J.B. Smoove got his name as a hip-hop dancer. "With my stand-up, I come onstage dancing," the actor and comedian says. "I don't play around. I like energy."
That was before his early-'90s days doing stand-up on "Def Comedy Jam." And before his stint writing for "Saturday Night Live," sharing an office with Richmond native Bryan Tucker, or B Tuck, as Smoove calls him, and performing sketch comedy for "The Chris Rock Show" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."
But he's best known as Leon, the hilariously blunt, fast-talking roommate of Larry David on the popular HBO sitcom, "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It's a role that has ignited Smoove's career — opened that ass up, as Leon might say.
"He's a funny-ass character, but nobody could live the way he does," says the friendly Smoove, 47, while chilling in New York recently. "He's a dream character. Wandering around, drinking his juice out of his cart, eating family-size bags of chips. He takes pride in looking out for people who look out for him. Somewhere in his Leonisms, it makes stupid sense. I love playing him."
Born in Plymouth, N.C., and raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Smoove (whose real name is Jerry Brooks) regularly appears in big Hollywood movies — currently "The Sitter" and "We Bought a Zoo," and he just finished shooting a scene in "The Dictator" with Sacha Baron Cohen. He's also filming a new NBC romantic comedy series with Amanda Peet, "Bent," slated for midseason, in which he plays an electrical contractor whose boss is having a relationship with a client.
"I told Matt [Damon] I'm looking for another 'Bourne Identity,'" he says. "If you ever need somebody to hit a man in the throat, or break a man's arm with little effort — I would love to break a man's arm with Matt Damon. Break his calf, poke a man's eye out, all that good stuff. You chop a man in the throat, that's it," he says. "Party's over."
Smoove's most obvious talents are physical comedy and his rapid-fire improvisational skills. "I feel like I am that guy who can stand up at a boring party and turn it out, know what I mean?" he says. "[When performing live] I paint pictures onstage. I don't look at myself as a stand-up comic 'cause I break every rule in book. I don't stand there and tell jokes, I act everything out."
It was his natural rapport with "Seinfeld" creator Larry David, during a chance audition in 2006, which led to one of the great comedy pairings in recent television history. "Larry is a genius. It's like playing T-ball. You strike out playing T-ball, that's on you. It's about hitting the ball — and the damn ball is sitting right there," he says. "I'm good at positioning. I got to get the man on third home. Sometime I gotta bunt. Sometimes I gotta allow Larry to go where he's gonna go and not say shit."
The show does not work from a script, but rather allows actors to "police" their own characters and develop the story. "You'll notice that Leon looks right at Larry face to face. I'm focused on his smirkin', his eyebrows up and down," he says. "Being true to what your character does, comes across to everybody. That's why people really love this dude. Producers have offered me roles that are not funny, because they see that intensity coming from a real place."
Throughout an hour-long conversation, Smoove is candid, friendly and funny — just like Leon. He re-enacts several of his most famous lines from the series, and after the interview, says to feel free to call him with any more questions — rare for an in-demand celebrity. Knowing B. Tuck must really get you brownie points.
On his stand-up act: "Stand-up rules are: You punch somebody in the face before you're out. Sometimes you don't get that in sketch comedy, a lot of gears have to work."
It's all part of Smoove (and Leon's) life philosophy of "bringing the ruckus."
"It's like controlled aggressiveness," he says. "When you got a job interview, you want to bring the ruckus. You need the ruckus to meet women, get a job, defend yourself. You gotta recognize when somebody giving you ruckus to be able to retaliate with the ruckus. That's all the ruckus is — something in you built up over the years, that allows you to deal with the bullshit, to deflect the bullshit." S
J.B. Smoove performs at the National on Jan. 13 with a guest. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show starts at 8 p.m. For information, go to thenationalva.com.