When he was at Mount Vernon High School back in the ‘80s, J.B. Smoove wasn’t a comedian yet. And his name wasn’t Smoove.
Back then, he was Jerry Brooks.
“I was a hallway clown, the guy with a 3.3 average but in the hallways I was notorious,” said Smoove, now one of the country’s most popular comedians.
Smoove, best known for playing Larry David’s hilarious uninvited house guest on 16 episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is everywhere these days:
- He was in Chris Rock’s film, “Top Five”;
- He interviewed Russell Wilson and Tom Brady at the Super Bowl;
- He was at NBA All-Star Saturday in Brooklyn, interviewing celebrities and basketball greats;
- In between, he squeezed in his first visit to “The Late Show with David Letterman”;
- When “SNL” marked its 40th anniversary, Smoove was there. He was a writer on 60 episodes and had some screen time, too.
- The comic is also a fixture on MSG Network, where his “Four Courses” show – now in its third season – gathers athletes, comedians and one particularly popular astrophysicist.
“I lived in Mount Vernon since I was three,” the comic said. “I love my little town, my four-square-mile town.”
Still, Smoove realizes that if that kid in the hallway at Mount Vernon High had made different choices, things could have gone badly.
“I got lucky and ended up hanging with some really funny, cool guys who weren’t troublemakers,” he said. “I could have been in a totally opposite circle of friends, but luckily, I was blessed.”
He and his friends were on Mount Vernon’s football team, where Smoove was a back-up wide receiver who, admittedly, didn’t take the game seriously. If his sports career didn’t last, those friendships did, as have the friendships formed at Norfolk State University.
“I’m the kind of guy who, once I meet a group of people and we make a connection and we’re cool and we laugh and we have a good time, these are lifelong friends.”
He’s still making close friends, including his “Four Courses” guest, boxer Gerry Cooney.
“When you meet a legend like Gerry Cooney and you hit it off? That’s the best, man,” Smoove said. “He’s a genuine, warm-hearted guy. When I meet someone like him, I think: ‘I should have met him years ago.’”
“Four Courses” is an unscripted half-hour set in the Manhattan restaurant Hudson Malone, where Smoove welcomes a table full of celebrities to break bread and talk about whatever comes to mind, whether it’s life in New York or sports.
“I go off of what I know about you from doing my research,” Smoove said. “And I go off of what I want to know about you. And what the guy on his couch who is watching MSG – and loves sports and talk and New York – wants to know about you, things that will be useful in their lives.”
That includes one of season three’s highlights, the episode when Smoove hosted comics Gilbert Gottfried, Jim Norton and Todd Barry, boxer Cooney and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The resulting half-hour – which is still being aired regularly – saw moments when Cooney had the table convinced he was punch-drunk and when Tyson had the comics spellbound, talking science.
So what question did Smoove have waiting for the pop scientist and “Cosmos” host? What did he think viewers would want to know from Tyson?
Smoove asked if a zombie apocalypse is possible.
“These are the things that the guy at home is thinking about, the guy who’s a big ‘Walking Dead’ fan or a big zombie fan,” Smoove said with a defiant tongue in cheek. “When the zombie apocalypse happens, you want to be prepared. And what is a zombie apocalypse, Neil told us, but an outbreak. And outbreaks happen all the time. I know that the guy on the couch is saying ‘Man! I am so glad J.B. asked him that question!’”
Tyson answered the question – painting zombies as a metaphor for a slow-moving virus – prompting the nasal-voiced Gottfried to shout: “You’re wrong! They’re dead people who come back to life and eat other peoples’ flesh! I can’t believe a scientist wouldn’t know that!”
Cooney then swung the conversation to the return of the dinosaurs. And this was all before dessert was served. (Watch a “Four Courses” clip.)
Smoove is looking forward to a couple of March events.
He’ll take part in “The Garden of Laughs” at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on March 28, a night for comedians to raise money for “The Garden of Dreams” children’s charity. The lineup also includes John Oliver, Lewis Black, Bill Burr, Dane Cook, Billy Gardell and Steve Schirripa of “The Sopranos,” who’ll host the evening.
If he’s looking ahead, he’s not planning what he’ll say.
“I don’t plan my show,” he said. “I go where the audience takes me. Because it’s a special event, I’m performing for this crowd and only this crowd.”
Also on his to-do list is seeing Larry David’s Broadway debut in “Fish in the Dark,” which is now in previews and opens March 5. He has thought more about that than he has his “Garden of Laughs” set list.
“I’m going to go see Larry’s show and watch from the front row, which is going to annoy the hell out of Larry,” Smoove said. “I’m going support him in the best way I know how: Sit in the front row with some loud popcorn, stare at him and sip on a Slurpee that’s almost gone, so it’ll be nice and loud. I still haven’t decided what flavor, so I’m still open.”
“Garden of Laughs,” 8 p.m., March 28. Theater at Madison Square Garden. $50 to $130, to benefit the Garden of Dreams children’s charity. 866-858-0008.
Photo top: J.B. Smoove, center, hosts “Four Courses with J.B. Smoove,” with guests comedian Todd Barry, left, and boxer Gerry Cooney.
Second photo: J.B. Smoove, by Seth Olenic.
Bottom photo: Comedian J.B. Smoove, second from right, hosts MSG Network’s “Four Courses,” with guests, from left: comedians Gilbert Gottfried and Jim Norton, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, comedian Todd Barry, and boxer Gerry Cooney.