and technology in general helps make you a better comedian?
It allows you to hit a wide range of people. I get tweets from Ireland, the UK, and Australia. I get messages from people from all over the place, so, for me, it's amazing. You just touch a lot of people. Thus me coming up with my website, The Ruckus. Humor and comedy are what we do, but we don't own it. The Ruckus came about so people could connect with each other and you could meet someone from Wisconsin and they could be hilarious.
The site is still growing so fast right now. We just teamed up with Russell Simmons; he's now a partner. There are a lot of video sites out there that do funny videos, but we want to do something a little different. We want to cater to my audience, we want to cater to a certain brand of humor. This is a way of pulling in fans who believe in what you're saying and trying to do.
With comedians like Louis CK doing successful work in sitcoms right now, it seems like the time is ripe for you to do your own show. Is that in your plans?
Oh, of course. I would love to do a sitcom. I've been approached by several networks about doing my own show. I think that's on every comic's path, to try to get a TV show on the air. And for me this is a great time. I have a wide range of things that I do, and across the board I have tons of ideas.
I've been out with an idea about me being a guy that lives in his own basement, and his family lives upstairs, because he got a divorce and they can't afford two households. Whatever it is, I want it built around the common guy, a blue collar kind of guy. They're the most interesting people in the world. They're the people who are just satisfied working every day and just going to the bar after work, and going home and playing baseball with their kids. Most blue collar people are just pretty happy just being happy, and not having so much pressure on them to always do, do, do.