DISGUISED AS A NORMAL PERSON
Insecurity combined with arrogance is good DNA for a comedian. So is anger, aggression, and sadness. If you’ve had a great life and a wonderful bar mitzvah and you’ve been given a lot of money, you’d make a lousy comedian. You’re better off being the comedian’s lawyer.
I’ve had, and continue to have, a great career in comedy, first in stand-up, and over the last few decades, as a director of television comedy series, from Designing Women to The Bob Newhart Show, Golden Girls, Mad About You, Seinfeld, Friends, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV movies, my series of interviews with comedians called Inside Comedy, with several stops in between. But there were also doldrums along the way—personal and professional. What got me through them was my love of comedy—life itself—and my friendship with, admiration for, and work with other comedians. I knew most of them. I interviewed, worked with, directed, kvetched with, broke bread with, opened for, headlined for, and directed the best of them.
This book is not just my story, it’s their stories.
Why me? Besides being there, there are things I’m too modest to tell you—that I may be the only comedian to have made Elie Wiesel laugh; that I was admired by the great New Yorker writer and humorist S. J. (Sid) Perelman, and by Philip Roth, Kenneth Tynan, and Harold Pinter. And that I was virtually adopted by Groucho Marx and many of the legendary old-timers (such as Jack Benny and George Burns) at Hillcrest Country Club. I also directed Burt Reynolds at the height of his considerable fame, before he self-destructed. Johnny Carson was my mentor and invited me to be a guest on or host The Tonight Show 140 times. I believe I am now at the cutting edge of comedy as one of the directors of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with my old friend and fellow kvetcher Larry David. And my series over the last few years, Inside Comedy, is a documentary interview show, a conversation with, if you will, more than seventy-five comedians and comic actors.
It’s a funny thing about comedy: when you give your life to it, it can become a serious business. I spent my life in and outside the comedy world, and it is a world, a universe unto itself. I was a popular stand-up comic for three decades. I was twenty-five when I first appeared at the Bitter End on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. I usually prowled the tiny stage in a worn brown corduroy jacket—this was 1968—and I did things like improvising sermons based on the Old Testament. (That wasn’t too much of a reach, because I had been a pre-rabbinical student at Hebrew Theological College near Chicago before comedy found me.)
But this book is not just about my life in comedy—it’s about my life and comedy in the last half of the last century. I lived through a time when stand-up comedy was a poor relation to other forms of entertainment, when being on a successful sitcom was nothing to write home about. But I think I was one of a group of people—along with Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and a few others—who pushed stand-up forward as an art form and made comedy an important part of the culture. A comic hosting a television show used to be rare, but I hosted three—Music Scene, which featured artists like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Joe Cocker; Noonday, a half-hour midday talk show; and The David Steinberg Show, about making a TV talk show and thus a precursor to Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show.
But being successful at something I loved didn’t always make me happy. Like many comics, I struggled with bouts of depression. And despite the affections of beautiful, accomplished women like Tuesday Weld, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Sarandon, and Carly Simon, I, too often, thought of the book of Job, when I should have had my mind on other things. It must’ve been my Talmudic training (I had the only little black book in Hollywood that was written in Aramaic). Unlike many comics of my generation, however, I did manage to avoid heavy drug and alcohol use. With some luck I was able to dodge the heroin that floated through Second City and Saturday Night Live, killing John Belushi; the cocaine that undid Richard Pryor; and the alcoholic demons that brought down Chris Farley and George Carlin. But I was there, and I saw it all. To paraphrase the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best comedy minds of my generation destroyed by an angry fix.
Then I started to talk about my life. I had a little bit of the Lenny Bruce storytelling in me. On some level, that was hard and painful—you’re giving a lot of yourself, and you’re showing that your ego is bigger than anybody else’s. Still, the actual performing was enjoyable to me. I opened for jazz greats like Miles Davis, pop stars like Dionne Warwick and Frankie Valli, and folkies like John Denver. The musicians were fans of mine because they identified with what I was doing. I started out with audiences of five hundred people, and before I knew it, there were crowds of two thousand.
The kind of stand-up that emerged from Second City, from Lenny Bruce, and that had moved away from vaudeville was uniquely American. The early comics, who were mostly Eastern European Jews, gave way to the Irish, like George Carlin. Their comedy carried a whiff of optimism, and some of a madman’s tenderness. Robin Williams had it. Richard Pryor and George Carlin had it. Just consider, while Dostoevsky was writing Crime and Punishment, halfway around the world, Mark Twain was writing The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
Stand-up comedy in the ’70s was different from what it is now. Now, everyone wants to be a stand-up comedian. There were clubs, most of the comedians were close friends of mine like Richard Pryor, and all the other guys were just good friends. At all the clubs that we worked at in the ’60s in New York, we were opening for jazz or folk musicians, not comedians. I performed at the Bitter End, opening for Jerry Jeff Walker. I also opened for Miles Davis (we spoke for hours after each show we’d done, and I never understood a word he said, as he talked so quietly). Once, Miles did a benefit at Lincoln Center and asked me to emcee it. It was sold out because he was so popular. All he cared about was music, so he went onstage, with thousands of people there to see him, and he turned his back on them to experience the music with his band of six musicians. The music was incredible—it was so atonal, as he was so ahead of everything with abstract, obscure music. When, after the performance, I said, “Thank you, Miles, I’ll be humming that for weeks,” he took me offstage in a headlock. That was the atmosphere that I loved to be in, with artists. I also happened to love the storytelling atmosphere of the country western singers. You were always in a creative community, and what could be better than that?
What is hard and painful about doing comedy, for me? Well, the actual performing, the “doing”—no, that was enjoyable to me. I would sometimes get a little nervous, but I never had much stage fright. There is a tradition of a kind of Jewish angst explored kinetically by these mentors of mine. They didn’t mentor me by discovering me, but I was aware of them and read their stuff, and I realized that I was already in that kind of rhythm of talking about Jewish princesses and political stuff. And I held court every morning at the coffee shop, and after a while you just couldn’t get into the place.
I dealt with the only material I had, which was my life. I didn’t think it was an exceptional life, but it was the only way that I knew how to be funny and witty. I didn’t think of it as being funny. I never thought of it as being a clown, and I never thought of it as a career. I used to go to the Gate of Horn in Chicago to hear the folk music I loved (I played the guitar). If there were more than two or three people, I would play, and they would all sing along.
I never had a comedian’s range. I couldn’t do impressions like comedians do. I wasn’t a particularly good singer, although I was musical. But when you put me onstage, I would leave the script, just use it as a sort of springboard to whatever I wanted to say. The cast would stop, and I would literally do a monologue about what was going on in the play. It would be amateurish and embarrassing, but it was totally original. I performed at the Bitter End after Second City, with very small audiences, but I started to build a following. And when they moved on, this new guy came in, and that was Richard Pryor.
Once you’re doing stand-up comedy on the level that we were doing it then, you’re letting everyone know everything about you. So when you meet afterward, you sort of up the ante, and, well, yeah, “I fucked up this, I wanted to do that.” It became like musicians talking about what they were doing. And Richard Pryor (I called him Richie until the day he died) wasn’t quite Richie to the extent that he was going to be, but certainly heading there. He was at the Cafe Au Go Go, and I walked in to see what he was doing, which was brilliant Black-white stuff that no one would go near. It was outrageous then, but it wouldn’t be outrageous now. Richie was a whole other level of writing genius because he was drawing from some authentic part of himself. Basically, it’s writing. Then you improvise, you exaggerate; you only have one job, which is to connect with the audience and have them feel that they got their money’s worth. Your job isn’t to make them feel, oh, “we Blacks are marching down the street,” or “I can’t believe David Steinberg said that about Jews.”
Comedians “steal” from each other all the time—not material, but ideas. There’s no good comedian that hasn’t stolen ideas from someone. And you don’t really “steal” material. You do your own version of it. And so that’s a bar code. So Shelley Berman on the phone—I guarantee you Nichols and May had their comedic “on the phone” piece before him. Bob Newhart was on the phone in a way no one else was. And Shelley Berman was on the phone—he just held his fingers to his mouth to give the audience the impression he had a prop there. And those comedians were so good at it, you believed that was a phone.
But it doesn’t matter! It comes down to your thumbprint—how your version of that works. It’s impossible for comedians not to “borrow” from each other. There is no way there would be Dave Chappelle if there hadn’t been Richard Pryor. And there probably would be no Key & Peele (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) if there weren’t a Dave Chappelle. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele created the number one show on Comedy Central between 2012 and 2015, fifty-three socially conscious episodes in which they wrote, acted in, and directed sketches. In one, Keegan played Luther, President Obama’s anger management translator, against Jordan playing Obama. In another, “East/West Collegiate Bowl,” they created a parody of college football players and the way they present themselves. The show won a Peabody Award. It was irreverent, it was edgy, it totally pushed the envelope. Jordan Peele is now a producer/director/writer with great success. His first movie, Get Out, a horror movie rooted in social ills, won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director that same year. Keegan-Michael Key has since debuted on Broadway in Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower with Amy Schumer. Both Keegan and Jordan were on my show Inside Comedy and were very insightful, funny; it’s one of my favorite episodes. Years ago, in 2007, I directed Keegan in a wonderful pilot called Frangela (it was obvious then that Keegan had a gift), written by and starring the brilliant comedic duo Francis Callier and Angela V. Shelton, all Second City alumni, naturally. A comedy that dealt with race, it was clearly before its time, and it scared the network, but we were so proud of it. Time to remake it.
After comedy, my greatest passion was always language, which led me, many years later, to conversations with most of the greatest living comedians in America. I produced and hosted a show called Inside Comedy, where I interviewed comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, Steve Carell, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Brad Garrett, Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Garry Shandling, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Ellen DeGeneres, Kathy Griffin, Steven Wright, Robin Williams, Louis C. K., Judd Apatow, Tiny Fey, Drew Carey, Martin Mull, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Betty White, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Richard Lewis, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Gilbert Gottfried, Bill Maher, Jimmy Fallon, Robert Klein, Zach Galifianakis, and, one of my all-time favorites, the great Jonathan Winters.
That is the history of comedy right there. Winters, by the way, was also a muse for the lately departed genius Robin Williams. Robin and I traveled the country together from 2012 through 2014 in a show that began as a onetime benefit for the Cleveland Clinic—the fabled heart hospital that had once saved Robin’s life—and eventually turned into a two-year tour of America. For me it was a tour inside the heart and mind of one of America’s greatest improvisational comedians and actors, who so sadly took his life. That was, and is, an unbearable loss for this uniquely American art form, and for the many who loved him. Like me.
So what have I learned from five decades inside comedy? I’m still finding out. All I know for sure is that I’ve gotten the greatest pleasure from it all—doing stand-up, hosting shows, directing sitcoms and movies, and doing Inside Comedy. One thing I found out about myself is that I like listening to other people and giving them the chance to talk about themselves. I’m an appreciative listener, and nothing pleases me more than to listen to great comics talk about their work, their life, their unpaid bills. Oh, yeah—and their anecdotes, insider stories, private ruminations (big word for “secrets”), and thoughtful reflections. That is what you will find on these pages. I found that people seem to want to climb into the minds of comedians. And now that the era of Trumpism had suddenly fallen on our heads, and as the independent press is suppressed and discredited, we needed our comedians to remind us that the emperor had no clothes.
Copyright © 2021 by David Steinberg. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.