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Legendary Comedian David Steinberg Takes The Playhouse Stage

Comedian David Steinberg on his 1970s television show, "The David Steinberg Show."
Courtesy photo
Comedian David Steinberg on his 1970s television show, "The David Steinberg Show."
Legendary Comedian David Steinberg Takes the Playhouse Stage
GUEST David Steinberg, comedian, actor, producer and director.

CAVANAUGH: Edmund Kean when near death was asked how he felt. He looked up and said dying is easy, comedy is hard. This week, San Diegans can hear from a man who spent his career in all aspects of comedy, from standup to sitcoms in front of the camera and behind, he'll be reflecting on the difficulty and the delight of making people laugh. David Steinberg will be performing a 1-man show as a workshop production for six performances only beginning tomorrow night. It's a treat to welcome David Steinberg to Midday Edition. Hi. STEINBERG: Thank you so much, Maureen. You know, we are sold out so we did add another night for Wednesday of next week. CAVANAUGH: Wonderful! I'm glad you told me. First off, was Mr. Keen right? Is comedy hard? STEINBERG: Yes, comedy is hard. Well, anything that you want to excel at and you succeed at is hard. Nothing comes easy. Comedy especially because you are sort of borrowing from your own life all the time. So you exaggerate your life. But yeah, it's not easy. But the rewards are amazing when you start to break through. CAVANAUGH: Tell me more about that. What kind of rewards do you get? STEINBERG: Well, I'm not talking about financial rewards. I'm talking about emotional rewards because you're able to create something out of your own life that evokes an emotional response from an audience. It's laughter. You can't -- it's not -- if people are silent, it's not a good thing fairly comedian. It's not that they have to be laughing all the time, it's not that you have to be fast-talking to them. But they are -- their laughter lets you know that they are identifying with whatever it is that is the most personal part of yourself. CAVANAUGH: In your show at the La Jolla Playhouse, you're looking back at your career in show business, it spans from the smothers brothers, variety shows, Broadway, your career as a comedy director. But I think most people will think of you on the tonight show with Johnny Carson. How big was the tonight show for your career? STEINBERG: Oh, it actually was my career. I would go on the tonight show and tell Johnny oh, I'm directing mad about you now, and I'm writing this, and I'm doing that. And that was my sort of my chronicling my career. And when I look back at the tonight show, and Johnny retired, I realized the tonight show was more my career than all the little things that I thought I was doing that mattered because it gave me an oped page every six or seven weeks. I could say whatever I wanted! So long it was funny and not preachy, and Johnny was very open to any new point of view as long as it was funny. And a lot of time he agreed with me, politically, a lot of time he didn't. CAVANAUGH: Right. STEINBERG: It was as big as anything could be in my life, the tonight show. And it was a pleasure to do. It was a great pleasure. CAVANAUGH: How many times were you on? STEINBERG: Well, I was on -- I only know this because of the Internet, but I was on 140 times. I was -- bob hope did the most appearances, and I did the second most with Johnny. CAVANAUGH: Are late-night shows still the same career opportunities for comedians that the Carson show was do you think? STEINBERG: No, they're not the same opportunity. What Johnny Carson was able to do is he could almost ordain a culture in some way. When you went on the tonight show, if you had a book or you were a comedian, and you sat down next to him, which was great prestige. They distinguished between just standing on the tonight show and going and being invited to sit down. When you sat down next to Johnny and he laughed and enjoyed you, you had a career the next day. You could perform, you'd get an audience. The agents were aware of you, the audience was aware of you. That's how much his opinion mattered about everything, about on comedy mostly. CAVANAUGH: So he was sort of a king of comedy maker. STEINBERG: He was. CAVANAUGH: Anything like that nowadayses? STEINBERG: No. It's not because they're not good. John Stewart is my favorite, jay Leno, and co-Nan, they're all good. They're individual and unique. They don't make the difference in anyone's career anymore. Not by virtue of any of their own failings, a lot of it has to do with just the time. But a lot of it had to do just with Johnny Carson himself. CAVANAUGH: One of the delights of making people life is that they hear your own personal are is it, you said, and that's the connection you have with theme. When did you first know you wanted to be in comedy and have that kind of connection? STEINBERG: Well, I always knew I was funny. [ LAUGHTER ] STEINBERG: Because without it, I couldn't have survived my own childhood. I can't imagine what it was like to be my parents. My dad used to drive in the car, and he would say to me in Yiddish, usually not one but to like yourself, I wish you. That was the biggest curse he could place on anybody! CAVANAUGH: What did you do that was so annoy something STEINBERG: Oh, everything. Everything I did was annoying because I just -- I went my own way, I wasn't particularly good at -- I didn't do my homework, I wasn't good at school, later on they found that maybe I was good at it, but at the time not at all. I was independent beyond belief. I was the youngest in my family. My brother was ten years older than me, and my sister 12 years older than me. So I was the baby of the family, and to my good fortune, my parents were busy and finished parenting. And there's nothing better for a kid who is wild like I was to have no parenting. It's a dream. CAVANAUGH: Exactly. They just let ya live. [ LAUGHTER ] STEINBERG: It was easier. CAVANAUGH: Did you know what kind of a career you wanted? Were you thinking about standup or being a comedy writer or anything like that? STEINBERG: You know, it's so interesting they never thought of that. I knew I was sort of popular, I would get on stage and talk to large groups, and I could do -- and always funny. I never knew that there was a career in it. My father had a little show at a synagogue, and he was always speaking, and his brother they were always -- mostly in Yiddish, and also in English they would talk, and they were both very funny. It's a strain that ran through my whole family, are the humor of survival. But I never thought of anything that I -- I didn't even have a plan as to what I was going to do. And when I was at the university of Chicago, supposedly a student, but just loitering mostly, I saw second city come through and I looked at them, and I wasn't even -- I didn't even know that I had to do anything. I was teaching Hebrew to support myself. But I saw second city, and I said wow! I do what they're doing. And that's an amazing revelation for anyone in the creative arts. When you say you can do -- you actually believe that you can do something, that's a bold, courageous thing to say. And I followed them like a kid follows the circus. I had an act with a friend of mine. I did the act, partnered it after second city, and I got into second city, and the first night there, I knew I was home. CAVANAUGH: Now, second city of course an improv troupe for the most part. STEINBERG: Yes. CAVANAUGH: That's a big difference isn't it, from a standup? STEINBERG: Yes, yes. The big differences are you're improvising, you're doing characters. Second city created the cabaret improvizational form as it's known today. And I was the baby, I was very young, 22 at the time. But it was Allen arcin, the most remarkable minds. It was really about your brain. You had to be smart. You had to bring information to your humor. At that time, it mart Saul, of course, they were, like, changing the way comedy went. Nichols and May especially. And I imagined to catch that wave. And it meant being smart, and trusting that the audience was smart and could take a point of view that you didn't hear anywhere else. And it was -- I always felt that second city, I was there for many five, six years, something like that. I always felt it was the best thing that I ever did. I was more suited to that than almost anything else. CAVANAUGH: But you also did standup on your own. STEINBERG: After that, yes. CAVANAUGH: Solo. Is there a different temperament that you have to bring to that? STEINBERG: A different emotional temperament, yeah, absolutely. Standup is -- you're not connecting with another person on stage. So you're not listening to the other person on stage. You only have yourself and the audience. So you're listening to yourself to the redefinition of yourself every time you're on stage doing comedy. Depending upon how the audience responds to what you're saying. CAVANAUGH: Fascinating. It sounds really like you're walking a tight rope. STEINBERG: It sounds a lot better than I really do. And I think that the more chance you take, the better you're going to be at standup. And the other interesting thing about standup comedy, and everyone I know -- I have a show on showtime where I've been interviewing comedians. They all talk about this, that the hardest thing is you can't go from the page to the stage as a standup comedian. You can't write something and expect the audience to laugh where you think they're going to laugh. You have to try it out. And they say it's not the beginning of the story that we like, it's the middle of the story. You must then immediately go to the middle and stretch that out, and they will lead you to where the humor is. So even someone like Chris Rock at the peak of his career, I said what do you do to prepare for Madison square garden? He said I go to a little club outside of Miami, and a lot of old Jews, a lot of old everybody. They come in. I said how do they respond? He said they don't respond. They shouldn't. It's not good. It takes two or three weeks before I can get it going, then I'm there for another three, or four weeks. And then I know exactly what I'm doing. I can go to Madison square garden, go anywhere, and fill it with an audience, and make them laugh forever. So you only succeed by failing, even when you're at your most successful. Jerry Seinfeld, when he tries a new piece of material, the audience will sniff it out and retreat. They'll wait for the more secure point of view. CAVANAUGH: You interview a wide array of comics, your friends, Jerry Seinfeld, etc. I'm wondering, you made the comment that when you started out, it was -- comedy was really intellectual. People were thinking big thoughts. Is that still happening today? STEINBERG: Well, you don't have the relevance anymore becayse there's so much of everything. You don't have to find an audience. You can be on YouTube and find an audience. Things have changed in a very big way. But ultimately it's not the same as it was then because you didn't have so many media outlets. So when you performed live, like I'm at the La Jolla Playhouse this week, and the one thing that I'm secure about is the audience won't be drink and won't be taking my picture with their telephones! CAVANAUGH: The first one is true at least! STEINBERG: Yeah, I'm unable to stop the cellphones. CAVANAUGH: What made you decide to get back on stage? STEINBERG: Well, I always had an instinct for it, I always wondered, you know, what I mean thinking at this age? What story am I telling now? I never really had the time for it. I did some shows in Canada, HBO Canada wanted to do a documentary on me. I don't like that idea at all because they would impose on all my friends and force them to say lovely, wonderful things about me. And very frankly they were on the set of curb your enthusiasm, and Larry was saying why don't you do what we've all wanted you to do forever, go back on stage again? And let's see what that is. CAVANAUGH: The name of the show opening this work is a ìDavid Steinberg: That Could Turn Into Something Big...or Not" will be performed for six nights only beginning tomorrow at the La Jolla Playhouse.

When the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean was near death, he was asked how he felt. Legend has it the elderly actor looked up, and said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

This weekend, San Diegans can hear from a man who's spent his career in all aspects of comedy, from stand-up to sitcoms, both in front of the camera and behind. Celebrated comedian and director David Steinberg will share his personal stories and reflect on the difficulty and delight of making people laugh in a new one-man show at the La Jolla Playhouse.

The workshop production, “David Steinberg: That Could Turn Into Something Big...or Not,” will be performed for six nights only beginning tomorrow.


Steinberg, 70, grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, and eventually made his way to Chicago where he joined the legendary comedy company, The Second City. His work on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" during the late '60s gained him notoriety. Steinberg created the show's memorable “The Psychiatrist” character (who first coined the popular phrase “Booga Booga!”), as well as wrote and performed his satiric and controversial “sermons,” which ultimately caused the Smothers Brothers to be canceled by CBS.

In the 1970s and '80s, Steinberg was a popular fixture on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," racking up 140 appearances, making him the second most frequent guest behind Bob Hope (see video below). He also is the youngest person to ever guest host the show.

He eventually left stand-up to assume the role of director, working on several sitcoms, including "Friends," "Seinfeld," "Mad About You" "Newhart," "Designing Women" and most recently, HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Earlier this year, Steinberg launched his latest endeavor, "Inside Comedy," on Showtime, a one-on-one talk show where he interviews fellow comedians.

Steinberg speaks with KPBS Midday Edition about his storied career in comedy and his upcoming workshop production at the La Jolla Playhouse.

“David Steinberg: That Could Turn Into Something Big...or Not” opens Thursday, August 16, and runs through Sunday, August 26, at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla. You can follow David Steinberg on Twitter @David_Steinberg.

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