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This is the most influential American comedian you've never heard of

July 16, 2014, at 12:35 PM
 

Imagine a quiet, unassuming, rather short man who:

-- was already considered a legendary standup in the 1960s;

-- was responsible for getting the Smothers Brothers kicked off the air at CBS;

-- made Richard Nixon's enemies list, becoming the only comedian to do so ("In America, anyone can become President. I think we bend over backwards to prove it.");

-- logged more Tonight Show appearances than any other entertainer, save for Bob Hope;

-- hosted the Tonight Show when he was 26;

-- had a mobster for a best friend;

-- directed hundreds of television commercials;

-- whose imprint on TV comedies ranging from Bob Newhart's shows to Mad About You to Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm is as indelible as the show's creators themselves;

-- continues to work today, as revered as ever by his peers.

How could David Steinberg not be a household name?

David Steinberg. That David Steinberg. Oh?

Ok. Meet, for the first time, David Steinberg, a Canadian, a Yeshiva-student-turned-writer-turned-comedian-turned-director, one of the sharpest comic minds in the universe.

Here's an excerpt from an admiring interview Roger Ebert did with Steinberg in 1967. (1967!)

"There's one thing that bothers me," he said. "When I give my sermons at Second City, there are always people who think I'm ridiculing the Old Testament. That's not the case at all. The sermons are funny, and they're meant to be funny, but they're serious, too. I never think of jokes when I'm doing them, I think of the facts. Sometimes just repeating the facts will make the point."

During the recording session for his album, Steinberg came across such a point in his sermon on Job. "Then God laid waste the crops and dried up the rivers and sent a plague to cover the land," Steinberg intoned, "with that mystical sense of humor which is uniquely his..." Some of his sermons are completely improvised on the spot, Steinberg said. Others, like his comments on Moses, are set pieces, although they change slightly every time they're told. "Sometimes you'll be whizzing along and come into a dead end," he said. "One night, for example, I was telling the story of Cain and Abel, and after Cain murdered Abel I had Adam ask him, 'Cain, why did you slay your brother?' At that point, I couldn't go any farther. I mean, if there were an answer to that question, you'd have a key to the whole Bible. Because mankind descended from Cain, not Abel. "So I had to stop, back up, and start again. It's funny, but the only time an audience really believes you're improvising is when you make a mistake.

Improvisation adds excitement to a performance. It's the difference between watching a live baseball game, and one where you know the score." [RogerEbert.com]

I consider myself a comedy fan, so I was ashamed that I only learned about Steinberg when I saw a Showtime documentary about his life's work, called Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story.

The past few years have seen Steinberg get some upper crust respect, with fawning pieces in The New York Times, his own Showtime show, and a one-man play.

His relative anonymity, at least in recent decades, was chosen.

A member of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, he played to his strengths. Some of his first comic essays — sermons, if you will — were about God. One of those sermons was the final straw in CBS's long-running content war with the Smothers Brothers, and because the brothers stood with Steinberg, their show was canceled.

He decided to become a director after a successful television career, and spent the late 1980s, the 1990s, and the first decade of this century behind the camera, helping those in front of the camera to be more funny. He directed many of episodes of the Designing Women, Evening Shade, and Mad About You, and worked on The Golden Girls, Friends, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and even Weeds.

He's not Chris Rock or Louis CK simply because he is too unassuming, and now, a bit too old, for the Comedy Central-influenced circuit today.

But his comedic footprint is just as large.

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

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