David Steinberg: A Comedian Must Fail to Succeed

The 'Seinfeld' director and 'Inside Comedy' host reflects on his yeshiva days and life on the road with Robin Williams.

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After interviewing the best American comedians, including Mel Brooks, Louis CK and Tina Fey, and working with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, David Steinberg has found the common denominator for everyone who chooses to work in comedy.

“It is a rare form, in that you have to fail to succeed at it,” the producer-interviewer of Showtime’s “Inside Comedy” says in a telephone interview, and shares what Seinfeld once told him. “Part of it is always failing and learning what the audience expects. The audience could be cheering for 45 minutes. I’d try a new piece of material and they could sniff out that it was new and not worked out, and they’d take back their laughter like a bathtub drain.”

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He also believes they have something else in common: if you had a happy childhood, a good marriage and money in the bank, you’re likely to be a lousy comedian. You need to be well acquainted with suffering. You have to know what rejection is.

Steinberg, 72, has enjoyed a long career. He was just starting out as a stand-up when he appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Not only did he appear on the show more than 130 times in the 1960s and ’70s, but he also stood in for Carson on occasion.

Alongside his work as a comic, he also directed some of the best U.S. comedies of subsequent decades, with “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Mad About You” first among them.

The son of Yasha Steinberg, a Romanian rabbi who immigrated to North America, David Steinberg studied at a yeshiva in Israel. He left the yeshiva – and religious life – later on, and studied English literature at the University of Chicago. He decided to become a comedian after seeing Lenny Bruce perform.

In 1964, he joined The Second City, the well-known improvisational Chicago comedy troupe that gave many prominent U.S. comedians their first break.

Tackling religious taboos

Not only did Steinberg move far away from religious observance, later in his career he didn’t shrink from dealing with religious topics that were hitherto considered off-limits.

His daring got him into trouble. He would deliver satirical sermons on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in the 1960s. In 1968, he performed a monologue about Jonah and the whale, during which he said, “The Old Testament scholars say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. The Gentiles, the New Testament scholars say, ‘Hold it, Jews, no.’ They literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament.” Officials of the CBS network asked that the sketch not be aired, and after the Smothers Brothers refused, CBS canceled the show.

When I ask Steinberg, early in the interview, whether he can conduct our interview in Hebrew, he answers, in quite fluent Hebrew, “I could speak it once, but I’ve forgotten.” Then, returning to English, he says, “I haven’t spoken Hebrew in years, but I do write my notes in Hebrew – that way, the actors don’t know that I’m thinking bad about them.”

He says he spent six months in the Jewish Agency’s Machon Youth Leadership Training program, which brought young Jews from Europe and the United States to Israel. “I was 16-17 years old,” he recalls. “Israel was at war at that time. You could even see artillery along the road that was destroyed on the way to Jerusalem. Surprisingly, I’ve not been to Israel since, but I read Haaretz. I have it on my iPad.”

WC Fields and Groucho Marx

Steinberg caused a minor scandal in January 2013 when he was asked, at a Television Critics Association panel discussion, why there were so many Jews in comedy. “Because they’re smarter,” Steinberg replied. Shortly afterward, he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “The point of that was to get a laugh with my own chauvinism and love for myself and my own people. I don’t believe Jews are smarter. I don’t believe any particular ethnic group is smarter than any other group. It did create a controversy.”

Robin Williams. 'He was the loveliest human being you could be with.'. Photo by AP

If you could interview comedians who have passed on, who – except for Lenny Bruce – would you invite onto your show?

“You picked the person that, of course, would be first in my mind. Lenny Bruce would be great. Also, I was writing a play for Groucho Marx on the Marx Brothers. He was a character all the way through, still sharp in his 80s. I was a kid in my 20s and I was writing mini-plays on these players.

"Groucho and I had lunch together every Tuesday, as I was getting material together on the Marx Brothers. And we were in one of these restaurants, and two priests were coming into the room. They went crazy. ‘Oh, Mr. Marx, it’s so great to see you! We’ve admired you so much.’ And one of the priests said, ‘You’ve brought so much joy into the world.’ And Groucho said, ‘And you’ve taken so much out!’ Of course, these priests were laughing hysterically. So there’s WC Fields, Groucho.”

One comedian you interviewed was Robin Williams, with whom you did a tour...

He was a close friend of mine. And we were on tour together this last year – we did 30 cities together. What everybody said about him, it’s a fact: he was the loveliest human being you could be with. He was not neurotic, he was just a wonderful person. And it was just the loss of the friendship, because when you’re on a tour together for a year, you get to know everybody; you see them at their best, you see them at their worst. There is nothing worse than that [Williams’ suicide, last August]. It was such a surprise and a shock for everyone.”

One of Steinberg’s outstanding interviews was with Larry David, the star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and one of the creators of “Seinfeld.” The question that needs to be asked is whether there will be another season of “Curb” [the ninth]. Steinberg says that yes, there will be another.

“Larry [David] is doing a Broadway play that he wrote that will be coming out next [year],” he says [“Fish in the Dark” opens on March 5]. “But there’s no way that Larry will give up that character. He enjoys it much too much. And to answer a silent question that everybody asks about Larry: He isn’t that character. He’s basically a writer. He sounds like a yeshiva student studying Gemara.” Steinberg adds, “There’s no way he will not be doing another season, in my opinion. There’ll be another season of ‘Curb,’ mostly because he enjoys it so much.”