The Light from the TV Shows: David Steinberg Gets “Inside Comedy” on Showtime

David Steinberg began his career in comedy with Chicago’s Second City, quickly gaining fame as a stand-up through his appearances on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson” while also courting controversy by performing comedic “sermons” on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” In 1981, Steinberg began to shift his focus from performing to directing, starting with the Burt Reynolds film “Paternity,” and has gone on to become one of the more prolific sitcom directors in the business, but he recently stepped back in front of the camera to host the new Showtime series, Inside Comedy,” which airs Thursdays at 11 PM. Steinberg spoke with Bullz-Eye about his new gig, detailing the trials and tribulations of securing classic clips to accompany his interviews, while also discussing some of his past efforts as an actor, director, and stand-up comedian.

Bullz-Eye: This is certainly not your first time hosting a show where you interview comedians: you also brought us Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg. Not that there isn’t still plenty of material yet to mine, but what inspired you to take another crack at it?

David Steinberg: I felt that I hadn’t really done it the way I wanted to. That’s why we first started this as a film. Starting it as a film was really good, because then you get so much material, and it’s sort of looser or whatever. And then I settled on this notion of putting two people together and how they connect, but not in any specific ways. They just go together by what they’re talking about. And once I arrived at that, I thought, “This is gonna be good!” [Laughs.] Of course, making it that good…it was time consuming, but it was great, great fun. I worked with some incredible editors, and there was a lot of archival stuff that we talk about that…well, they know that they’re talking to another comedian. That’s the bottom line. And then, archivally, I didn’t just do the clichéd version. I handpicked the clips that I wanted and then begged people to let me use them. [Laughs.] Archival stuff takes so long to get people to sign off on.

BE: Was there anything you wanted to use that, even with all of your pleading, you still couldn’t get?

DS: Yeah, for Jonathan Winters, I had a clip of him in an old Dean Martin roast where he’s roasting (Ronald) Reagan, and in it there’s a wide shot where you could see Dean Martin, Reagan, (Don) Rickles, Phyllis Diller, and… [Sighs.] You know, it’s generally not the original inheritors of the celebrity estates that are the problem. It’s the grandchildren, who don’t even know or understand what it means to be celebrating Jonathan Winters. They asked for so much money everywhere that we couldn’t use it. I ended up having to go with just a tight shot of Jonathan instead. So, y’know, just stuff like that drove me nuts. For the most part, though, I got everything I wanted. Some were just so exorbitant that I just couldn’t do it. But I’m happy with it.

BE: Speaking of Jonathan Winters on Showtime, he also appeared on The Green Room with Paul Provenza not so terribly long ago. It’s great to see people as yourself and Paul continuing to give him the props he deserves.

DS: That’s right, yeah. I will say that the younger comedians tend to look after the older ones. Richard Lewis goes out to Santa Barbara and spends time with him, and Sarah Silverman has done that with Phyllis Diller. It’s very interesting, the comedy community. It’s more surprising and tight-knit than you would imagine.

BE: When it came time to pull together your guest list for the show, did you have an even blend of close friends and a wish list?

DS: Yeah. A lot I knew, and a lot I didn’t. Like, I didn’t know Chris Rock very well, and he proved to be one of the more interesting interviews. There are a whole lot of interviews that are still in the can that are so good: Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke… I tried them in the first round, and…they’re great, but it was how things matched up. But I’m optimistic that we’ll get a second year. The level of celebrity in these people is huge. They’re all the best and the biggest.

BE: What’s the percentage of Canadian content?

DS: [Laughs.] Well, Martin Short and I are the Canadian content. But I would love to have gotten Eugene Levy. I do use a lot of SCTV. You know, I put that group together in a show that I did in the ‘70s (The David Steinberg Show). So, no, not a big percentage of Canadians for someone like me, who’s so pro-Canadian. [Laughs.]

BE: When you appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, you stumbled into some controversy with one of your bits on the show.

DS: Yeah, well, I was doing sermons. [Laughs.] It was something I’d developed at Second City: I’d take a suggestion of any Old Testament personality and do a sermon about them. I’ve got the background in that from my family and from having been at a yeshiva and all that, so I really knew it well. For a comedian, anyway. [Laughs.] Not for a scholar. So I did an album of the sermons, and it was very popular, but it was also very controversial even then. Tom and Dick (Smothers), Tom especially, just couldn’t get over the uniqueness of it, and he said, “Let’s put it on the air!”

So when he put one of the sermons on the air – I think the first one was Moses – I’d gone to New York, and I came back a week later and, because we were friends by this point, we were hanging out, and he said very excitedly, “I want to show you something!” And he opened up the door to this room, and there were just bundles and bundles of mail. And I said, “What’s that?” He said, “It’s your hate mail!” [Laughs.] As if I should be so pleased and excited by this! He was thrilled that it created such an uproar. But then he was told not to do another sermon. Of course, he says, “We love Steinberg, we’re going to have him on again!” Anyway, after I did another kind of Second City sketch with Tommy, he said, “God, the audience still wants more of you. Why don’t you do another sermon?” And the one I chose to go with was Jonah. And the rest is history: it became the reason they were thrown off the air.

You know, there were other political reasons. History sort of rewrites itself, and they say that…Tommy and Dick have sort of been playing down how the sermons were the reason for them going off the air. Because when you listen to them now, they don’t really sound that controversial. But having been the person who did it, it was a completely irreverent presence on television, probably the likes of which had never been there before. So they walked right into the trap of giving the network what they wanted, which was a reason to throw them off, because who isn’t offended by religion?

BE: Before you appeared on Comedy Hour, you were actually a writer on its predecessor, The Summer Brothers Smothers Show, correct?

DS: That’s right. Yeah, Bob Einstein and I wrote for the show. And before that, I was…I sort of broke as a stand-up comedian a couple of years before that. I was already on The Tonight Show as a sort of regular. In fact, I’d already guest-hosted The Tonight Show by the time I was working with the Smothers Brothers.

BE: You were – and, I guess, still are – the youngest person ever to guest-host The Tonight Show.

DS: Yeah, still am. [Laughs.]

BE: How weird was that, to find yourself in such a lofty position at such a young age?

DS: You know, I was so stupid. [Laughs.] You know, with the stupidness of youth, I thought, “Oh, this is pretty great, now I’m hosting The Tonight Show.” Only when I look back now do I go, “Oh, my God, what an incredible thing has happened to me…” At the time, though, I was, like, “Okay, so this is happening.” I was not a guy that was after stardom in any big way. It was just, like, “How do I get really good at this?” And so was the whole community that I was with. Tommy and Dick, they were happy to be stars and all that, because we needed that to be able to do what we wanted to do, but what we really wanted to know was, “How do we get better and better and better?” Comedy was breaking from its old formula, and we were sort of exploring new avenues in the late ‘60s.

BE: The Smothers Brothers managed to blend both comedy and music on their show. You did somewhat of the same thing not much later, when you hosted Music Scene.

DS: Oh, and the performers on that show were unbelievable. It was B.B. King, Janis Joplin…I mean, it was the biggest music stars of the era. Smokey Robinson. John Sebastian. It started out with a group of us from Second City – The Committee, which was a Second City offshoot – but they ended up firing everyone except for me and Lily Tomlin as the hosts. And we were married to Billboard’s Top 100, so every week, no matter what was the popular song, we had to parody it. It was kind of an early Saturday Night Live sort of thing, really. But what we never counted on was that “Sugar, Sugar” would be the number-one song for five weeks in a row. [Laughs.] After three weeks of doing increasingly lame parodies, we just couldn’t figure out what to do with it. But then Lily was whisked away to do Laugh In, and I was left as the host, and…we knew the show was going to be going off the air in about eight weeks, so they said, “You can have anyone you want as a co-host.” So I got Groucho Marx to be my co-host one week, Steve Allen another week…it turned out to be a pretty trippy show in the end.

BE: How was Groucho as a co-host?

DS: Groucho was incredible. We were really good friends. I wrote a draft of the play Minnie’s Boys, and I spent about six months with him. He was lecherous and funny…up to form, basically. [Laughs.] There was a thistle in his kiss, so to speak. He was as acerbic as could be.

BE: Of your standup albums, I think 1974’s Booga! Booga! is probably the best known, if only by virtue of the fact that Sony reissued it in the ‘90s, but there are three others. Is there any one of that bunch that particularly stands out for you?

DS: Well, Disguised as a Normal Person has pretty good material. It’s all the material I was doing in the late ‘60s, and that came out in 1970. Booga! Booga! is very honed. I’d started to get it down good. Before that is The Incredible Shrinking God (1968), a not-easy-to-get album, but that was just the sermons, recorded at Second City. But the last album I did, which got really good reviews and I think maybe even a Grammy nod, was a concept album I wrote with Don Novello. It was called Goodbye to the ‘70s, and we wrote it in 1975.It was about an Arab takeover in America, and I became the sell-out, the Bob Hope type sell-out who was best friends with the Arab President. And that was…maybe we smoked a little bit too much grass. [Laughs.] But I remember it as being very good at the time.

BE: You mentioned The David Steinberg Show earlier. I have to admit that I’ve never actually seen it, but I’ve often seen it referenced as a precursor to The Larry Sanders Show.

DS: It was. In fact, I think Garry (Shandling) even talks about it. But it was a precursor by so many years that you can’t really think of in those terms. But, yeah, I played a character who was an egotistical version of myself – which some people would say is a redundancy – and it was a show within a show. I was sort of copying the old Burns & Allen show. Marty Short plays sort of a sleazy lounge-singer cousin of mine, and John Candy played the Doc Severinsen of the show, Spider Reichman, who worshipped Dizzy Gillespie. It was written by Ziggy Steinberg, one of my closest friends, and…we loved it. We loved doing it. It was just great. It’s sort of an iconic show. Marty’s particularly amazing it. But, then, he’s just amazing, anyway. He’s the funniest human being ever.

BE: I know Dave Foley is also a big fan of the show.

DS: Yes, he is. And then he and I worked together on The Wrong Guy, which is probably one of my favorite things that I’ve ever directed.

BE: Yeah, he’s said it’s one of his favorites as well. But it’s a film that earns decidedly mixed opinions: either it’s a comedy gem, or it’s not funny at all.

DS: That’s absolutely true. You never know what people are going to like or not like. It was a real comedy writer’s film. I got more work as a director from that, just from show runners and comedy writers who knew that it was good. Good or bad, though, it probably still would’ve done better if the company hadn’t gone bankrupt.

BE: Speaking of directing, your first time behind the camera was for Paternity, with Burt Reynolds.

DS: Yes. Burt gave me my first directing job, which was not a little thing. He had to fight Paramount to get them to let me direct it. But it started my whole career. He and I were really good friends, and…I think Burt Reynolds was one of the most underrated comic personalities of the ‘70s. He was as good on The Tonight Show as any comedian who was ever on the show. Things sort of took a turn later on, but at his peak, he was quite remarkable. Yeah, Paternity was first, and then Going Berserk… [Starts to laugh.] It’s not a good movie. But it became a cable stable, and it was also shown as a midnight movie in places like Washington. Not quite Rocky Horror, but…

BE: What made you decide to make the shift from actor to director?

DS: Well, you know, I never really liked acting that much. I did like standup, but I just couldn’t be on the road anymore. I always thought I could direct, though. I always felt…I liked, when I was on the set, to help everyone. And I was a fan of films. I know my movies very well. So I just got interested in it, and…I was still doing comedy, doing gigs all the way through the ’80s and up through the ‘90s. I was still doing The Tonight Show every six or seven months or so. But the directing just built and built and built, and all of a sudden it was a career.

BE: You’ve worked on just about every major sitcom at this point. Who would you say was the most surprising person you’ve worked with, someone you knew about but, when you got the show, left you thoroughly impressed?

DS: You know, from an acting point of view, the women were so impressive that it was unbelievable. I mean, on a show that’s a little broad, like, say, Designing Women, Dixie Carter and Annie Potts, Judith Ivey and Jan Hooks, they were unbelievable to me. The acting chops were incredible. I always remember that in particular. I couldn’t get over the comic abilities and sensibilities of Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt on Mad About You, either. I’d ask them to talk faster, and they talked faster, to the point where it felt like we were doing a Howard Hawks film. That was great.

BE: Lastly, you’ve helmed several episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Given his seemingly natural state of crankiness, is it even possible to direct Larry David?

DS: [Laughs.] It is possible. It’s totally possible. Larry’s very collaborative, actually. He’s a much more generous guy than he plays on TV. [Laughs.]


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