Steinberg leading service at Temple Playhouse
CONSIDERING that this visit represents the second (home)coming of David Steinberg, it’s probably fitting that the gala he’s hosting at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival has distinctly religious overtones.
This city’s original comedy export helped put the local comedy fest on the map when it launched 11 springs ago, and Steinberg says he’s glad the opportunity finally came around for him to make another contribution to the hometown comedy scene.
“I’ll take the opportunity whenever it’s offered to me,” Steinberg said in a recent telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. “It’s where I come from — why wouldn’t I want to go back? The only thing I don’t like about it is planes and travel, because it’s such a pain, but once I’m there, I’ll be very glad to be back.
“The last time I was back, (artistic director) Al Rae and (Winnipeg-born comedian) Bruce Clark were close friends of mine because we worked together (on the Global TV comedy Big Sound). They said it would help, so I jumped into it. And this time, it’s much the same — Al’s there, and Bruce, and Jeff Rothpan. What the business has become for me at this stage in my life is the relationships; I’m going to get to hang out with good friends for a day or two, which will invoke some memories, and then I’ll get back up onstage and do some standup, which I haven’t done in ages.”
Steinberg will host the festival’s Saturday Evening Gala, The Chosen Show, which will explore the long history and undisputable influence of Jewish performers in standup comedy. The roster includes Rothpan, Perry Perlmutar, Jon Steinberg, Stevie Ray Fromstein and Judy Gold. Tickets are $39.95, available at Ticketmaster.
“The subject matter, and the friends who are doing (the show), are what made it appealing,” said Steinberg. “I don’t see how one without the other would have worked as well.”
When he first made his mark in the comedy world back in the 1960s, Steinberg created some controversy but quickly became a favourite of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson because he was the first performer of his generation to be bold and unapologetic in discussing his ethnicity.
“The version of Jewishness that I presented on The Tonight Show was very controversial, because I was militantly Jewish,” he recalled. “I wasn’t the sort of self-deprecating Jewish that the comedians before me were. With me, it was the gentiles who were the dummies, and that’s who I was attacking, in a funny way. I talked about my Dad’s prejudices all the time, and no one was doing that. My Jewish point of view, at that time, was unheard of; now it’s just part of what everyone else is doing.”
Steinberg, who has spent most of the past couple of decades toiling behind the camera as a producer ( Inside Comedy, Single White Spenny, Living In Your Car) and director ( Seinfeld, Mad About You, Curb Your Enthusiasm) of TV shows, said he has been energized by the process of returning to his standup-comedy roots.
“At this point, I really don’t have to do ‘career moves’ any more,” said Steinberg, an extremely youthful 69. “So it’s about what’s challenging and appealing.... Standup is so difficult when you do it right — it’s trial by fire, and the only way comedy works is if you’re failing in front of an audience. You can’t take a piece of material that you’ve written and expect it to work that night. The audience will tell you what works, when it works and what doesn’t work. It’s brutal, but you have to go through the process, putting it in front of them over and over again.”
Two of Steinberg’s most recent projects, Inside Comedy and Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg, have involved the North End product engaging in long, revealing one-on-one discussions with some of showbiz’s funniest folks, including Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Robin Williams, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, Steve Carell and Carl Reiner.
They’re the kind of conversations Steinberg loves, because he understands the people and the subject matter so well.
“We speak a certain language that only someone who’s been to the battlefield knows,” he explained. “Comedy is about finding a moment of truth that you don’t really have in your regular life. You have to be brutally honest about yourself to do comedy, and that’s one of the things that binds everyone together.
“Comedians are like jazz musicians — they just talk to each other in a different way.”
For a more extensive overview of David Steinberg’s career and accomplishments, check out www.thedavidsteinberg.com
Steinberg says he doesn’t like to travel, but he’s happy to come home to participate in the festival. Below, with Jerry Seinfeld on an episode of Inside Comedy, which aired last year in the U.S. on the Showtime cable network.