06/12/2012 11:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Crossing The Line: Susie Essman On The Nature Of Comedy & The Shocking Truth About Sexism

Comedy is social commentary. In a totalitarian regime, what’s the first thing to go? Comedy. Because comedy is, by its nature, subversive.

Susie Essman

Many comedians and fans alike, consider the comedy stage a sacred place, where the dark, offensive, sacrilegious and even stupid can and should remain uncensored.

But in the age of smart phones and YouTube, where something said on stage in front of a few hundred people can suddenly become national news, how do comedians continue taking the risks (and making the mistakes) that make live comedy so thrilling?

Moreover, is apologizing for your material, however dark or upsetting, the antithesis of being a comedian? Is it the comedian's job to go too far?

These are some of the ideas we're exploring in HuffPost Comedy's series, "Crossing the Line".

Through interviews with top comedians and writers, we're looking at how these bastions of free speech are necessary parts of our culture, touching on everything from obscenity as a force for social change to how technology and social media are changing the way comedians perform.

In the second interview of the series, we spoke to comedian Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm) about finding her voice as a performer, why comedy is no longer a "private" experience and how sexism in comedy has changed over the years.

HuffPost Comedy: Who were your comedic influences; who made you want to be a comedian?

Susie Essman: You know, I never planned on being a stand-up comic. I thought I was going to just do comedic acting, like, Carol Burnett was a big influence on me. But once I started, Pryor was my big influence. I just thought he was the quintessential comic that had everything. He was accessible and vulnerable and funny and he did characters and told jokes and did stories, and he was just like a comedic open wound. I always wanted to have that kind of vulnerability and accessibility on stage that he had. That was always important to me.

HPC: The word “vulnerable” comes up lot when people talk about their favorite comedians. Why do you think that’s so important?

SE: Because it’s relatable. It makes you real. There are so many different kinds of comedy and so much of it is funny, it’s really a personal choice. I’ve never been a joke writer or teller. I’m not an observational comedian that just looks at the world. To me it’s always been about gut. It’s always been about my life and my feelings, so that’s what I’m attracted to in a comedian. I want somebody to rip themselves open and just expose their innermost fears and thoughts, and make it funny.

HPC: I feel like when you’re that kind of comedian, when you’re being present and honest, you’re more likely to say something that offends somebody in the audience.

SE: Comedy will always offend somebody.

HPC: Is it supposed to?

SE: Is it supposed to? I don’t know, but by its nature it’s going to be offensive to somebody because it’s always going to be sticking its finger in the eye. I mean that’s what comedy is. Comedy is social commentary. In a totalitarian regime, what’s the first thing to go? Comedy. Because comedy is by its nature subversive. Comedy by its nature is looking at the world through a twisted lens and seeing what people might not necessarily want to see and putting that comedic spin on it. So comedy’s dangerous. Comedy is always dangerous. Unless you’re doing something like slap-stick, and that can still be funny, but that’s just not really what stand-up is all about.

HPC: When did you start doing stand-up?

SE: 1983 was the first time I ever got on stage.

HPC: Where was it?

SE: It was just an old open-mic night at this little magic club called Mostly Magic on Carmine Street. My friends talked me into doing it, and I got up and I only did characters. I never spoke in my own voice. And there were these guys there that were opening up a comedy club in the Village, and they saw me that night and they said, “We want you to come work for us.” I was like, “Yeah, whatever.” And about three months later they called me. I didn’t get back up on stage again because I was too scared, and they said, “Can you come down and do ten minutes? We opened up the club.” And I was like, “Yeah,” because I was stupid. I didn’t have ten minutes. I just said “yes,” which forced me to write material, and I did it. And I worked there for many months and developed.

HPC: How did you transition from doing characters to speaking in your own voice?

SE: Once I started working with other comedians and seeing what people did, I started to realize if I wanted to get anywhere, I was going to have to develop my own voice. And I remember saying to the owners of the club that I wanted to emcee, because I thought that would help me. And they said, “Well you can’t. You do characters.” So I said, “Well let me just try.” And it was completely unsuccessful. Comedy is so hard because the only way to do it is to do it in front of people, and you have no idea what you’re doing. It’s just terrifying. You can’t do it in front of the mirror. You can’t really take a class. There’s no safety net. I remember comedians saying to me, “Oh you know, it takes you years. It’s going to take you five years before you know who you are on stage.” And I was like, “That’s not going to happen to me.” It must have taken me ten years before I figured out who I was on stage, and that’s what I think is really the hardest thing. And I’m still finding it. There were a lot of comedians when I was coming up who all imitated Jerry [Seinfeld]. So there’d be all these young Jewish guys doing the Seinfeld rhythm, and that wasn’t their voice. I don’t know where any of them are now. They never developed. That was Jerry’s voice, and Jerry did it brilliantly. But they had no sense of who they were.

HPC: Have you ever had something come out of your mouth on stage and thought, “Holy shit, where did that come from?”

SE: Yes. Many, many times. I remember one night, many years ago, there was a guy with his back to me. And I just started berating him. I was just so insulted that he had his back to me, and the audience got kind of hushed and obviously there was something I didn’t realize. He had a seeing eye dog next to him that I didn’t see. He was blind.

HPC: So if that happened today, somebody would have caught it on a camera phone, and “Susie Essman Screams At Blind Man” would be the headline.

SE: Yeah exactly. But then as a comedian what you learn how to do is like, “Oh alright, so you’re fucking blind. Alright so now I’m the bad guy.” You have to find a way to turn it around and turn yourself in, in a certain way. But yes, there have been times, never in a Michael Richards kind of a way, but yes, where I felt, “Uh-oh, I went some place I shouldn’t have gone.” And then you have to figure out how to recover really quickly.

HPC: But as an audience member that seems really exciting, to see somebody totally go off script.

SE: It’s exciting if they know what they’re doing. It can be really awkward and uncomfortable if you’re watching somebody just really tank and they don’t know what they’re doing.

HPC: Have you ever said something on stage that you wanted to apologize for?

SE: I don’t really believe that you should apologize... unless you really feel it. I wouldn’t apologize to someone because they were offended by something I said unless I felt that I crossed a line. I don’t like to make fun of people’s looks, for example. Things they can’t change. I remember years ago I made fun of this woman’s outfit, and then I felt really bad about it afterward because it was mean. It happens a lot in the beginning where you get defensive on stage because it’s so scary, and you don’t really know what you’re doing. So there’s a couple of times when I think I crossed the line and was mean in a sense that I didn’t have to be, which was really from inexperience. I don’t think I’ve done that in years.

HPC: Have you followed any of these recent stories where comedians have apologized for something after it was publicized outside of the club?

SE: Yeah, it’s very problematic now. Because it used to be that when you were in a comedy club, it almost felt private. Now it’s like texting and Tweeting and Facebooking and all this mishegas, and it doesn’t feel private anymore. It used to feel like we’re all in this dark club, and we’re all smoking and drinking and we’re having this experience and we’re all in this together. It doesn’t feel as private anymore, and I miss that.

HPC: Has that affected how you perform?

SE: It hasn’t affected how I perform, no. I just notice it. I don’t remember the details of Tracy Morgan’s thing, but political correctness is the enemy of comedy. Look what Larry [David] does. Larry is an equal opportunity offender. He offends everybody. Jews, Christians, Muslims, handicapped, Tourette's, whatever it is, he’s offending everybody.

HPC: There’s also been a lot of talk about women in comedy since “Bridesmaids” came out, as if the world just realized funny women existed.

SE: Oh, wow, we’re funny! Gee, what a shock! Christopher Hitchens, he’s dead now, but he started that whole goddamn thing.

HPC: But was he speaking to something that already existed? Is there an inherent sexism in comedy, and really the entertainment business as a whole?

SE: You know what? People always say, “Is there sexism in comedy?” The world is sexist! Comedy is part of the world. It’s no different than anything else. The world is run by white men. That’s who runs the world. So that’s just the reality of it. For me, stand-up comedy is in some sense very egalitarian, because either you’re funny or not and audiences will either laugh or not laugh, but there’s sexism everywhere. Where is there not sexism? Name that place.

HPC: Has it changed since you started in the 80s?

SE: Yes, I think it has, because when I started there were not that many female comedians, and there are many more now. It’s an interesting thing: when I think of the younger guys that came up along the way, they were not as sexist as the guys that I came up with. Because I think they saw more funny female comedians. So in a certain way it becomes a visual. Like my daughters, I think they’ve only known female Secretaries of State. I didn’t grow up with that image. I only knew male Secretaries of State. But my daughters have had Hillary and Condoleezza and Madeleine and that’s all they’ve ever seen, so for them that’s a perfectly normal thing. So I think once the visual starts to change, it makes a difference. The one thing I will say, though, is that the funny guys always get laid, and the funny women are somehow a threat.

HPC: So who are some of your favorite comedians now?

SE: Oh God, I really don’t watch much comedy at this point. The people that make me laugh are the people that I came up with. Joy Behar, who’s my best friend, Jon Stewart I love... See I’ll leave people out now and it’s going to get me in trouble. Judy Gold I think is hilarious, Lizz Winstead, Mario Cantone. I’m always tickled by somebody’s original voice. I was just doing this “Good Day New York” segment this morning, and the hairdresser had a Greg Giraldo CD on in the background. And I was listening to Greg, who was so original and so brilliant, and I was just thinking, “I so hate when an original voice dies, because you’re never going to get that voice again.” There are so few people who have something to say, who say it in a way that no one else is ever going to think of saying it, and he’s not here anymore to have that voice, and it just breaks my heart.

Susie Essman can be seen this summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival starring in Neil Simon’s “Last Of The Red Hot Lovers" July 11-22, and then on August 25 at a benefit for Catskills Park Resource Foundation, which was founded following the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. And no, she has no idea if and when there will be another season of "Curb."