Have you heard the one about the teenaged Canadian rabbinical student at the Chicago Jewish Academy who saw Lenny Bruce onstage at the legendary Gate of Horn nightclub and asked himself, "Is it possible that someday I can do something like this?"
It's no joke. The yeshiva's loss was comedy's gain when David Steinberg decided to embark on a life
(Knopf), which is the title of his engrossing memoir--and essential reading if you're a comedy geek.
Steinberg had one degree of separation with show business legends and comedy icons, both as a working comedian and later as a director (
Mad About You, Friends,
Curb Your Enthusiasm,
to name a few). He also was the host of the 2012-2015 Showtime series, also titled
, on which he interviewed such personages as Stephen Colbert, Billy Crystal, Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Don Rickles, Jerry Seinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, and Jonathan Winters, to name more than a few.
"That is a history of comedy right there," Steinberg writes.
His own career is also an excellent comedy primer for the last half of the 20th century. He got his start at The Second City, where his signature bit was an improvised sermon ("God, whom I'm sure you'll remember from last week's sermon…."). He established himself on the talk show circuit as one of the new generation of comedians who took stand up away from the stale set-up-and-punchline routine into something more confrontational and confessional. He was a particular favorite of Johnny Carson, and appeared on
The Tonight Show
Steinberg came of comedy age in the golden era of variety shows. One of his sermons, about Jonah and the Whale, played an instrumental role in the cancellation in 1969 of the already controversial
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
. It's one of the entertaining stories Steinberg relates in
. (The bit is available on YouTube; it was taped for the show, but the episode never aired).
Priceless anecdotes include one about how Danny Thomas, who was Lebanese, spoke in Yiddish to Steinberg, his director, so others wouldn't be able to understand his dissatisfactions with a script for the short-lived 1982 TV series,
One Big Family
. But comedy geeks will relish the pearls of comic wisdom shared by Steinberg's interviewees on Inside Comedy. For example, here is Dick Smothers about the often-underappreciated role of the straight man: "That was the skilled position…If you don't believe the straight man, you don't believe the comic. Look at Budd Abbott, Dean Martin, Dan Rowan…the quality of the straight man defines how good the act is."
Readers of a certain age will relish Steinberg's reminiscences of the old school entertainers that he palled around with at the L.A.-based Hillcrest Country Club, including Jack Benny, George Burns and Groucho Marx, an idol with whom Steinberg collaborated on the ill-fated Broadway musical,
"I tell you these stories, before I forget," Steinberg writes, "because they explain why I love comedy and why I love comedians."
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago writer who writes forVanityFair.com, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and other outlets.