Jewish comedy legend looks back on 50 years of laughter in new memoir


Have you heard the one about Moses and the burning bush?

“Moses takes off his shoes, walks up to the burning bush, and burns his feet. Moses swore; we are not sure what he said, but there are many Old Testament scholars who believe to this day that this was the first mention of Christ in the Bible.

So did one of the best known – and most controversial – riffs by David Steinberg, now 78, one of North America’s most famous comedians in the years. 1960 and 1970.

Steinberg, a former rabbinical student whose early stand-up routines were based on satirical Bible sermons (“I had the only little black book in Hollywood written in Aramaic,” he writes), pursued a varied and prolific career. covering over 50 years. years. From comedy and acting, hosting, writing and directing, Steinberg has touched millions of people around the world and worked with some of the funniest and most famous figures in the world. comedy.

Now he’s devoted a lifetime of anecdotes, stories and trendy ideas in a new book, “Inside Comedy: The soul, spirit and bite of comedy and comedians of the past five decades”, Which hits shelves this week.

From Sid Caesar to Chris Rock, and Milton Berle to Larry David, Steinberg has worked with nearly every well-known comedian in North America, from his stint at Chicago’s Second City Theater in the 1960s until his stint. hosting and directing of the Showtime series “Inside Comedy”, which ended in 2015.

David Steinberg in Israel in 1958 when he was a scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

Born in Winnipeg, Canada, to Russian immigrants – his father was a rabbi – Steinberg studied for several years at a rabbinical school before enrolling at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and then pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Chicago . During his time in the Windy City, Steinberg was sucked into the world of comedy and the rest, as they say, is history.

While his latest book focuses on the dozens of comedians he has met and worked with over the years – from Richard Pryor to Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Betty White and many more – Steinberg has a lot of bragging rights of its own.

He has been the guest or guest host of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” 140 times, claims to have been the first person to introduce Barbara Streisand to the story of “Yentl”, tells of the time he accidentally gave the presidential debate to Bill Clinton. advice and says that he “is perhaps the only actor to have made Elie Wiesel laugh”.

After decades of stand-up – and groundbreaking comedy routines lambasting Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, long before the Donald Trump comedy gold mine took office – Steinberg launched a new career as that sitcom director. He has garnered nominations and awards for his stints as a director on “Seinfeld”, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, “Golden Girls”, “Designing Women”, “Mad About You” and many more.

Most recently, he spoke to some of comedy’s biggest names – including Don Rickles, Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres and Tiny Fey – to discuss their lives and careers on his interview show “Inside Comedy” . Excerpts from the show are interwoven with Steinberg’s personal experiences to form the core of his latest book.

Steinberg responded by email to some of The Times of Israel’s questions about his career and his latest book. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

Martin Short, Larry David and David Steinberg (left to right) at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in February 2016. (Robyn Todd)

Times of Israel: Why this book now? How long have you been working on it?

David Steinberg: I have been working on this book for a few years. I have been through so much and have so many great memories that I wanted to share.

Were there any anecdotes you needed to remove from the book because your friends and colleagues didn’t want them told?

No. There was nothing to cut. They are all friends of mine. I’m talking about their comedy and their life and what a lot of them mean to me.

Your latest book is chock full of the funniest Jews in showbiz. Why do you think Jews have such an affinity for comedy, or comedy has such an affinity for Jews?

Jews have always found a way to find humor in everything. They had to.

Do you think your sermons and tongue-in-cheek riffs on Biblical characters would still work on a stand-up today?

It would still work today, of course. But I don’t think it would be that controversial. But who knows? It’s very rare for something to resist because today’s tip is tomorrow’s cliché. But religious sermons will always have a certain audience.

It’s very rare for something to hold because today’s tip is tomorrow’s snapshot

Comedy as we knew it in the past is under construction. I just hope it’s funny. Because one thing history has taught us is that there will always be a need to laugh. The world will see to it.

David Steinberg and Robin Williams aboard a private plane in 2014 during their joint comedy tour. (Robyn Todd)

As someone well known for your anti-Nixon comedy, what was it like to see Trump come to the White House? And what do you think of the way today’s late night hosts handled it?

Controversy is always good for comedy. I only wish Jon Stewart would do “The Daily Show” during the Trump years. In fact, I wish it never stopped.

When you started decades ago, comedians were still being censored and even arrested for edgy material. Today we hear about canceling culture and awakening – do you think we have made progress or are we going backwards?

Probably a bit of both. Jack Parr was kicked off the airwaves for saying toilet. And I was followed by the FBI for speaking out against Nixon. And my sermons helped get the “Smothers Comedy Hour” canceled from the airwaves. So yes we are moving forward. But now, between cell phones and ‘cancel culture’ comedians, comedians can no longer experiment as they did and the pendulum can go back in time. Today they call it “cancel culture” – it used to be good old-fashioned censorship. It’s a complicated time for comedy – and the world for that matter.

Today they call it ‘cancel culture’ – it used to be good old fashioned censorship.

Do you continue to watch new and young comics today? Do you have any favorites?

There are so many that I appreciate. Hasan Minhaj, Marina Franklin, Bo Burnham, Mike Birbiglia. There are so many more I could name but there would be no room.

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