Comedian David Steinberg on Seinfeld's Success, Rickles' Boost and Republican Comedy (Q&A)

David Steinberg Inside Comedy Panel - P 2012
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

David Steinberg Inside Comedy Panel - P 2012

With his Showtime series "Inside Comedy" premiering tonight, Steinberg shares his thoughts about fellow comedians, influences and the funniest thing on TV today.

Ask veteran comedian David Steinberg what he finds funny these days, and he's quick with an answer: "the Republic debates," he deadpans during an interview tied to his latest television effort, Inside Comedy.

The program, which premieres on Showtime this evening, is a collaboration between Steinberg and funnyman Steve Carell. On a weekly basis, Inside Comedy will feature Steinberg sitting down for in depth interviews with an enviable array of top notch comedians, from Larry David to Chris Rock to Don Rickles.

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Steinberg, who was one of the most frequent guests on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and more recently served as a director on Friends, Seinfeld and David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about Woody Allen's influence, Rickle's White House trip and why the comedy business today is not the one on which he was reared.

The Hollywood Reporter: In putting this series together, what did you learn about comedy?

David Steinberg: The interesting thing is that no one show is the same and you learn different things from different people. With Don Rickles, you learn that one of his proudest moments was performing at the White House because up until then he had been a saloon comic. So for him to be accepted at the White House and to have Ronald Reagan laughing so hard at his jokes changed his whole career. From then on, people saw that he wasn’t just a cult favorite who worked the lounges at night. And the beauty of this show is then you get to see a piece of that moment for him.

THR: What did you learn about Jerry Seinfeld, who appears in the first episode?

Steinberg: He talks about how he never expected to be that big of a star. He just wanted a successful show and he loved doing the show. But when he finished, he figured he better get back on the road and didn’t want to duplicate the show for him. You also learn about his young daughter who has joke books or his father who was always very funny at the dinner table.

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THR: You set out to make this a documentary film; when and why did it become a TV series?

Steinberg: Yes, it started as a documentary. We wanted to just document everyone that we know and love in comedy, and everyone said yes.  I did about 40 or 50 minutes worth of interviews with everyone, and there was a rhythm to those interviews. At one point, Steve Carell said, ‘If you do a movie, we’ve got so many people that Mel Brooks will have to be two minutes, Larry David will be four minutes. So all that we’re loving about the show will be chopped up.’ It didn't make sense.

THR: What was the most unexpected part of the interviews you gathered?

Steinberg: In some ways they were all unexpected because I didn’t prepare anything before my interviews. I wanted to go just on what I knew about them having been a comedian and director of comedy myself. I wanted to hear the stories for the first time and just see where that lead.

THR: You had done Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg on TVLand several years ago. What did you want to do differently with this?

Steinberg: That show was done in front of a large, live audience. With this, I wanted to be able to have more archival footage so that you could show where everyone came from. This way you're not only hearing them talk about their past, you're getting to see it too. Really, I wanted to connect the dots better than you can in front of an audience. So in front of an audience, you get a very funny, big show. In our show, you get to see a Steve Carell and Jane Lynch talk about how they got to work together and then you see the piece of footage that they both talk about. 

THR: You’ve talked about how the perception and health of comedy has changed drastically since you got into the business. How so and why do you think that’s the case?

Steinberg: When I started, you didn’t make a lot of money from being a comedian. If you went on the road, you didn’t make a fortune, and television wasn’t what it is right now. It was just another way in which to get famous and people --stand up comedians in particular-- didn’t do comedy to get a television show. They did stand up because that was the way in which they wanted to express themselves. And it was hard. You were on the road all of the time.

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THR: Your agent discouraged you from working on sitcoms?

Steinberg: Yes. I decided I wanted to direct sitcoms, and my agent said, ‘Why do you want to do sitcoms? Do movies.’ Sitcoms were not thought of as a respectable thing to do at that time. Then The Cosby Show started the break through. Sitcoms had been at their flattest and nobody was interested in them, and Cosby showed that there was another way in which to do this and it caught fire. I’d say the next seminal moment was with Seinfeld. Jerry and Larry David didn’t think of doing a big show; they just thought of doing what they believed would be funny. That explosion on Seinfeld sort of changed the attitude towards comedy in general because the show was so successful, creatively and financially. 

THR: As a comedian, who has and continues to influence you?

Steinberg: My influences were Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. I started out with Second City in the 1960s, before Belushi or anyone got there. We were creating an improvisational style that people still use, so a lot of my influences were from there, like Mike Nichols.

THR: When you look around the TV dial these days, what makes you laugh?

Steinberg: The Republican debates. It’s perfect. These candidates are material from heaven for comedians. Really, it’s a ship of fools that we’re loving.

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