Watching a first-rate documentary a few weeks ago on Showtime about David Steinberg, the controversial but loveable Canadian-born comedian, actor, writer and director, brought back a flood of memories for me.
Called “Quality Balls,” the 75-minute film traces his career from the mid-1960s, when he left his academic studies at the University of Chicago to join Second City, the legendary improvisational troupe; to his infamous “sermon” about Jonah and the whale on “The Smothers Brothers” show in October 1968 that resulted in CBS banning Dick and Tommy Smothers for five years (even though their show was No. 1 in the ratings); to Steinberg’s current role as host of the popular weekly program, “Inside Comedy,” closing out its third season on Showtime.
When I learned my favorite comic would be in New York for a few days, I wrote to request an interview and asked if he remembered the night I first saw him perform — 46 years ago.
He said he definitely did — it was pretty memorable — and agreed to meet.
I was referring to a warm spring night in 1968 that kind of changed my life.
I had traveled down from Washington Heights to the Bitter End coffeehouse in Greenwich Village with some Yeshiva University classmates, one of whom spent the subway ride telling us that Steinberg, then an unknown stand-up comic, would be particularly appealing to us because he was from an Orthodox rabbinic home in Winnipeg. Known to family and friends as “Dudi,” he went to Camp Moshava, a religious Zionist summer camp in Wildrose, Wis., attended a yeshiva in Chicago and used biblical material in his act.
We were intrigued.
When we arrived only a handful of people were in the dingy club. We sat down in the front row, and within a minute of Steinberg appearing on stage and getting into his routine, he looked at us — we were wearing kippot — stopped short in mid-sentence, and asked us, “Are you guys frum [observant]?”
Before we could answer, he asked, “Do you tear toilet paper on Shabbos?”
We were laughing hard, and he was having fun, all toothy grin and wavy dark hair, bounding around the little stage.
He asked the rest of the audience, “How many of you are Jewish?”
There was no clear response from the seven or eight other people in the small room, and Steinberg said, “F— you, I’m doing my act for these guys.”
Which he proceeded to do with great energy and flare, calling on his knowledge of the Torah to crack us up. He occasionally would point to us while telling the others in the room, “now watch these guys,” before riffing on Moses at the Burning Bush or calling out the Hebrew letters God etched into Cain’s forehead — ending with “mem sofit!”
When Steinberg asked us to stump him with any reference to an Old Testament character, one friend, who was a Torah and megillah reader, asked the comic to name the seven chamberlains of King Achashveros in the Book of Esther. Without missing a beat Steinberg asked my friend, “Do you speak Hebrew?”
My friend nodded yes.
“Mah zeh schmuck?” the comic asked. (“What does ‘schmuck’ mean?”)
After the show we chatted for a few minutes with Steinberg. He seemed happy to compare notes about life in the Orthodox community, one he was moving away from at 25, already an emerging star at Second City.
He was about to become one of the most popular comics in the country, praised for his intellectual observations and his gift for storytelling — a counterpoint to jokes and one-liners.
Within days after I saw him perform, a rave review of his Bitter End act was published in The New York Times — just when he was about to close due to lack of an audience — and launched him on a successful career that is closing in on a half-century.
Within a few months of that spring evening Steinberg would appear on the Smothers Brothers’ top-rated variety show, doing his biblical sermons. It was one particular line that got him — but mostly them — in trouble.
Telling the story of Jonah, in deep rabbinical tones, Steinberg said, “There are Old Testament scholars who say that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. And there are New Testament scholars who say, ‘No, Jonah was not swallowed by a whale. They literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament,’” he said, cupping his hands to make his meaning clear.
While the Smothers Brothers were then banned — they later sued CBS and won — Steinberg soon went on to host his own short-lived ABC show, “The Music Scene.”
But it was “The Tonight Show” that made him a star. He would crack up host Johnny Carson, and much of the country, with his edgy Jewish material — “I was taught that Jews are smart and gentiles sell their children for whiskey.” By 1969 he was guest host of the show, the youngest ever. In all, Steinberg appeared on “The Tonight Show” more than 130 times, second only to Bob Hope, according to people who keep track of such things. He hosted several network shows and appeared in a few movies before making a smooth transition into directing with such sitcom staples as “Mad About You,” “Friends,” “Designing Women,” “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
My brief encounter with Steinberg at the Bitter End that night, seeing him spin his yeshiva-based material into comic gold, inspired me to give comedy a try. After all, I, too, was a rabbi’s son from a small town, spent years in yeshiva and shared a belief, at least sometimes, that, as Steinberg has said, “Comedy is what yeshiva is all about. You cannot survive there without a sense of humor.”
Fortunately I never gave up my day job.
At 71, despite the gray hair, Steinberg looks remarkably youthful, with that famous boyish grin. We meet at the Hotel Carlyle Tea Room on a weekday afternoon and spend more than an hour and a half sharing stories about our Orthodox upbringing, yeshiva experiences, and love of comedians. He wanted to know just what material he used that night at the Bitter End all those years ago, and laughed when I reminded him.
He animatedly discussed his happy childhood going to Talmud Torah, learning Yiddish and Hebrew. His feelings, looking back, are “affectionate, not rebellious,” he said, though he has long been more devoted to meditation than traditional prayer. (He did have high praise for Rabbi Sharon Brous and Ikar, the popular non-denominational congregation in Los Angeles where he enjoys praying on the High Holy Days.)
Steinberg acknowledged that the satirical sermons that made him famous began with Purim shpiels (skits) he performed at his yeshiva high school in Skokie, Ill. He marveled at “the complete irreverence” students could get away with on that one day of the year, turning the Torah’s logic inside out and even imitating the rebbes to their faces.
“You could say anything, and I thought, ‘I’m going to have a Purim Torah for the rest of my life.’ It’s not a bad way to go.”
In his professional career he pictured his sermons as coming from Reform rabbis — “a natural target,” he says. “It’s in the DNA of a comedian to do what you know, and that’s what I knew,” referring to his Old Testament spoofs.
“I was outrageous,” he admits. “Irreverent.”
In part he was inspired by the legendary Lenny Bruce, the first stand-up comic he ever saw perform. “He was a major influence for me. A cool guy on the stage, nice looking. It was his ideas that were incendiary, not his language.
“I remember not laughing at all,” he recalled, more in awe than in stitches.
“He had this level of storytelling, of intelligence, of boldness.”
Steinberg turned his natural ability to make people laugh into a profession when he joined Second City, relying on his “sermons” and a bit that became his trademark, where he plays a nutty psychiatrist who taunts people by yelling “booga booga” at them.
When he landed his own show with ABC, there was talk of having Steinberg change his name. Actually, he said, the idea came not from network bigwigs but from his Jewish agent.
“Could you just see my name up there in lights on the marquee? DAVID STEINBERG. You’d think it was an accountant.”
He said he never considered changing his name and is proud his old friends still call him “Dudi.”
These days he is performing an hour-long one-man show he has developed, a cross between a stand-up routine and a play. It’s basically a set piece, with some improvisation, about his life and career, with plenty of anecdotes about Johnny Carson, who became a good friend, and other celebrities.
Looking out into the audience in venues including La Jolla, Calif., and Bucks County, Pa., Steinberg says the age of the people in the seats is close to his, for the most part, and he’s comfortable with that.
Maybe he himself has mellowed, but his humor is still fresh, and he likes to keep it edgy.
The golden age of Jewish comedians has given way to other minorities, he observed. “It’s only natural. Being a persecuted minority doesn’t hurt for comedy. The danger is to be complacent.”
As we get up to leave, he recalls what George Carlin one said: “A comedian’s job is to find the line. And then cross over.
“I do. Sometimes,” he grinned.
Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details.