David Steinberg: Still Ahead of the Curve

davidsteinbergComedian, actor, producer,  and director David Steinberg appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson a monumental 140 times and he always sat on the couch.  He’s directed  episodes of “Friends”, “Seinfeld”, “Mad About You”, “Newhart”, and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” among others. He currently hosts Showtime’s “Inside Comedy.”  Steinberg is the subject of a new  Showtime Documentary “Quality Balls” all about Steinberg’s life, his comedy, and what was going on in comedy during his career.   This week, Steinberg was Ron Bennington’s guest on SiriusXM’s Unmasked show, and he and Bennington sat down for an hour in front of a studio audience to talk about the documentary, and Steinberg’s career.

The interview will air in its entirety exclusively on RawDog SiriusXM Comedy Hits Channel 99 at 8pm this Saturday February 1, 2014, and will repeat on Sunday February 2nd at 3pm and 9pm. (all times ET)

Steinberg started off the hour explaining to Bennington that he didn’t want to participate in a documentary about his life because, “as a writer” he said, “there’s no story.”

He then proceeds to spend the next hour telling great stories.  He talks about getting his love for conceptual comedy from watching Lenny Bruce at 19. He talks about learning to “be smart as you could for the audience” at Chicago’s Second City while working with Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Alan Arkin, Robert Klein and Elaine May. He talks about watching Richard Pryor (Richie to him) develop from a Bill Cosby sound-alike with an audience of 12 to become a militant minority voice that the whole world would come to know.  He talks about getting his stand up start on a night that Carly Simon got stage fright and how thanks to his  friend and mentor Sydney Poitier his career went from the virtual unknown to greatness almost over night.  But there’s definitely no story here. He talks about breaking all of Johnny Carson’s rules and still getting to appear on the Tonight Show 140 times.  And he talks about how his appearance on the Smothers Brothers show took them from being the #1 show on television to being cancelled– in one night! And that isn’t even mentioning his run-ins with the FBI, the tax audits, and the huge television directing career that has followed.  And still, no story here, right?

It’s hard to choose which stories to share, because they’re all so great, but one of the best is about how he was discovered, late one night, at a nearly empty club in the West Village in New York.   He explained that in those days he was performing at the Bitter End to very small crowds, except for the nights the Grayline tours would come by.  But the tour bus guests weren’t exactly a fan of the sermon-like attacks on the Bible he was performing, and so he was given three more days to perform, and then he was out.

On David’s second to last night, there were only six people in the audience. He tried to get out of performing but club owner Paul Colby told him he had to go on. Reluctantly, angrily, unhappily, he agreed…but, he said, “An interesting thing about comedians. If you have an audience of six people, you don’t hate everyone that isn’t there…..”

“So, I came out so angry. And I grabbed the mic and I was going to just…I don’t know what I was going to do. And as I grabbed the mic, Sidney Poitier walked in. Never having seen me at the Bitter End and sat down. This was the person I idolized most and we’re still friends to this day. And I did a show for him. I did it full-out, whatever it was and all of that. Sidney came back afterwards. He’s the most, sort of congenial, supportive person. He said – ‘David, this is great. What you’re doing here is great.’ I said – ‘Sid, I didn’t even have a minion here. There are like six people. I don’t even have ten people. I’m not doing so well.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to stay with it. You’ve got to stay with it.’ So, I just went home to sleep that night. The next morning, Carly (Simon) called me. She lived in the apartment right above me. And she said, ‘David, have you seen the New York Times today? I said – ‘No, I’m sleepy. I’ll look at it tomorrow.’ I basically…I was out of work. One of those six people was the reviewer for the New York Times. His name was Dan Sullivan. He said, “David Steinberg is a cross between Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce.”

Johnny told him “you’re ahead of the curve on this one.

“And,” Steinberg said, “I had a career.”  But it wasn’t his first turning point and wouldn’t be he last.  He  didn’t follow other people’s rules and it worked for him.  Johnny Carson  thought he was brilliant.  On his first appearance on The Tonight Show, he did a bit about Nixon selling his tapes like they were K-Tel albums.  Johnny told him “you’re ahead of the curve on this one.  The audience isn’t quite where you are.” It wasn’t a problem, but Johnny just wanted him to know that.  Having Carson on his side, was good fortune, to say the least.  Carson was a gatekeeper and a life changer.

“It was an arrival as you say.  Just being on The Tonight Show and getting Johnny to laugh.  And Ron, you know better than anyone that comedians always talk about, ‘did you sit down next to Johnny’ because that becomes the stature rather than just standing up.  I stood up only once on my first appearance and then I sat down with him from then on.  And in fact, what I wanted Johnny to do is—when you do a television show you are coordinated.  A coordinator—as a matter of fact you’re one of the few people who doesn’t do that. You don’t have to ask me what we want to talk about, you’re smart enough to just say I want to meet this guy.  Well on the Tonight Show and on all  shows to this day, a coordinator–

‘What are you gonna talk about tonight.’  ‘Well, I’m going to talk about, whatever’….’Well what will be the end of that story.  What’s the middle so I can give it to the host so he at least knows where you’re headed.’

That went against everything that I believed in.  So I started to work on Carson and I was on almost every six weeks. Let me not have to go to the coordinator.  I’ll give you the subjects.  Let’s say the New York Knicks,  dating…which I was single at the time, and you can intrude wherever you want, just let me do that.  He said, ‘David I’ve done this show for so long, it just doesn’t work. I have to at least know where you’re headed so that I can follow you.’  It makes sense because you can’t just let people sort of babble on.  Some can do it some can not.   And then finally two shows after that I said, how about the Knicks , dating…he said ‘you know what? I’m going to do this just to show you how wrong you are.  And then I want you to stop bothering me cause you’re doing great, people love you, you don’t need to be doing it that way.’  I said well let’s give it a shot. I opened the subject…..I don’t remember what it was…and the audience was in hysterics.   And when we broke to commercial, he said you know what? He said this was vintage Steinberg tonight. So I knew I was in. I knew I had a way to do my stuff and he let me do it.

steinbergcarsonBeing on Carson changed his life yet again, and suddenly strangers on the street would talk to him.  And so would the FBI, who once told him there were death threats against him, just to try to stop him from performing his subversive material.  But he always felt he needed to keep moving forward and expressing his point of view.  “That,” he said, “is the privilege of being a comedian.” And so he continued to perform in ways that angered the powers that be, and at times, even the public.  “I was sure I was right in the way that only a young person can be sure he is right.  I was into the politics in  a very irresponsible way, actually.  It’s a dangerous game.”  So dangerous, that he later brought down the #1 show in the country– The Smothers Brothers– with his act.

Times have changed since then, and now being a comedian is a little less dangerous and quite a bit less rare.  “When I did it, it was like having a disease” Steinberg recalls.  “Now you can’t swing a Jew in Beverly Hills without hitting another jew that wants their kid to be a comedian.”

The life and times of David Steinberg provide a fascinating look back at the invention of modern comedy.  There is most definitely a story, and it’s a great one.

You can hear Unmasked with Ron Bennington and David Steinberg in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio.  Unmasked premiers on Saturday night February 1, 2014 at 8pm on Raw Dog SiriusXM Comedy Hits 99 and will re-air on Sunday February 2, at 3:00pm  and 9:00pm.  Also make sure you watch “Quality Balls” The David Steinberg documentary premiering on Showtime on Monday February 3, at 9:30pm (all times eastern).

Read more comedy interviews including BJ Novak, Jeff Garlin, and John Leguizamo.