David Steinberg, Part 1

Thursday, February 28, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Feb. 28, 2002, in Aspen, Colo.

Ken Paulson: Our guest today has had a remarkable career in comedy, ranging from his highly topical work as a stand-up to directing some of TV’s top shows. We’re pleased to welcome David Steinberg. Welcome, it’s great to have you here.

David Steinberg: Thank you, Ken.

Paulson: I know you’ve had a tremendously rich career. It’s hard for me to believe that initially you planned a rabbinical career. Is that true?

Steinberg: I didn’t plan anything, actually, but I was at yeshiva. I was a theological student for, oh, almost four years and then went to Hebrew University, and my father was a rabbi.

Paulson: And some of what I’ve read suggests that Lenny Bruce changed your path. Is that true?

Steinberg: Absolutely.

Paulson: Talk about Lenny Bruce.

Steinberg: Well, I was at the University of Chicago, and I really wasn’t much of a student. I was mostly — most comedians will tell you how sort of outside of everything they were. They were trouble, trouble for the family, trouble for everyone. And theological school certainly was not a place for me to be. And I — even at the University of Chicago, I did have — theological carried over, because there was this Swift Theological School at the University of Chicago, and they used to have breakfast on the honor system. And I had no money, so I used to go there and just move the change around, have coffee, and just have these, you know, theological discussions with these guys while I was sort of bilking the school out of their money. When I came back to perform years later, I felt like Frank Sinatra. I came in and threw $20 in the — but I was, I was at University of Chicago just starting to get into theater, and I had never seen — I’d never seen a Broadway play. I’d never seen a comedian. I only got into theater — as people will tell you, I’m not the first — because the six attractive women at the University of Chicago walked upstairs. And Charlotte Weisberg was one of them, so I followed her up. And the theater was run by Robert Benedetti, who was sort of a very advanced, wonderful director. And you know, I thought, “Well, you know, these girls are here. I’ll, I’ll join up.” And I got into the theater by just faking my way into it, and then Benedetti and Bill Alton, who was in Second City, ran the theater. And I would just be up there talking to them all the time. But I was an outrageous person. I was a kid who had never seen a stand-up comedian, but I was just funny about everything all the time and in a way that I was so — I was very, very truthful in my comedy, much more than I was in my life even then. And they just kept on saying, you know, “This is — we gotta use this somehow,” and I didn’t even know what they were talking about, because I was just a student. And I’m not a very good actor, because I couldn’t get any — far away — any time I got away from my personality, nothing worked for me. So they said to me, “You have to see Lenny Bruce.” And I said, “Who is he? What does he do?” And, “He’s a stand-up comedian.” I really — the — I know it sounds incredible, but it was yeshiva to Lenny Bruce to the “Tonight Show.” So I — it was — I just had never seen anything like it. So I came to the Gate of Horn where he was performing, and here was this great-looking person, not a buffoon, which is what I thought comedians were doing at the time, sort of making fun of themselves in a clown-like way. This guy was not that, and, in fact, I passed by him in the hall, and I — and he was wearing a kind of Nehru suit, which was four years before you even saw something like that, and, and I didn’t know what he did. But he had some authority there, but I knew this couldn’t be the comedian. And then all of the sudden, he walked behind me right onto the stage and just started talking in a way that I had never heard anyone talk in my life. It was, it was sort of jazz done verbally. And you could see him improvising. I think he was probably a little high that night on speed, which — ’cause he was — the ideas were coming so fast, and he did a piece of material about a, a schlock comedian in England that became a famous piece. It was called “Frankie Dell at the Palladium.” And, and the pictures — he just created such pictures. I — so here I was watching someone, and in the imagination — in his imagination, because everything that he said was visual. And he had these skills where he would do impressions — and it was just — to me, it was Joyce-ian at the time, you know, because I just — I’d never been prepared for anything like that. And, I knew, when I walked out of that — the other thing that was interesting about Lenny Bruce at the time is that the audience did not respond to him. I would say 1/3 of the audience laughed, and 2/3 of the audience not only did not laugh, but did not like him. When he would take a word like the, the, the dreaded “n” word, like nigger, and say, “nigger, nigger, nigger,” and say, “If you say that enough, then it doesn’t hurt.” This — we’re talking about 1960. Just saying that word onstage is so bold, and for him to have that point of view. And that 2/3 of the audience, and then you saw 1/3 of the audience leave at that. And missing the — not even hearing what his point of view is.

Paulson: Right.

Steinberg: Thinking that he’s being racist. So I walked out of there thinking, “I don’t know how, what — I’ve got to do some version of this? I don’t know how to get there.” I hadn’t succeeded in anything up until that point, so why would this work? But it changed my life.

Paulson: And so what was that leap that took you to the “Tonight Show”?

Steinberg: Second City came to perform at the University of Chicago, and I saw them, and they had a — they were in this Lenny Bruce mode of a kind of already anti-Vietnam starting — at that time, it wasn’t even Vietnam. It was political advisers that we were dealing with. And just the radical, just the intellect, the fact that something could be so funny and so intelligent at the same time, and I — and intelligence is a deceptive word. I don’t mean intellectual. That is a bad rap in a way. It just — how smart it was. Now, when something is funny, if something is genuinely funny, it’s smart. I always used to say — people used to say to me, “You know, you’re an intelligent comedian,” and I used to say, “You’re hurting my feelings. Am I funny?” ‘Cause people who are funny are smart. Humor is being smart, period. So I saw Second City. I had a friend who was a, a lawyer at the time, Gene Cadish, and he had real aspirations for being in the theater. And he and I got an act together. And we wrote an act, and I think I was sort of more influential — it was more my cup of tea than his. I did something that would attract Second City to me, and the review said, “Second City should see these guys,” and that was it. I started Second City, and that started my career.

Paulson: You were probably in some pretty good company in that troupe.

Steinberg: An amazing group of people.

Paulson: Who did you work with?

Steinberg: Alan Arkin, Barbara Harris, Paul Sand, Jack Burns, Avery Schreiber, Dick Schaal. I was the baby of the troupe. I was, like, 10 years younger than everybody. Now I’m, now I’m no longer the baby of anything. But, but I remember always just in awe. They were, like, amazing improvisers to work with, and rules were set up. You don’t ad-lib. You don’t joke. You can’t make a joke. What’s, what’s the matter with these people? And basically, everything had to come from character, and they created a forum that is probably one of the most vibrant comedy forums right now that very few people really know, but I know that you do. But — and I stayed with Second City and then got to Broadway and starred in a couple Broadway plays. And when they closed, I immediately went back to Second City, and when I went back to Second City, one of the directors, either Paul Sills or Sheldon Patinkin and said, “Why don’t you do something about your, your yeshiva, your theological background?” Am I talking too much?

Paulson: No, this is great.

Steinberg: OK, all right.

Paulson: This is — this is “Speaking Freely.”

Steinberg: OK — “Why don’t you do something about your theological background?” And I said, “Why would I want to do that? I am escaping that theological background.” And — but that night, I walked onstage, and I asked for a suggestion for any Old Testament personality, any one at all, and I would improvise a sermon. And they gave me Moses. And the first line that came out became the line that I used in all my sermons, which was, “Moses had a wonderful rapport with God, whom I’m sure you’ll all remember from last week’s sermon.” And the audience was there. I was away. I was away. And then all I did was, because I had the background in it, I would just translate from the Hebrew to the English in my mind, ’cause I was improvising it. And lines like, you know, “Get the Christ back into Christmas and the Ha back into Hanukkah.” And they all came. And then, then that became the thing in Second City for a while. All that great group was now onto New York, and I was the person with the rookies, and I improvised a sermon almost every night. And I would never know what they were going to suggest from Jonah to Onan sometimes to whatever. And, and those sermons sort of marked a path for me, because Second City was a company, and I had the pleasure of this being on — getting laughs and finding myself, by myself. And that sort of took me into the next direction, which was to stand-up comedy.

Paulson: And stand-up comedy, you did — you made a tremendous number of appearances on the “Tonight Show.”

Steinberg: Yeah.

Paulson: And had great rapport with Johnny.

Steinberg: Yes.

Paulson: I was struck by a comment you made years later saying that when he retired, you felt like you’d lost your op-ed page.

Steinberg: Exactly right, exactly right.

Paulson: And what was special about that relationship?

Steinberg: What was special about it is that he trusted me, and I wasn’t very — I wasn’t trusted, because along the way, the Smothers Brothers controversy had occurred. So he, he just trust — he knew that I had a, a, a boundary meter in me that wouldn’t cause him to have to stop me. But he also knew — and he and I recently just talked about it — that I went too far for him. But he had an amazing, I guess, a bellwether. He would know exactly what the country could take. He knew exactly where they were.

Paulson: Wow.

Steinberg: And I knew what me and my friends were talking about. And so when I started to attack Nixon, he was there, Carson. He was smart and funny and same point of view, and I knew that. But he would never do it onstage. He would never negate me, but he’d let me, you know, sell Nixon’s tapes like a K-Tel commercial, you know, and whatever before they — before the attorney general was even indicted, I was onto that stuff. So — and the audience, even at the “Tonight Show,” would start to pull away. And he never stopped me from doing it. And he allowed me to sit down and not have to stand up so that I could improvise out my ideas, but I wrote ‘em out. I wrote out my beginning, my middle, and the end. Then I would sit with him, and rather than give — you know, when you do it — when you do the “Tonight Show,” the guest is coordinated. It’s a sad word, but — it means that they’re going to make sure that you just don’t go out there and talk from the top of your head, ’cause if you do, it’s not going to work. Because you have to organize yourself in five-minute segments, and you won’t get to it. So the coordinator will organize your stories with you, and Johnny will get questions that he can either ignore or ask you. Most of the time, people are better when they’re in the questions. But he doesn’t know the detail of it. He just knows where you’re headed. I wanted to stop that, and I wanted him to let me go a little freer. So I said, “OK, my, my category tonight will be Watergate and basketball and nothing else. And you could interrupt wherever you want.” This was our deal offstage. “You could have a better line than me. You could — whatever you want. Don’t feel that you just — it’s mine. It’s for both of us.” And I would prepare this sort of op-ed page, a little essay of what I wanted to say, and he would — sometimes he would interrupt and make me say the last thing first. And because of that wonderful background at Second City, I would just follow him around, and he would lead me. And I never, ever didn’t get everything said, ’cause he was such an incredible player to play with. And if I had prepared a line, he would have a better line, spontaneously, and so, as a result, he gave me a safety net that most people didn’t have. I mean, you know, every seven or eight weeks, I would wake up with whatever it was that was bugging me or wanted to talk about and just lay it out there.

Paulson: And you never found anybody else who could do that.

Steinberg: No, not — well, not like he did. Because it allowed me to trust him so much, so I never felt I had to protect him. I never felt — sometimes I would deliberately go too far, and I’d just say, “I know that Johnny’s not going to agree — allow it,” and he would just pull it back a little bit from the audience, so it’s almost like — I don’t know — a nephew, a kid that’s, you know, he, he would just let me do it. No, he always gave me the freedom. And Johnny never revealed his politics to anyone, ever, but you could tell where he was all the time by what his humor was. But his politics were very progressive.

Paulson: You mentioned the Smothers Brothers, an important chapter in television history and where you began to earn your way onto Nixon’s enemy list.

Steinberg: Yes, I’m proud of that.

Paulson: How did you get, how did you get involved in that show?

Steinberg: Well, the “Smothers Brothers Show” was — first of all, what I should describe for you, Ken, and for the audience is what television was like at the time. We’re talking about three networks. We’re talking about when you were the number one network, you were seen by more people than saw “Seinfeld,” because it wasn’t the same numbers, but everyone that you cared about, that was watching TV, only watched one thing. And they beat “Bonanza.” I’m sure Tommy might have told you about that, which was an amazing thing, ’cause they just threw them away against “Bonanza.” And it was pre-Woodstock, but the rumblings were occurring, and the Vietnamese war was heating up. People were starting to distrust government in a way that they felt, “We’re not getting enough information here,” and all that. And Tommy was very, you know, aware of it. And so was Dick. But Tommy was really attuned to this feeling in the air, and you couldn’t not have that feeling, because they also came from the clubs. And the clubs where they were and where I was, these — and they couldn’t work at — you know, I could only work in certain clubs. I couldn’t work in Las Vegas, ’cause I was too radical for the audience. The audience would not only not respond to me. They would demand their money back and demand the hotel to get rid of me, a very failed appearance. But so, so Tommy and Dick had a feel for the country, and they felt — and their comedy was a version of what their act was done in sketch form. And they were brilliant sketch players. But they wanted to, to ramp it up, get closer to where people were. And no one was doing that. You had the “Ed Sullivan Show.” People were not a version of lying but a version of holding back from a kind of truth that show business didn’t, didn’t get to, especially on television. It got — authors got to it. Lenny Bruce, stand-ups got to it. TV, it was just known that you do the TV this way, in this sort of phony way. And they wanted to break it down. So the producer had heard about my sermons, and he brought me in, and Tommy — and I had another character that I was developing, a sort of psychiatrist character, a crazy psychiatrist, and at that time, I — he was just a professor who — I gave an, gave an oral examination to Tommy. Whenever he would make a mistake, I would honk him with the horn just to get — I was so angry. I was still an adolescent in my mind getting rid of all my teacher anger. But, he then — I told him, and I said, “That’s really funny.” And he said, “What are these sermon things?” I said, “I don’t know.” You just — “Do you have, like, an Old Testament character or something you want me to do?” He said, “Yeah.” Well, there was a rehearsal group there. I said, “I’ll do it for them.” And I did it for them, and they responded. They said, “We’re doing this.” And I said, “OK, well, you know, I gotta go back to New York.” “No, no, no, we’re doing this next show. You’re doing this on the air.” I said, “OK.” Now, to me, it wasn’t controversial. I had come from Second City. I stayed in places where the audience knew what I did. And it wasn’t controversial to say, “God, who I’m sure you’ll remember from last week’s sermon,” or, you know, and then talking about Noah and being funny about it. It isn’t even controversial in yeshiva Orthodox Jewish circles. But it was — so I did Moses, I think, the first time. And we — you know, and Tommy and I, we’d become very good friends. We went out, and we were having a great time. We were laughing and all that. And then Thursday, I was coming back, and we were writing something together, and he said, “Go look in that — look in that room.” And I opened that room, and I thought, “Who’s going to be there?” And it was an amount of mail the likes of which you have never seen. And it was the most angry, outraged people dealing with it; anti-Semitic comments, “A Jew saying Christ”; Jews saying, “How dare you, what, embarrass us.” It was astonishing to me. So I don’t remember if I was unhappy, happy. I just, I just never expected to get that response.

Paulson: And how did the Smothers Brothers feel about that?

Steinberg: They loved it.

Paulson: Yeah.

Steinberg: They loved it. They thought, “Good, go, David. You did good.” And I was thinking, “I’m done with here. My career is over. What if these people find me when I’m working somewhere?” You know, it was, it was shocking, so they — CBS said, “You can have Steinberg back, but don’t go near the Bible.” So, Tommy didn’t like that.

Paulson: Right.

Steinberg: Said, “Why are you telling me what to do?” Censors, you know. So we were standing backstage, and I was going to do this — another version of this psychiatrist character. And I did it. It went great. It was “Where Are We Going to Go for Dinner?” That was the conversation. We were watching it. We were both single at the time, checking out the girls. That’s as simple as it was. And he said, “You know, the audience is so hot tonight. You want to do another one of those sermons?” And I said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” And I went out, and I did Jonah was the sermon. They — I didn’t — they suggested Jonah. So Jonah, I just sort of improvised it, you know, “Jonah went to Tarshish,” which was that — God wanted him to go to Nineveh, and instead, he went to Tarshish. Tarshish was that way,” and I looked over, and it was towards Fairfax. You know, and I was — and this one — it was sort of a nice thing, and then I said, “He got into a boat commandeered by many gentiles.” I’m sort of paraphrasing myself. I don’t quite remember it. And I said, “And God brought a great — God, with that mystical sense of humor that is only His, brought this great storm upon the sea, and the gentiles, as is their wont from time to time, threw the Jew overboard.” And then I, then I said that the New Testament scholars differ with the Old Testament scholars. New Testament scholars, they say whales — and they say a whale — Jonah was swallowed by a whale. New Testament scholars literally — here’s the line — “literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament,” and I made this gesture of Old Testament. And I was just improvising. So the audience laughed. We laughed, and all of that. I went back to New York. The — that show didn’t come on until, like, three weeks later, and when that show was supposed to come on, I got a call from Tommy. He said, “Did you, did you read The New York Times today?” And I said, “Yeah,” but used to go right to the entertainment section. I was on the front page, and it was “Smothers Brothers Defy CBS with,” you know, “Outrageous Steinberg Sermon.” And, and the comment from Robert Wood or somebody said, “And how, how sort of obnoxious of Steinberg to do this sermon Easter Sunday the week that Eisenhower died.” Well, you know, I did it a month before.

Paulson: Right.

Steinberg: And not only that, I would have still done it. It had nothing to do with Eisenhower. So you could see how they were putting all that together, and it was — it wasn’t like taking — again, I refer to “Seinfeld,” ’cause my friend Michael Richards is here, which was the number-one hottest, best show on television. But it wasn’t like taking that off the air, ’cause there were other shows that would fill the gap. This was an amazing thing to have happen to the culture at that time. It had never happened before, a show being yanked off for censorship issues. It became vague as to what the issues were, but it wasn’t just my sermons, which were really — they could easily pin them on the sermons, ’cause they’re — whereas it sounds tame now, it really wasn’t then. But it was the fact that Tommy and Dick would have Pete Seeger on and Joan Baez. They were starting to develop the counterculture on television. And there’s no question that Nixon was nervous about it and nervous, especially, about reelection, and here are these guys who have the country.

Paulson: Right, and the show had just been renewed. It was still doing well in the ratings.

Steinberg: Correct.

Paulson: And of course, a lot of their content was political. I mean, you were the — you were sort of the poster boy for the cancellation.

Steinberg: Yeah.

Paulson: But there were a lot of shots at the Nixon administration and Spiro Agnew.

Steinberg: Yeah, and Johnson.

Paulson: Right.

Steinberg: You know, Pete Seeger sang the, “And the old fool still — we’re knee-deep in the big muddy, and the old fool still says, ‘Plow on’” or something. I remember that vaguely, a song about Johnson. Well, you just couldn’t do that on television. And so they were pissed at them for all of this stuff.

Paulson: Right.

Steinberg: And, and we, we didn’t expect to be taken off the air. None, none of us did. And then I know that — I don’t know if Tommy told you, but we, we went back and sued CBS. And when I came to the courtroom, I said, “What am I gonna —” George Slaff, a great ACLU lawyer, was the lawyer, and I loved him. And we were old friends. And he said — I said, “What are you going to do?” “I’m just going to present you. I’m going to present you. You don’t have to worry about anything.” And he had television sets in the courtroom, which you had never seen at that time. Television was still — not in its infancy — but only about ten years of a popular medium. And the lawyers for CBS came up to me, and they were just saying, “Oh, God, we loved those sermons, and —” I thought, “Well, what’s going to happen? These guys are going to kill me when we get there.” And, and they played the sermons, and the jury was laughing. And, and then one of these guys who had come up, he said, “When you said, ‘Grab the Jews by the Old Testament,’ what did this gesture mean?” And I said, “It meant testicles. What do you think it meant? That’s why it worked. That’s why it’s funny.” “OK,” and next thing you knew, it was over, and they were done.

Paulson: And they won.

Steinberg: And they won, yeah.

Paulson: Have Tom and Dick forgiven you for killing their television show?

Steinberg: They’ve forgiven me for the television show. I don’t, I don’t think Tom has forgiven me for taking his girlfriend away.

Paulson: I see.

Steinberg: I didn’t actually take her. They had broken up, and then we started. But he, for ten years, liked to say, “Steinberg threw us off the air and stole my girlfriend.” But it’s not the way it happened at all.

Paulson: Well, thank you for sharing some extraordinary stories today. It’s been great to have you here.

Steinberg: Thanks, Ken.

Paulson: There’s more to discuss about David Steinberg’s groundbreaking role in comedy. Please join us for part two of this remarkable interview next week on “Speaking Freely.”

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