David Steinberg gets a well-deserved double dose of attention Monday night on Showtime: a documentary profile, and the season premiere of his Inside Comedy series…
The 9:30 p.m. ET documentary is called Quality Balls – The David Steinberg Story. Its testicular title comes from an admiring quote by Jerry Seinfeld, who used the term to describe Steinberg’s standup comedy style.
And indeed, that style, when the 71-year-old comic was in his mid-20s and appearing on CBS’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, resulted in a religious “sermonette” routine so controversial, it generated more negative mail to the network than any program had received in the history of broadcasting. When Steinberg returned to perform a second sermonette, CBS refused to televise it – then fired the Smothers Brothers and pulled their show from the schedule.
That controversy, based on the synopsis, is part of the Quality Balls documentary. (I don’t know if I am, because I don’t know if this is the Canadian documentary for which I was interviewed about Steinberg, or whether, if so, I made the final cut.) Also in this documentary is Steinberg’s long-awaited return to stand-up, and an overview of some of his many impressive credits as a TV comedy director. Not only did he direct episodes of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but his resume includes episodes of Weeds, The Comeback, Friends, Mad about You, Designing Women, Newhart, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and a lot more.
Most impressive of all, though, is his work as host of TV talk shows devoted specifically to talking with other comedians. He did this first on TV Land’s Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg (from 2005-07), and, more recently, for Showtime’s outstanding Inside Comedy series, for which he’s elicited stories and memories from, among others, Mel Brooks, Bill Maher, Carol Burnett, Tina Fey, Don Rickles, Judd Apatow, Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin and Louis C.K.
Monday’s Season 3 premiere of Inside Comedy, at 11p.m. ET following the Quality Balls documentary, features Jimmy Fallon and Zach Galifianakis. (Fallon returned the favor by having Steinberg as a Late Night with Jimmy Fallon guest last Friday.)
Both Fallon and Galifianakis open up instantly and easily to Steinberg, and it’s an ease that comes from mutual respect. Steinberg gets what they’re doing, and what drives them – and they, in turn, can connect with, or even be in awe of, Steinberg’s past and present accomplishments.
Fallon, for example, is on the eve of taking over hosting chores at NBC’s Tonight Show – a job Johnny Carson once offered to Steinberg, as a fill-in Monday guest host, after he’d appeared as a guest on Carson’s show only a handful of times. As a result, between being a frequent last-second fill-in guest and an occasional guest host, Steinberg ended up clocking more Tonight Show appearances during Carson’s reign than anyone but Bob Hope.
Fallon would do well – very well indeed – to pay attention to how Steinberg acts as host. Yes, as he interviews his guests, he’s always listening for a place to inject a funny ad lib or observation. But he’s also listening, period, and doing follow-ups, and offering stories from his own past that urge his guests into revealing even more about themselves.
Quality Balls, yes. But quality interviewing skills, too – and it all comes from doing, supremely well, the same peculiar, difficult occupation as his guests.
Quality TV, too.