J.B. Smoove knows there are those comedians who spend hours, weeks and months honing a joke, saying it over and over, tweaking it into absolute perfection so it can be replicated verbatim night after night on the road.
It’s just not his style. He wants to perform in the moment.
“Even when I recorded my TV special That’s How I Dooz It” — arguably the most important set of his career — “I’d say at least 30 percent of those bits you see in that special, I’d never done on stage before that," he said. "Never tried them out. It was just stuff I’d wrote down. I like to challenge myself on stage.”
He works an audience sort of like a DJ, feeling out the crowd’s vibe, seeing what they react to and want more of. He has bullet points for premises he wants to get to, but likes to keep it fresh and try things. That, he says, means his Lollygaggin Tour, which stops in Tampa on Saturday, is different every night.
It’s a way of working that comes naturally, he said, going back to when he was riffing jokes just to make his friends laugh, like in college when he took part in a live version of the Dating Game and answered his potential date’s questions with responses so ridiculous he briefly became a campus legend. He also won the date.
“It felt like everyone knew who I was,” he told the Tampa Bay Times by phone from Los Angeles. “The funny thing is, I never even went on the date with her. ... I felt like she was supposed to ask me out.”
Still, when he started in standup, he says he felt too robotic, so he took an improv class, and the tool became like a superpower.
And he can’t really turn it off. When I introduced myself as Christopher, he spent a couple of minutes convincing me I should tell people it’s spelled “Christopher with a Q" just to see how they would react.
The best example of Smoove’s improv mastery, though, happens to be his best-known TV character, Leon Black from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The HBO sitcom’s scripts are famously just an outline. A whole scene might be written in a paragraph, with no dialogue, just the bones of what needs to happen to move the plot along. The cast fills in the rest.
That has allowed Smoove to spout some of the funniest lines of the series off the top of his head. (“You can’t pause toast, Larry. It loses its essence!”)
Smoove, born Jerry Brooks (he took the name J. Smoove when he performed as a member of a hip-hop dance crew), now has dozens of film and TV credits to his name. He was also a Saturday Night Live writer for several years. His credits include Everybody Hates Chris, Uncle Drew and the Marvel blockbuster Spider-Man: Far From Home, in which he played Peter Parker’s high school teacher.
He said he hopes the recent good news that Spider-Man will be returning to the Marvel cinematic universe could mean a return for himself as well. And he has thought about what superhero he’d play if he had the chance.
“Plastic Man, man. That’s who I want to be. I want to stretch," he said, laughing. “I really just want to slap somebody in the face, from long range, know what I mean?"
IF YOU GO
$39.75. 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Ferguson Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.