J.B. Smoove On Last Comic Standing, The Millers, And Eating Spaghetti While Famous (Parade)
When you do an interview with J.B. Smoove (aka Jerry Brooks), you know you’re in for some funny, rapid-fire monologues. It’s because J.B.’s mind is always going, and he’s made the most of the mid-career exposure afforded by his memorable role as Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm. In addition to his short but memorable roles in movies like A Haunted House and We Bought a Zoo, he’s also one of the funny ensemble on the CBS hit sitcom The Millers, starring alongside Will Arnett, Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges. And his production company, Convergence, is responsible for shows like Four Courses with J.B. Smoove, which airs on New York’s MSG Network.
On Thursday, May 22 at 9 p.m. ET, J.B. adds “reality competition host” to his resume on the return of Last Comic Standing. The NBC comedy competition show, back after a three-year hiatus, has a different format than in past years: Instead of the viewers voting on which comedians go to the next round, the decision is left solely up to the show’s judges: Keenen Ivory Wayans, Roseanne Barr and Russell Peters. Also, the contestants will be tested on more than just their stand-up, as they’ll be given tasks in sketch comedy, interviews, hosting, and other skills.
I spoke to J.B. last week about how he’s everywhere, why it gets tougher to eat spaghetti when you’re more famous, The Millers, and why LCS made its changes.
You’re everywhere these days: Last Comic Standing, The Millers, a show on MSG Network.
You know, it’s just been fun, man. I’m just attaching myself with so many different things. I’m anything and I’m everything to everybody, so I’m a man of the people, and therefore the people must receive J.B. Smoove.
Since you’re involved in so many projects, what’s your criteria? Do you just pick projects you like?
That’s a key word. Whatever you like and whatever you feel it fits what you can do. If you can’t walk in there and give 200 percent, don’t take it. If I’m going to walk in there and I know I can’t do it, and I’m sitting there trying to put a circle in a square and I know I can’t do it, I’m only giving 35 percent, then what’s the use of me being there? Let somebody else take the run with it, someone who could appreciate it and wants to do it.
How much time do all these projects take up? When do you get to have some “J.B. time”?
“J.B. time” is every time. As an actor, as an entertainer, they classify everybody as celebrities nowadays, but they don’t realize that even though celebrity is a job; it depends what you want to be at. If you wanted to be locked into a gated community where people can’t touch you, can’t meet you, can’t say hi to you, you can’t take your kids to dinner, you can’t take your kids to an amusement park, then you are in a great place but a terrible place at the same damn time, where you are admired by millions. But the other side of the ball is, you’re admired by millions.
So we got two things going on there, where you can’t eat a good meal, and the worst thing is when they stop you at a restaurant while you’re eating spaghetti. You know what I mean? Spaghetti is a sloppy food, man. You eating spaghetti, instead of slurp up the spaghetti. There’s the spaghetti that comes in the box, where you break it in half and you throw it in the hot water. Then there’s the cartoon spaghetti. This is cartoon spaghetti is one long piece, just one long spaghetti like on cartoons, and you slip it into your mouth and the whole plate disappears.
That’s when they want to bother you, when you’re slurping the cartoon spaghetti. And you’re sitting there trying to suck all this spaghetti in your mouth in one big slurp, and they tap you on the shoulder, say “I know you’re eating your food and you’re with your family, but is it possible I can have a picture?” And you turn around with a piece of spaghetti hanging out of your mouth and you’re sitting there like “Oh, I’m with my family right now.” And now you’re to talk with spaghetti hanging out your damn mouth, the cartoon spaghetti. And it’s irritating, you know? Because now you’ve got to stop in mid slurp. You can’t get spaghetti on. And what is a dinner without getting your spaghetti on? You feel me?
They want a picture, and sometimes they don’t take no for an answer. And you’re sitting there like, okay. But that’s your celebrity. You had that status where you are going to be bugged no matter where you go. But, you know, it’s what you do and it’s the nature of the business. You’ve got to love it man, and I love the people. So I feel like I should still be connected to the people in some way. I feel like if I get too big, I lose the essence of J.B. Smoove, and I’m not a man of the people anymore.
There are still lots of fans of you from Curb Your Enthusiasm, but The Millers probably has ten times that show’s audience. How has that changed how people know you?
That’s the good thing about hitting different marks and different audiences. The Curb audience is not huge… it’s just weird. Here’s how the Curb thing works. Curb is a great HBO show. But Curb is a very industry show, also. So a lot of people watch Curb. You’ll get work from being on Curb. It’s like a fuse that’s lit, but it’s a long, long wick. But while it’s burning, it’s allowing you to get other work off of that. Curb will get you a show, get you visible enough, the people will love you enough, to bring you in. It changed my demographic, it changed my audience. I do stand up. My audience went from being mostly a black audience to 70 percent, 70/30, you know what I mean? Thirty percent black, which is crazy. But then when I got the Real Husbands, it went 50/50 again. So it’s like I got a balance there going on between people who love me on The Millers, who love me on Curb, who love me on Real Husbands of Hollywood.
Did Greg Garcia and his staff change the writing for your Millers character as the season went on?
Definitely. They write for what you do. So when I initially met with Greg about the show, we talked for about half an hour to an hour, just talking about everything. He’ll even tell you that “I think we’ve come up with some amazing stuff. I think what you do will fit perfectly what I’m trying to do with this show.” Then, at the same time, I was blessed to read for two different pilots, so and both pilots ended up being picked. One was The Millers and the other one was Chicago PD. Two totally different characters, but two creative directors, creative producers, who are going to allow me to do what I do, which is great. People are characters anyway.
Was it tough to read the reviews from the pilot that concentrated on the fart jokes and dismissed the show based on that?
You have things like that, but at the same time when I’m meeting people, the first thing I hear is, “Oh my God, that [Margo Martindale’s character] reminds me of my mom.” Or like “Beau Bridges, he is my dad. Oh my God.” And that’s what you got to look at. You cannot please everybody no matter what you do. The world has changed, also. Not just are there people who it’s their job to review TV shows, you got people out there on the Internet who blog and who love shows and follow shows who have an opinion now. Everything is wide open now. So you don’t have a balance anyway.
The format of Last Comic Standing is different this year. Why did it change from a viewer vote to the three judges voting?
Because sometimes in stand up things become a popularity contest. Whether it’s singing, whether it’s something, sometimes your story alone can make people vote the hell out of you. We all have a different path, we all go to different things. Whatever your story is, sometimes that ends up being what makes you propel sometimes.
As much as we love our audience, sometimes an audience is not the smartest. You know what I mean? I’m being honest. A lot of times you can fool an audience. You know, some comics steal material and they can fool an audience and the audience doesn’t know that that’s not even their material. You get the hype behind you, and sometimes an audience can be tricked easily, visually and through their ears. They don’t know what they’re listening to, and experienced comics know how it works. We have to work hard, we have to do things. Sometimes, there are short cuts. But the majority of the time the short cuts are short lived. They end up finding out that you’re not, you know, maybe you had a boost, used something else to speed the process along. And a lot of times you find that out with the amount of time you have. Because you have to perform in increments, you have to have some material. You have to have some substance to yourself, a brand, a style, that people are loving your style. And it’s not just the jokes. See, people forget that. Jokes change every day. People will develop a set but they can’t perform that set forever. You can’t. You just can’t do it. You have to change, you have to evolve, you have to have growth.
[This year, the show is] about creating the next big comedy star, a well-rounded comedy star. Not just someone who’s getting on stage, but someone who’s personable, who can do interviews, who can be interviewed, someone who can, who can do sketch, who can sit down at Update on SNL, who can read cue cards. There’s so many different levels of being a overall entertainer as far as a comedian nowadays. There’s people out there who really love just performing in smoky comedy clubs and may not want anything else. Or maybe not the drive to do anything else. Or maybe they think they can’t act, or maybe they think they can’t do anything else. Or maybe they just love performing on the road, maybe they don’t have a family, maybe they just love performing in front of a live audience all the time, and that’s what they want to do for the rest of their career. But you’ve got people also out there who want to expand, who want to be able to sit down and have a interview, be interviewed, and be spontaneous and have a good time, and host a show, and do a variety of things. But that depends on what you want to do with your career.
What perspectives can the judges give to the comedians?
You’ve got three different worlds. You’ve got Keenen Ivory Wayans, who is legendary. You’ve got Roseanne who’s a legendary in sitcom world and stand up world. You’ve got Russell Peters who’s very current and what’s going on right now in comedy. It’s three different people, complete different lives, three complete different opinions. Sometimes their opinions match perfectly and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they didn’t see what this guy saw. But you got to have that range of current to success in this area and success in this area.
Like in the past, does the show have veterans on it that already have had some stand-up success, like Doug Benson, competing against up-and-comers, like Amy Schumer was when she was on?
You’ve got new people, you’ve got veterans. There is a mindset sometimes as a veteran. As a veteran, sometimes you expect to win. You don’t work as hard, or you think your material is great because you’ve been doing it so long. But sometimes I’m telling you, [Michael] Jordan didn’t come into the league at 40 years old. Jordan came to the league a young cat. He didn’t win right away. He didn’t win right away, he needed help. He needed Scottie [Pippen]. He needed pieces to the puzzle. And this show will give you pieces to the puzzle and move on. Now sometimes a veteran can get lazy. Sometimes a veteran can come in there and be so polished that he’s invisible. But that was the process. You got to see who brings what. Is it going to be the experience, it’s going to beat out the energy level of a young comic and the hunger of a young comic? Is it going to be the thirsty veteran who needs this because he feels like if I don’t make it now I’m not going to ever make it? And that’s where it goes back to, you’re leaning on this particular project as your end to be all. It can’t be. This can help you if you use it the right way, even if you lose.
Does it seem that being comedian today means you have to be more well-rounded than ever?
I’m going to say what stand up is. Stand up is only a vehicle that you can drive to get where you want to be as a comic. That’s always been my point of view. Stand up is a vehicle to drive. This is from my own experience. I know I don’t want to be a stand up forever,. I want to be able to do stand up, but I don’t want that to be it, you know? I don’t want that to be just one thing that I do, and that’s all I do. You want to be well rounded. You want to be able to go and take what you do and apply it to other things. So that’s what makes it different. We don’t want just a person to keep going on stage and doing four minutes and win it.