David Steinberg laughs often, and he laughs loudly. A veteran standup comedian known for ironic observations and smart, intellectual wit, he’s also the producer, writer and on–camera host of Showtime’s Inside Comedy.
And this is where his easy laugh and his decades in the trenches of standup come in especially handy: On Inside Comedy, he sits down with the genre’s leading lights and just talks. And laughs. From Larry David to Mel Brooks to Chris Rock to Judd Apatow, they all make a quick connection with David Steinberg. He knows which questions to ask.
It’s unique television, intimate and engaging and hugely entertaining.
The Inside Comedy template is in place for An Evening of Sit Down, a live event coming to the Johnny Mercer Theatre Feb. 2.
Steinberg and Robin Williams will take the stage together and — Williams being Williams — insanity will ensue.
If your roots in TV comedy go all the way back to the 1960s, you’ll have no trouble conjuring up David Steinberg. An original member of Canada’s Second City aggregate, he was a fixture on things like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (where his satirical “sermons” so offended the CBS brass, they led to the series’ cancellation) and the Johnny Carson–hosted Tonight Show.
Not only did Steinberg serve as guest host a dozen times, he logged 140 appearances on Carson’s stage — second only to Bob Hope.
Winner of two Emmys and a Cable Ace Award, Steinberg has also made several albums of his standup and written a memoir, The Book of David.
In recent years, he’s been Emmy– and Directors’ Guild–nominated for his work behind the camera on some of comedy’s biggest and best TV shows, including Seinfeld, Weeds, Newhart, Friends, Mad About You, Designing Women and the unstoppable Curb Your Enthusiasm.
The second season of Inside Comedy premieres Feb. 11, with Steinberg doing a bit of sit down with Louis CK and Bob Newhart.
Until then .... Heeeere’s David and Robin.
So what’s this ‘Evening of Sit Down’ all about?
David Steinberg: It’s the two of us onstage. We sit down. We have a sort of a road map. We improvise. It goes back and forth between me and Robin, but he carries the big load. It’s a combination of spontaneous stuff between us, and standup. So it’s this weird hybrid, but if you come to see Robin Williams’ standup, you get more than just that in this interview. Because I’m asking him about everything, whatever it is that occurs to me that day, and then just what I think people are interested in. And then he pokes around my life a little bit. The good news is that it’s funny nonstop.
Is he difficult to reign in?
David Steinberg: You know what? He is the most unique comedy mind. He really is in comic genius category. I give him a subject, and he’ll go at it .... I compare it to jazz music, a guy just taking a melody and then improvising all over it.
It’s a rewarding experience. Most people are coming to see Robin — I don’t know who remembers me or doesn’t, or even knows that I’m a standup comedian. Basically, you get more than just his standup. You definitely get his standup. He takes off and goes.
But you get a very introspective version of him as well. He’s really a smart guy. He’s a well–read guy. He’s quite amazing, actually.
Your transition between standup comic and TV director was fairly fast. Tell me about it.
David Steinberg: By the time I did the replacement show for Carol Burnett, the director was a guy that had done The Red Skelton Show and all these comedy shows, and I had no idea what a director did. That was the first time I started to see how much creativity is coming from the other end that I didn’t realize. Directing is writing, in a way. And comedy directors were given no respect whatsoever.
It wasn’t like it was a move to make more money, or even more prestige, really. I just got interested in it. And I thought “I would love to be in front of the camera as long as I can, but I’m going to explore this and see what happens.” Never expecting it to be something that would be another career for me.
How much pre–set form do you have to adhere to in, say, a Mad About You? Do they say “Give me something funny here that still looks like our show”?
David Steinberg: It depends. There are directors who are just technical. Technical directing on a sitcom, I could teach anyone how to do that.
David Steinberg: No, not you! But almost anyone else. It’s not hard to do, especially the four–camera, in front of an audience film. You line up the cameras, you learn how to get a two–shot. It’s technical.
But I didn’t realize I had another contribution that was gonna make a difference. And that was as a writer. So everyone that hired me as a director, they could’ve got other directors, certainly, who knew more than I, and who certainly were as good as I was. Because there’s no variation in that form of sitcom–in–front–of–an–audience. But what they liked, and what was so casual and easy for me .... It was sort of a bow in the quiver, or whatever the metaphor is ... was that I was a writer. So they loved me in the writing room. These were all comedies, so I became sort of the first comedy director/writer at the same time. That enhanced my reputation.
I knew everybody, so when Paul Reiser was developing Mad About You, I helped him develop it. I couldn’t direct the pilot because I was getting pretty busy at the time, and the moment that he could get me over there, I came in.
Is it unusual for a director to hang around with the writers?
David Steinberg: It was more unusual before I started. The directors were just there to line up the shots. I think I was part of a group of directors who changed that, but no one came with the credibility of having had a standup comedy career as much as I did. So I just lucked out in that way.
Were you starting to think “I’m older, my standup thing isn’t happening, I need to do something else”?
David Steinberg: It wasn’t that, it was that I didn’t want to be on the road any more. I had a family. I thought “How do I spend more time with my kids?” more than giving up on standup. I don’t know what standup is, it’s a peculiar genetic predisposition to something, but you never really give it up. But I just didn’t want to be on the road any more.
So the directing offered me a way out of the road. That’s all that I thought of, and I jumped into it.
I think I did a Showtime show in the ‘90s. I hadn’t done standup for at least a few years, and the Seinfeld group — Jerry and Larry — said “We want to see you doing something again.” There was a little club in L.A., it was in the neighborhood where I lived. They had jazz musicians playing there. I said “I’m going to come in for the weekend, and don’t advertise me.” Because I just felt it wasn’t fair to the audience, I hadn’t done it in years. Jerry Seinfeld was coming, Paul Reiser was coming.
I opened the front page of the newspaper, and they had a new index. It said Opening tonight, David Steinberg.
That afternoon, the owner of the club called and said “Johnny Carson and his wife are coming tonight.” Can you imagine how frightening that was?
So I got up and I made it all about Johnny. And of course, Johnny being in this 200–seat restaurant/nightclub made it so electric. And that sort of kicked in, then I was able to go do a college concert, pick up gigs wherever I could. I never didn’t enjoy it.
Just to bring you full circle, just this last year I went to the La Jolla Playhouse and did a one–man show that became very successful. I did it for about three weeks and it sold out. That felt just great.
After my television show comes on in February, I’m going east to do this one–man show again, at the Bucks County Playhouse. And just see what that gets me, for the fun of it.
Did you think “Hey, I remember what this feels like”?
David Steinberg: If you’re not nervous before you go on, you’re just a moron. You have to understand that so many things can go wrong, even when it’s just you going onstage. If you took my blood pressure when I get on that stage, it’d be so low it’d be unbelievable. It’s so familiar to me to be out there. You gotta remember, I did this a lot. So it’s an old familiar feeling, and then to sort of revisit what it is at my age, and the way I am now and all that, it makes you find a creative identity real fast.
An Evening of Sit Down
Robin Williams/David Steinberg
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: At 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2
Tickets: $25–$125 at etix.com
Online: thedavidsteinberg.com, robinwilliams.com