Don’t tell JB Smoove that he has to cancel the art made by his comedy heroes who have fallen from grace. On this week’s episode of “Renaissance Man,” the funnyman best known as Leon on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” admitted he still watches old Bill Cosby movies and said it’s hard to erase what once gave him motivation.
“If someone has disappointed you, the one thing you can’t give back is the inspiration that they gave you, because it was before their downfall,” he told me.
“I used to love me some Bill Cosby,” he said. “This man is just sitting there telling stories. Amazing. And I don’t know if I can stop watching ‘Uptown Saturday Night.’ If I’m turning channels and it’s on, I can’t be like, ‘Oh man, Bill f–ked up, I can’t watch it no more.’ It’s etched in our upbringing.”
I’ve known JB for years and have probably seen him perform close to 30 times. He holds very strong opinions, but he is so funny and disarming that he isn’t one to alienate an audience or step on any toes. JB is for everyone. So if he offends you, it’s your fault.
Sure, he’s ridiculously funny, quick witted, talented, stylish and probably owns more hats than anyone in Hollywood. But he is a man who prepares like crazy, and he abides by very strong philosophies. One is “Never be the first to do it.”
“You can be the first one to be successful at it, but you don’t have to be the first person to try it,” JB said. “You just gotta be the first person to master that s–t … You’re not slighting anyone who did it before you.”
After all, he noted, Michael Jackson wasn’t really the first person to moonwalk. The move’s origins have been attributed to a number of acts. And Michael Chambers, aka Turbo from “Breakin’,” was doing a version of it already when he worked with Michael, who then adapted it with his particular flavor.
JB, too, has a knack for bringing his own flavor to everything he does. But he’s also a student of his craft.
And at times, Larry David has been his teacher. JB is a “Saturday Night Live” alum, and he said that when he arrived on the “Curb” set, he played Leon like he would in an “SNL” scene. After his first take, Larry told him to play it more “real” and less like a sketch.
“Once I did that, it was off to the races. Even after our first day together, [Larry] said it felt as though we had been working together for years.”
But he wants to set the record straight. JB is not Leon Black, and does not walk around in sandals, shorts and a do-rag telling people he’s gonna kick their ass.
“Sometimes when you improvise, people think that’s you all the time. A lot of times the actors on ‘Curb,’ who are amazing actors, they will get stuff [from fans] like, ‘That’s you. You’re playing yourself, you’re not doing a character,’ which is totally wrong. No one could possibly live like Leon. You can’t live like that.”
JB’s been doing improv since high school. But he said taking an improv class early on in his career added value to all aspects of his life, not just in showbiz. He recommends it for anyone and everyone, regardless of your industry.
“I tell people all the time, I don’t care what you do, take an improv class,” he said. “You can sell houses. If you have the ability to improvise your way into s–t and out of s–t, it’s the greatest gift you could ever have. You know, it gives you that immediate gift of gab, it gives you something to go to. It gives you a recovery … I tell young people all the time, ‘Before you jump into business, take an improv class. Take it. I promise. Put that in your tool box.’ I’m telling you, it will help you in your business, help you in your personal [life], help you to be able to change gears in the moment, man. It’s an amazing tool to have.”
I am currently googling improv classes as I write this, and I hope JB will be my tutor.
But I also wish I got a chance to be a guest on his old MSG show, “Four Courses With JB Smoove,” where he chopped it up over dinner with athletes and comedians. I asked which comedians, dead or alive, would be his dream dinner companions. His illustrious list: Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle.
“I took a back seat on that one because, you know, this is norm ally four people and I make the fifth, but I picked five just now,” JB said. “So I’ll be the one serving them and pouring Champagne, just listening to what they’re talking about. Let me stay a little longer: ‘Would there be anything else, sir?’ That’s an amazing mix of who inspired me.”
JB is returning the favor in the inspiration department, and slowly realizing his own legacy. Case in point: I asked him about the 2001 cult classic “Pootie Tang,” which he starred in alongside Chris Rock. It was panned by Roger Ebert, but has taken on a life of its own.
“The movie is definitely not perfect. The movie is definitely funny and fun, but it’s got to be your thing,” he said.
JB said that in May, he received an honorary doctorate from Norfolk State University, where he also delivered the commencement speech.
“I’m just sitting onstage and all these amazing students are coming by and getting their diplomas,” he said. One young man came onstage, grabbed his diploma and dropped a line from “Pootie Tang” on JB.
“I was laughing so hard, I was crying. That’s why I say it’s hard to erase things that motivate and influence you. People just love what they love. This kid is young and he’s talking about a movie older than him.”
And JB also unapologetically loves what he loves. That includes the New York Knickerbockers. Don’t ask him to jump on any Nets bandwagon.
“Everybody knows, man, win or lose, the Knicks run New York. Win or lose. It doesn’t matter. This is a Knick town. We’ll take the Knicks bad news over the Nets good news,” he said, adding that even though he can walk to Barclays Center from his home, he won’t go there to watch the Nets play, unless they are taking on the Knicks.
But the reality is both teams have been eliminated from the playoffs, so it’s a moot point for now. Let’s move on to more important things: getting JB and Samuel L. Jackson on a project together. Sam is the one person with whom he wants to work.
They met for the first time on the “Spider-Man: Far From Home” red carpet and clicked.
“We talked and we hugged each other like, ‘This is the greatest thing on earth’ … I said, ‘Man, we gotta do something together’ … I think together we would hurt somebody … He said, ‘We gotta do it, JB.’”
So Sam, give JB a call. We can’t wait for this power duo to join forces.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.