Susie Essman, who plays the brash Susie Greene on the critically acclaimed HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, is known for her withering sense of humor and her sassy sarcasm. But this summer the comedian and actress is taking on the more serious business of boosting tourism in New York’s economically depressed Catskills region. City & State Managing Editor Jon Lentz talks with Essman about the great comedians and performers of yore who got their start in the Catskills, and how to bring tourists back to the area today.
City & State: Does your comedy ever intersect with politics?
Susie Essman: Not too much. If something strikes me, yes. But there are people who do it so much better than I do that I let them handle it. You know, the Jon Stewarts and the Bill Mahers and the Lewis Blacks. They’re so much better at it than I am, so I stick to what I’m good at.
CS: Is there anything going on in New York politics that you find to be particularly funny right now?
SE: No. You know, when things are going well, it’s really bad for comedy. Bush was great for comedy. Eliot Spitzer was, of course, fantastic for comedy.
CS: Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Did you have a chance to speak with him?
SE: I was not in the scene with him. But I know that everybody was very pleased with him. He came in, he did what he had to do, and he did it well and quickly and in just a couple of takes. He’s a professional. Some politicians are better actors than others.
CS: You’re bringing comedy back to the Catskills with an Aug. 25 benefit concert at the Belleayre Music Festival, part of the Catskill Park Resource Foundation’s effort to revitalize the region. How did you get involved?
SE: I live in the Hudson Valley—not in the Catskills, exactly, but we’re adjacent.That entire area really suffered after Hurricane Irene. So many people lost their homes, and the whole Catskill region really suffered also from that devastation. And this winter all the ski resorts suffered because there was no snow. I mean, I was happy about no snow because I have a treacherous driveway, but that’s kind of selfish of me. I know that the area’s depressed.
CS: Did you go there on vacations as a kid?
SE: We used to spend the summer at a bungalow colony. When I was growing up, it was the place to go. All the hotels were in operation, and it’s where so many great comedians started working in the Borscht Belt. That’s no longer there. I think a lot of those places are just trying to hold on and see if gambling is ever going to come. They’re all closed now, and it’s kind of sad because it’s a really beautiful, beautiful part of the country.
CS: Did you ever perform there early on in your career?
SE: I worked at the Concord, at the Raleigh, at the Nevele, at the Fallsview. But I was really at the tail end. It was not the way that it was in the ’40s or ’50s, let’s say, when it was happening. All of those comedians started there: Mel Brooks and Buddy Hackett and Alan King. They used to go up there and they used to work at the hotels and then go around to all the bungalow colonies and work there on a Saturday night. They’d do maybe five or six shows on a Saturday night.
CS: What was it like when you performed there?
SE: It was very different. It was a very different clientele, and it was on the downslide. It eventually just dried up. All the hotels closed. I think money wasn’t put back into them. They weren’t kept up well. But it’s a beautiful part. I’m partial to New
CS: Is there anything that can be done to revitalize the Catskills?
SE: There’s no manufacturing any more, like the rest of the country. I think they’re trying to just boost tourism. It’s a great outdoor life there. There’s hiking and fishing and skiing and all that stuff.
CS: Tell me about the benefit comedy concert that you’re putting on in August.
SE: It’s a fundraiser to raise money for people to bring awareness [to the Catskill region]. Especially with gas prices the way they are—it doesn’t have the cachet of the Hamptons per se, or Dutchess County, but it’s a great place to go with your family. It’s inexpensive. It’s rural. A lot of good restaurants have been opening up. I think they’re just trying to bring awareness to the area. It’s in economic decline right now, like so much of our country.
CS: Should we bring the family to your benefit?
SE: Do not bring the family, unless they’re adults. For mature audiences only. Yeah, I’m not a clown.
CS: Is enough being done to help the area rebound from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene?
SE: I really don’t know. It didn’t get the attention that something like Katrina got. There was a tremendous amount of devastation. So many people lost everything. It came and went so quickly. I just know that people suffered tremendously, and it’s hard in these economic times to lose everything and not have a job, and I think flood insurance is a big problem, also. But this isn’t my area. I just know how to get on stage and make people laugh—and raise money.
CS: There have been eight seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Will there be a 9th season?
SE: I wish I had an answer to that. I have no idea. There’s no definitive “No, there won’t be.” It’s all up to Larry [David]. It’s all up to Larry to decide.
Tags: Alan King, Belleayre Music Festival, Bill Maher, Borscht Belt, Buddy Hackett, Catskill Park Resource Foundation, Catskills, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Eliot Spitzer, George Bush, HBO, Hurricane Irene, Jon Lentz, Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Mel Brooks, Michael Bloomberg, Susie Essman, Susie Greene
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