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Essman, of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ is actually charming

TIRDAD DERAKHSHANI, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Publication: The Day

Published May 17. 2013 4:00AM

It's a shock at first. Then a definite relief: Susie Essman is no dragon lady.

The "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star who plays one of the most foulmouthed, sarcastic borderline personalities on TV isn't one herself. She is, dare one say, charming. Sweet.

"People are always disappointed when they meet me," Essman, 57, said in a phone chat about her stand-up act.

Fans, she said, often ask her to insult them using one of the many choice - and unprintable - epithets that flow so mellifluously from her tongue on the HBO show.

"I was just at a screening of this indie film I did called 'Putzel,' and the director (Jason Chaet) told me he didn't want to hire me at first," said Essman. "He said he was so scared to work with me."

With cause.

"Curb your Enthusiasm," created by Larry David, features Essman as Susie Greene, a rich hausfrau married to David's Hollywood manager Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin), an overweight bon vivant who tries to bed every ingenue who crosses his path.

Susie's contribution to this Beverly Hills Hades is to spend Jeff's money on loud, animal-print outfits and gaudy jewelry and to cut Jeff down to size every chance she gets. "He violates me, Larry!" Susie said of her sex life with Jeff in one episode. "He defiles me!"

Essman laughs when reminded of the many insults she has hurled at Larry and Jeff.

"Jeff (Garlin) and I are in fact great friends. That's one of the reasons we can speak to each other so despicably," she said.

"I love her character," Essman said of Susie Greene. "She is fierce. She's completely reactive and doesn't analyze anything. For her, everything is a gut reaction."

Essman is more reflective, she concedes, sometimes to the point of neurosis. Unlike her character, Essman, who was born and raised in the New York suburb of Mount Vernon, is very much the product of an East Coast, liberal, intellectual household.

Her father, Leonard, was an oncologist, and her mother, Zora, a Russian language professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

Russian, during the McCarthy era? Were the Essmans on some kind of FBI watch list? "No one's ever asked me that before," Essman said, laughing. "But yeah, maybe we were."

She's silent for a few moments, then lets out a chortle. "But I was just born at the time, so I don't really know."

Essman, who divides her time between a condo in Manhattan and a ranch-style house in the suburbs of Albany, N.Y., said she has drawn heavily on her life for her stand-up act.

She married for the first time in 2008, to real estate broker Jim Harder, and found herself the stepmother of four teenagers.

She shared her fears about being a parent in her first book, a guide to "love, life, and comedy" titled What Would Susie Say? "My mother used to tell me, 'You can't buy your kids' love,'" she writes. "You can, and it's exponential. They're like Russian mail-order brides - the more you spend, the more they love you."

Critics loved the book, calling Essman a sassy provocateur.

"Sassy, what's that? I don't like that word," said Essman. "Acerbic. That's the right word."

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