Director-producer David Steinberg

The Emmy-winning comedian takes us Inside Comedy and exposes what it takes to make people laugh.

At the height of his popularity, David Steinberg was one of the best-known standup comics in the U.S. He's now regarded as one of the best directors working in television, having directed episodes of many of the medium's most successful sitcoms, including Weeds and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and several DGA and Emmy awards and nods to his credit. He's also directed over 300 commercials. A native of Canada, Steinberg left home at 16 to study theology, but started a comedy act after being inspired by The Second City in Chicago. His latest project is as exec producer of Inside Comedy, Showtime's interview series that chronicles the evolution of comedy.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Emmy-nominated comedian, producer, director and writer, David Steinberg. His series on Showtime titled “Inside Comedy” boasts some of the biggest names in the business, including Tina Fey, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.

But before we get to that conversation, I want to continue something we started last week on this program. We are now in our 10th season here on PBS with almost 2,000 shows already aired. So we thought this is a good time to introduce you to some of the staff that makes this show possible.

So joining me now, my friend, Jared Hernandez. He started here as an intern three years ago and is now our production coordinator. And I’m also proud to say he’s about to get his MFA, his Master of Fine Arts degree in screenwriting from USC – go Trojans. Jared, good to have you on this program.

Jared Hernandez: Thank you, Tavis, and I just want to say how grateful I am to be a part of a show that reaches out to young students and young voices and allows them an opportunity to contribute to a meaningful production like this one, so I appreciate it.

Tavis: I am honored and blessed to have you on, so why don’t you take it away?

Hernandez: We’re glad you’ve joined us tonight. A conversation with comedian David Steinberg coming up right now.

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: As anyone who’s ever tried to be funny knows, comedy separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. Those who succeed at it work hard to make it look easy. One of the best in the business, David Steinberg. Not only a standup comedian himself, he’s also an award-winning director of sitcoms like “Friends,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Weeds.”

He is now in his second season producing and hosting an insider’s look at what it takes to make people laugh. It’s called, appropriately enough, “Inside Comedy” and, in this clip from the Showtime series, Steinberg talks with Keenan Ivory Wayans about the unexpected things that can sometimes ruin a routine.

[Clip]

Tavis: I’m a student of great conversations, so it doesn’t take much to turn me on. If there’s a great conversation on TV, I’m going to watch it. But when I first saw this show premiered, my first thought was what is the takeaway here for a show like this to everyday people? If you’re not trying to be a comedian, what’s the takeaway for the viewer, you think? What did you have in mind?

David Steinberg: Well, you know, there’s been a myth about standup comedians. It’s not just standup. It’s all comedians. And that is that there is sort of a bitterness and you need a hard drive and all of that. I used to have a theory actually that, if you’ve had a good childhood, a good marriage and a little bit of money in the bank, you’re going to make a lousy comedian [laugh].

I’ve changed my mind about that [laugh]. I don’t think you need all this sort of bitterness and darkness. All that I’ve found throughout my career, Tavis, is that there’s a great connection between all the comedians in some way.

When I started doing comedy in the 70s, I talked just like this. So I wasn’t loud enough for a Vegas audience, so I had to open for jazz groups, which was the best thing that could have happened to me. I opened for the Modern Jazz Quartet and Bill Evans and Miles Davis, and the way musicians connected with each other was remarkable to me. There was such respect and humor and all of that and I thought that’s what the comedy world is like and I want to tap into that a little bit.

Tavis: Since you went there, let me follow you in. There are actually a couple of things you said I want to go back to and get you to unpack, but let me start with this. I love jazz. Jazz is obviously improvisational. Jazz by any other definition is really freedom, the freedom to do what you do onstage and no song ever sounds the same if it’s done in the spirit of what jazz is really all about. You know that, having opened for Miles Davis and so many other greats. Is there any parallel between comedy and jazz?

Steinberg: Yeah, yeah. Improvisation is really important.

Tavis: Right.

Steinberg: The interesting thing about improvisation is you’re making something up in front of the audience. Now music helps you out a little bit because you have an instrument that’ll separate you from the audience. When it’s just you making it up, the audience will tell you how they feel. Sometimes you’ll say something and they’ll retreat. They’ll retreat and sometimes even take back the laughter that they’ve given you. It’s like bullfighting [laugh]. You know, you can’t choreograph a bullfight because I’ll go over there and the bull goes wherever it wants.

So you have to connect with the audience. It’s so elusive, Tavis. It’s the most elusive craft in so many ways because you can’t cater to the audience. They’ll know that. You can’t, you know, want to be their pet. You have to be bold even if you think they might not like what you’re going to have to say. But what they want is an authentic person up there, someone that isn’t like anybody else, and that’s what these guys are on the show that I’m doing.

Tavis: You control the sketch, you control the skit, you control the material if you’re onstage as a comedian. But the audience, to your point, controls the laughter. They control the response. They can retreat if they decide to or embrace you if they decide to.

Steinberg: Absolutely.

Tavis: So that said, who really is the controlling factor in this relationship between comedian and audience?

Steinberg: Well, the comedian is the controlling factor, but there are such things as just a bad audience, you know [laugh]?

Tavis: Spoken by a comedian who bombs every time he goes onstage. It’s not you, I mean. Yeah, oh, the audience was horrible [laugh].

Steinberg: It is the most common excuse. But you know what? If you talk to comedians, Tavis, they’ll say, “When I walked on stage, there was a cold spot to the left of me.” Without even opening their mouth, they know that.

I asked Robin Williams about this. “Well, what happens when you feel that cold spot?” He said, “Well, you never play to them. You play to the rest of the house and you make them have to need you and then you slowly move over and present yourself to them.” It’s a work in progress all the time.

Tavis: Take me back to your start. As I mentioned earlier, you’re not just the host of this show on Showtime. You have been a longstanding and pretty good standup comedian. So how did this happen for you? I want to get back to that opening of the show where you suggested that one doesn’t have to go to the Richard Pryor school of child upbringing to be a good comedian, although Pryor was the best and we’ll come back to that. But tell me about your upbringing.

Steinberg: Well, my upbringing is so unusual for a comedian. My father was a rabbi and had a little synagogue in Canada, so I’m from Canada. I left there at 16. I was at University of Chicago never having a plan about anything and this group came through in the 60s and they were called Second City.

I really had no idea what I was going to do and I knew I was sort of funny and I thought a lot of people are funny. But I saw this group and it was different from any professional comedy that was going on on television and radio, anywhere at the time. And I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I just said to myself, “I do that. Wow, there is something that I do that I didn’t even know existed.”

So a friend of mine who wanted to be in show business desperately at the University of Chicago, his name was Gene Kadish. He and I did an act. I wrote it. We opened up next to Second City. A little community paper said, “Second City should see these guys” and we got in and I started a whole career.

Tavis: The rest, as they say, is history. The next thing I know, you’re on Carson.

Steinberg: The next thing is Carson [laugh]. Well, just so you know, no career is – it’s the failures that make you successful.

Tavis: That’s right.

Steinberg: And I had plenty of them. I starred in two Broadway plays. I starred in a Broadway play that was Sidney Poitier’s first directing job and the cast was Lou Gossett, Cicely Tyson, Diana Ladd and I played a Jewish kid who offered himself as a slave to two Columbia University students as reparations [laugh]. And by the third act, they had me chained to the radiator and all of that.

Anyway, Clyde Barnes was the reviewer at the time. He came in from England and perceived this as a racist play with Sidney Poitier and Lou Gossett and Cicely Tyson. So we didn’t last very long.

But Sidney was my mentor and has played an important part in my life to this day. We used to watch the Oscars all the time together and I would say that guy’s an idiot or that guy, you know, I’d just talk back. Sidney would say, “No, no, David. He’s a wonderful person.” I’d say, “Sidney, we can attack them. We’re sitting here without Oscars! You don’t have to be nice to everybody.” He’s the most decent human being you could ever meet…

Tavis: He is, yeah.

Steinberg: And was instrumental in my whole career in a lot of other ways. But, anyway, I got on the Tonight Show. I’ll tell you the Sidney story. I was working at The Bitter End and there were six people in the audience and I hadn’t really made an impact. After that play closed, I tried standup. Second City wasn’t standup. It was sketch comedy, very different. And I said to the owner in The Bitter End, “There are six people here tonight. There’s no way.” You know, usually I had 20 people, 30 people.

Richard Pryor was across the street. I was at The Bitter End. He was at the Cafe Au Go Go and he would play to 40 people at the time. We knew each other. We were good friends. I said to the guy, “Let me just forget about this one. You know, it’s six people and all that.” He said, “No, no, you have to learn. You have to go on for six people like that.”

Tavis: The show must go on.

Steinberg: The show must go on. And the odd thing, Tavis, about when you have six people in the audience, you don’t hate everybody who hasn’t come to see you. You hate this six [laugh].

Tavis: For making you do this [laugh].

Steinberg: Making you have to do a show that you need more people for. So I thought, okay, I’ll just go on and I will get through with this. As I walked onstage, Sidney, who I hadn’t seen in months, came in with a date. I won’t even mention who his date was. At that time, he was single.

He came in and sat down. So for Sidney, I just did the best show I possibly could. And he came back afterwards and, you know, Sidney is the most decent human being. “David, this is great. You gotta keep doing this.” I said, “Sid, there’s no one here! It was not really going that well.”

I went home, fell asleep, I knew this gig isn’t going to last much longer. A friend of mine called me the next morning and said, “Have you seen The New York Times?” I said, “No. What’s in The New York Times?” He said, “You’re in The New York Times.”

One of those six people was a reviewer for The New York Times and he said David Steinberg is a cross between Woody Allen, whatever, and I had a career the next day. So he really was important, like pivotal.

Tavis: What was the takeaway for you? Forget Sidney Poitier, who I love dearly, but outside of him being there that night, what was the takeaway for you from that particular story because, obviously, you didn’t know he was there? What did you learn from that?

Steinberg: That you can never judge an audience. You can’t judge them by their size, can’t judge by your version of whether they’re intelligent or not. You have to just connect. You have to find them. You can’t go out too far this way. You have to meet halfway, but you have to be open. Can’t go out closed, and a lot of comedians do go out closed. Sometimes you just can’t help it.

Tavis: So I want to circle back now to this notion of the fact that you don’t have to, again, have had a rough childhood or a rough life to be a great comedian, although the evidence to the contrary is pretty astounding.

Steinberg: Yes, it is.

Tavis: It’s pretty voluminous.

Steinberg: Yes.

Tavis: So what do you make of that reality? You could start with Pryor on down the list. There are a whole bunch of them.

Steinberg: Well, you can’t have had a smooth ride. I don’t think anyone gets away smoothly. I don’t think anyone has a perfect life or a great childhood. There’s always something that goes wrong in your life, always, because there’s circumstances you can’t control. How you interpret that negativity is really what comedy is about. So you take that negativity and you find a positive connection through making the audience laugh with you at it. Yeah, you have to be not unafraid to reveal anything about yourself.

Tavis: How much of comedy is collaboration? The one thing that I did not know – my friends know there are two things I love in life. I mean, I love a lot of things, but I love music and I love comedy. Any given night of the week, you can find me if I have the opportunity in this town or anyplace where I travel, you can find me at a music show or you can find me at a comedy show.

And on the right night, you’ll see me at both, the 8:00 show over here for the comedy and the 11:00 show wherever I am. I love music and comedy. Watching your show, I did not know how collaborative comedy is and I didn’t know who knew comedy could be so complex in terms of what goes into making this work. Let me take it one at a time.

Steinberg: Sure.

Tavis: First, the collaborative nature of comedy. I’m amazed at how people work with teams of writers oftentimes, depending on who they are, to get these jokes right.

Steinberg: Yes. You don’t need someone to write for you, but you need, some terminology, an ear.

Tavis: Sounding board? Something like that?

Steinberg: Yeah. You need someone to let you know if something is good or not good. I’ve had writers that I’ve worked with all over the years and I always thought, when I was on the Tonight Show, no one is ever going to give me anything that’s going to make a difference, and not so.

I found writers that could connect with me and sometimes I would do a version of what they said and people would say to me, “That’s vintage Steinberg tonight.” So you have to find these connections. Can’t do it by yourself. I don’t know if you saw the Chris Rock Show last year, but you’re referring to what he said.

Tavis: That’s where I was going.

Steinberg: Yeah.

Tavis: I mean, the story that Chris told – he told it to you and I’ve talked to Chris myself a number of times over the years on this show. But what he goes through to make a joke work and the evolution that that thing takes is a process of getting that joke right by the time we see him do it on HBO or someplace.

Steinberg: Yeah. He goes to a place in Florida. He says it’s like it reminded him of Muhammad Ali boot camp. He goes with his writers, his friends and all of that. He starts with nothing. He’s onstage for a month. The audience are old Jews, whoever’s around there. They don’t even know who’s going to be on that night.

And he says, at the end of that month, after he’s worked out night after night after night trying new material, honing it and getting it exactly right, he could play Madison Square Garden and never miss a night and never miss a beat.

Tavis: He also said, though, that these days it’s harder and harder to perfect your craft because the minute you go onstage in that little place in Florida with the old Jews, even old Jews know how to work iPhones [laugh].

Steinberg: That’s true.

Tavis: And they record it and, the next thing you know, this 85-year-old Jew has put it up on YouTube.

Steinberg: No questions.

Tavis: So how do you work your material out these days?

Steinberg: That’s really tough. You have to ask the audience to just give you a break. You really do.

Tavis: Say please don’t record this.

Steinberg: Yeah. I mean, it’s a new world out there. You know, I just came off a tour with Robin Williams. So Robin Williams and I were playing, I’d say, 4,000-seat theaters everywhere. Robin’s so popular and all that. It was the two of us. You know, I would participate and all that.

So I would ask Robin about his life and all that and then he would ask me something. And after my first laugh, all I would see were the heads of all the young people IMDBing me. Who is David Steinberg and all of that [laugh]. I mean, I saw the lights and all these faces. It’s a new world. There’s no question it’s different from my start and even from Chris’s.

Tavis: Seinfeld, another great standup, tells the same kind of story about the process that he has to go through to get these jokes right. Is that always the case? I mean, no matter how long you’re in the game, no matter how good you become, it’s still this process of laboring to birth this joke?

Steinberg: It’s failure. You have to fail in front of an audience. You know what, Tavis? You can’t write it and expect it to work. There’s a rhythm and there is a truth that comes out when you’re onstage in front of an audience that you just can’t find when you’re sitting by yourself or even working with your other writers. You have to put it onstage; you have to be prepared for it not to work.

Seinfeld is so popular. He’s got thousands of people there and, like Chris, an exceptional comedian. And he says when he goes for that new material, they can spot it, the audience could hear it. It’s a silence that is unbelievable and they wait until – because it has a tentative quality to it – and then afterwards, he goes into the other material and they’re back in again. It’s scary.

Tavis: So you’re on Showtime all the time talking to these comedians about what they’ve learned and about their journey. I’m going to put you on the spot here. From a comedian, tell me one of the most important lessons you learned from a comedian in your career.

Steinberg: From another comedian?

Tavis: From another comedian.

Steinberg: Well, I think you’d have to call Johnny Carson a comedian. And I learned from him basically the listening process. Not just listening like you’re listening to me, but you have to be listening to what an audience is picking up on. You can’t force an idea in if it’s not coming. It’s about how you listen to things. It’s how you listen to the news. It’s how you read a book and you take away something. I could use this in some way.

Tavis: Carson was an avid reader too.

Steinberg: He was an avid reader, yeah. I would bring up subjects. He knew everything that I would bring up and he would let you go and yet he would wait, wait, wait and just pop in the perfect line better than anything that you had.

Tavis: Every comedian has a different way of dealing with this. Because I love comedy so much, I’m always at these comedy shows, and I’m always watching for how the comedian is going to deal with the heckler. What have you learned over the years about the best ways to deal with hecklers? Because everybody does it differently.

Steinberg: Well, I’ll tell you what’s surprising about hecklers is that most hecklers are on your side. They’re just disrupting your show [laugh]. They’re drunk saying, “Hey, David, we love you, baby!” Please, don’t love me so loudly. But they’re not against you. The best way is to embrace them in some way. Don’t [bleep] them off. Don’t go against them.

You got to work them in and then somehow make them calm down because basically hecklers don’t want you to hear what – they don’t care about the exchange. They want to be heard. They want to be a part of your act, so you have to let them out to call them down. Otherwise, they’ll just never stop.

Tavis: I can only ask this question out of my own experience as a music lover and as a comedy lover. But I always revel – I think that’s the right word. I revel in the joy that I see certain performers take in when they know that they’re pleasing the audience, when they know that they’re bringing something good into that person’s life.

No matter what happened this week, no matter what happened earlier today, they paid their money in a tough economy, they came to see me tonight and I want to bring some joy into their life. And when I see the person on stage deliver that and then revel with humility in what they have done, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. What do you make of that?

Steinberg: It’s the reason that we all do it.

Tavis: Right.

Steinberg: There is nothing like it. First of all, when you’re doing a show and you’re one person by yourself onstage, it’s not a Broadway show. If the audience doesn’t like you, it’s not that they don’t like the set or they don’t like the music. They’re saying we don’t like you. When they go with you, they are giving you a level of approval. You’re revealing hopefully deep things about yourself by being funny.

That connection – I mean, all day long if I’m doing a show that night, nothing matters except that show. I can’t connect with people during the day, I’d rather think about it. You got to prepare yourself for it and, when you get it, it’s still fun.

Tavis: So, speaking of one guy on the stage all by himself, tell me about your one-man show.

Steinberg: Well, yeah, you know, I’m a Canadian and Canadians love their Canadians. They’re doing a documentary on me in Canada and, you know, the reason that is, the Canadians think I’m still the hottest comedian in the world [laugh].

Tavis: You’re still up there, man. You’re still up there.

Steinberg: They treat me like I was on Carson just last night. So they’re doing this documentary on me and they went to Larry David and Larry Charles and all my friends. I said, “Look, if you’re gonna go to all my friends, they’re gonna be forced to say lovely things about me.” They said to them, well, why does he feel that way? They said, look, make him go onstage again and whatever.

They talked to me about it. I thought, well, you know what? It’s very hard to go out and do a show in one, as we’ve discussed. So I thought, well, a documentary, that would be a reason for me to go onstage, so I went and I tried it out in La Jolla which is sort of a big testing ground.

To my surprise, I enjoyed it tremendously. The audience enjoyed it, so now I’m sort of in it a little bit. You know, I’m at Bucks County Playhouse, I think, in May. That’s when I’m doing that. I’ll do this one-man show a little bit and see how far it goes.

Tavis: So you’re still loving it?

Steinberg: Oh, it’s the best. It is the best.

Tavis: So, if you can catch him on the road in the one-man show, that’d be a good time for you, I’m sure, and those who get a chance to go see him. If you can’t get to see him in a one-man show, you can always turn to Showtime and watch “Inside Comedy” hosted by David Steinberg. Good to have you here, man.

Steinberg: Tavis, thank you so much.

Tavis: I’ve enjoyed this immensely.

Steinberg: Thank you, thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for tuning in and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

Wade Hunt: There’s a saying that Dr. King had that he said there’s always the right time to do the right thing. I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger and we have a lot of work to do. Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we could stamp hunger out.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Jeanne Murray

    Hello Mr. Smiley,
    I have always loved your show..you are the very best person, with so much empathy, to black or white.

    Yes, love and marriage, then children of mixed races, will finally end these unwanted prejudices, that started with greed and slaves.

    I hope you have a family someday because we need your children, with your temperment, class, and graciousness.

    May God and Jesus continue to dwell in your heart.

    Jeanne Murray, white, Irish, nyc firemans daughter, age 71.

Last modified: March 11, 2013 at 11:52 am