SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
So a Rabbinical student, a Canadian and a comic walk into Chicago's "Second City." They turn out to be the same person, David Steinberg.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SECOND CITY ACT)
MARTIN SHORT: So this evening we're very, very glad to have with us the first Eskimo folk singer, Mr. Nanook Smith.
DAVID STEINBERG: No, I'm the second. My brother was the first and was swallowed by a big huge polar bear.
SHORT: Oh, that's too bad. I'm sorry to hear that.
STEINBERG: It's all right. He got out the first Eskimo folk song before he left. (Singing) Look out for that polar bear. He's gonna get me. Ahhhh.
SIMON: David Steinberg hit the North American comedy scene in the 1960s as something different - sharp, smart, sly, maybe a little shy and shaggy, like the Beatles. He cut a path for the likes of John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Andre Martin and Martin Short at Second City and beyond. He sat on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" couch 140 times. He recorded four comedy albums, got Grammy nominations, got the Smothers Brothers censored and then seemingly hit the height of his popularity David Steinberg walked away from standup - if I might put it that way - and became a noted television director, putting his imprint on "Newhart," "Seinfeld," "Mad About You" and most recently "Curb Your Enthusiasm." David Steinberg is the subject of a new documentary that airs on Showtime on February 3rd: "Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story." And David Steinberg joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
STEINBERG: My pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: Now, your given name was Duddy, as in Duddy Kravitz?
STEINBERG: Exactly. I was born before Duddy Kravitz became a glint in Mordecai Richler's eye. But my friends still know me as Duddy from Winnipeg.
SIMON: Well, I heard the story that somebody asked you once to change your name from David Steinberg?
STEINBERG: Yeah. I was asked to change my name 'cause Steinberg was too Jewish. The people asking me were the William Morris agent Lass Fogel(ph), Cal Sheim(ph) and Greenberg.
SIMON: Well, they ought to know, I guess, right?
SIMON: But you'd change your name already.
STEINBERG: Yes, yeah. To me, losing Duddy was a great loss. And then the first celebrity I met when I got to New York was Zero Mostel, so...
SIMON: Well, he did pretty well with that, too.
STEINBERG: I think so.
SIMON: Yeah. You were a rabbinical student in Chicago, and what did you feel the first you walked into Second City?
STEINBERG: Well, there's no question that it changed my life. The company that I saw had Joan Rivers in it and the intelligence of it was incredible. And how it wasn't sort of a setup joke that had been around. It wasn't like I was even a student of comedy. I had no idea what I was going to do when I saw them on stage. It was just that revelation. I said I do what they're doing. Not as well, not as slick. And that just set it going.
SIMON: So, how did the - if I might put it this way, and, boy, it sounds irreverent - how did the sermon shtick come to be?
STEINBERG: You know, at Second City, we would do a set show based on improvisation. And they said, you know, why don't you do that. Do something from your biblical background. Who her at Second City has ever had this sort of knowledge of the Bible? So, I thought, OK, you know what? I'll play a reformed rabbi who didn't really know what he was talking about.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SECOND CITY ACT)
STEINBERG: (as Rabbi) Tonight's sermon deals with the exciting personalities Moses, Solomon, Noah and a Job, all of whom had a wonderful rapport with God, whom I'm sure you'll all remember from last week's sermon.
SIMON: So, I've got to ask whatever happened on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour?" You became very well-known for your sermons. And I guess at one point CBS, that made them uncomfortable, right?
STEINBERG: Yes. And Tommy particularly was crazed for the sermons. He loved them and all that. Said let's do one of those. And I did. And I came back to do another show with them, I think it was a few weeks later. And he took me to a room, and in the room were just duffel bags, just duffel bags. And I said what's that? He said that's your hate mail. What I hadn't been told for the second show is that Tommy had been warned by CBS you can have Steinberg back but no more sermons because of the response that they got. And I did a sermon on Jonah and that never made it to the air because the Smothers Brothers were thrown off the air because of that sermon.
SIMON: So, why did you step away from standup to go into directing?
STEINBERG: You know, in the documentary I was asked that. And there was a time when I was on the road by myself. I remembered it in the documentary as being Cleveland. And I was watching all the traffic heading into the suburbs, people going to their families, people being with their friends. And in fact, I was appearing to quite a few people, to maybe 1,500 people that night, my picture was on the front of the newspaper and all that. I thought, God, this doesn't really mean anything to me anymore, and I was by myself. And I said it just feels a little lonely that I have to help myself by not just doing this and being on the road. And I slipped into the sitcom directing and had a career.
SIMON: This documentary ends with you back on stage at, I guess, at the age of 70.
STEINBERG: Yes. I'd like to say 69 but with the wind chill factor of 70.
SIMON: So, I gather this is a new standup you've done in La Jolla and Bucks County?
STEINBERG: Yes, exactly. And was very difficult to try and figure out what it was I wanted to say to an audience at this age and at this time. And it took a while for me to find my sea legs, but I found it, ironically, by looking back rather than staying in the present, which is mostly what you're supposed to do in standup comedy. But the last thing I wanted to do was play the old guy who can't tweet and doesn't know what the kids are doing. That would have really destroyed me if I went that way.
SIMON: Are many comedians happy?
STEINBERG: OK. Here's a rule that I have.
STEINBERG: If you have had a great childhood, a little bit of money in the bank and a happy marriage, you're going to make a lousy comedian.
SIMON: So, every time there's a setback, tell yourself I can use this.
STEINBERG: It helps you.
SIMON: David Steinberg is the subject of a documentary that airs on Showtime on Monday: "Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story." Thanks so much for being with us.
STEINBERG: Pleasure to talk to you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.