Celebrated actor, stand-up comic, and Saturday Night Live alumnus Gilbert Gottfried headlines this year’s Woodstock Comedy Festival, held Friday, September 23 to Sunday, September 25 as a benefit for Family of Woodstock and for the Polaris Project against human trafficking. Susie Essman, known for playing furious, foul-mouthed Susie Green on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, will host up-and-coming young female comedians at Laughingstock, the opening event on Friday, September 23, 8 p.m., at the Bearsville Theater.
Saturday’s shows, beginning at noon, will be Secrets of the Simpsons with Mike Reiss, co-creator of the four-time Emmy-winning cartoon series. He will tell backstage tales from his 25 years on the show, including dealings with censors, celebrity guests, and even foreign governments. Gottfried will appear Saturday night at 8 p.m., along with Eddie Brill, the festival’s talent coordinator, who worked for The Late Show with David Letterman, serving as audience warm-up and booking guests.
When we caught up with Essman on Labor Day, it turned out that in real life — surprise! — she’s nothing like Susie Green, who spends many of her scenes cursing at Larry David and kicking him out of her house. “I get paid to tell people to go fuck themselves, which is incredible!” she exclaimed.
Essman began her career in New York City in 1983, when there were only a handful of women established in stand-up. “The generation before me was Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers,” she said. “That was it. You had to fight hard to be accepted as a woman doing stand-up.” The attitude that women can’t be funny has pretty much been conquered. Guest starring as a home economics teacher on truTV’s Those Who Can’t, she has found the young men working on the show respectful, without the sexist attitude she had to face in the past. “We’ve proved ourselves,” said Essman.
She came up through the ranks with Rita Rudner, Joy Behar, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Colin Quinn. “Those are your war buddies in a way,” she mused. “We went through the trenches. We’d go from club to club to club, seven days a week, mostly for no money. There were not that many of us, and we’d go together all the time, go to dinner, talk about our material. On Friday and Saturday, when the clubs paid, we’d do six or seven shows a night in different clubs. That’s how I made my $300 rent.”
Essman was one of the first female comics to talk openly about sex. “I was single, dating, sleeping around — I was just talking about my experience. I never thought of it as ground-breaking, that no one else was doing this. I instinctually knew how to make what I was doing acceptable to audiences as a performer. Now I talk about my kids.”
Still, she feels she helped blaze a trail for the new generation of women in comedy, such as Ilana Glaser and Abbi Jacobsen, the stars of the sitcom Broad City, on which Essman plays Ilana’s mother. “They are out there, these girls,” she said. “The places they go are almost too far for me, but I love them for it.” The show she’s hosting at the comedy festival features Karen Bergreen, Kendra Cunningham, Jaye McBride, and Liz Miele.
After 33 years of stand-up, Essman is taking a break. She’s doing more acting and has written the first draft of a novel, following up on her hilarious book, What Would Susie Say?: Bullsh*t Wisdom About Love, Life and Comedy (Simon & Schuster, 2009). “Acting is way easier than standup,” she said. “I don’t like one better than the other, it’s just what I’m doing now — I like variety.”
Curb Your Enthusiasm ran for eight seasons and then took six years off, but the show is currently in production for a ninth season. In light of her character’s volatile qualities, Essman spoke about the relationship between anger and comedy. “Most comedy is angry or has some irreverence or hostility. What comedians do is see more than other people, put it through some twisted prism in their head, and bring it out recognizable but with a different angle. Stand-up is an aggressive art form. You’re standing there with a big mic, like a phallus, in your hand — you’re in control. A lot of people are not comfortable with that. Look at Hillary — whatever you think of her politics, the hatred of her is so visceral because she’s a powerful woman, and it’s a little frightening.”
In the case of Susie Green, observed Essman, “We’re brought up to be good little girls. Susie Green is acting out people’s anger for them and giving women permission to feel their rage. It’s right on the surface — you say one thing, and she explodes. It scares and surprises people, and it makes them laugh.”
Ordinarily, Essman doesn’t curse much. “But don’t push me,” she cautioned. “I could if I’m watching TV, especially the man whose name I will not mention. Politics can get me angry. I had many years on the couch, dealing with anger. But now it’s all sublimated. Susie Green is like primal scream therapy. I used to feel so good after a day of screaming and yelling — and no one gets hurt.”
Essman is looking forward to appearing in Woodstock, which she has visited many times. She also attended the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, when she was 14. “I just remember mud and being really stoned and hearing Richie Havens. I don’t think my parents knew. But no one knew what it was going to be before it happened.”
As for the organizations that receive funds raised by the comedy fest, Essman said, “Celebrity is —” and she uttered a sound resembling “bleah”, then continued, “but it gives you the cachet to help raise money for good causes. The Polaris Project — people really need to be aware of that. It’s horrifying that these women are literally slaves. This is an important organization to support, doing important work.” She also praised Family of Woodstock, the local non-profit that provides a 24-hour hotline for people in crisis and runs a shelter for battered women. “You have to imagine the fear — many of these women fear for their lives and their families. There has to be a safe place for them.”
The fourth annual Woodstock Comedy Festival will run from September 23 to September 25, at the Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock. Schedules and tickets are available at http://www.woodstockcomedyfestival.org.