As uncomfortable as he might be with the label, David Steinberg is stuck with being described as an entertainment icon. During a career that has spanned nearly half a century, Winnipeg's most famous showbiz export has been a standup comedian, an actor, a talk-show guest and host, a writer, a director and a producer. In the 1960s, his quick wit and willingness to challenge religious conventions and uncomfortable political truths made him one of the most controversial comedians of his generation.
In recent years, Steinberg, who turned 71 this month, has rediscovered his love for live, onstage comedy, hosting a pair of TV series that have allowed him to explore the comedic mind and reviving his own career as a standup comedian.
Free Press TV writer Brad Oswald caught up with Steinberg recently in Los Angeles. Here's what they talked about:
The documentary Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story offered a very interesting overview of your life and career. What has the reaction to the film been?
It has been amazing, actually. I reluctantly said yes to it... (after) I tried to say no to it a number of times. Finally, my wife said, 'Just do it. People don't know what we know about you.' That gave me a little more security, because she would never lead me into the wrong thing. But it's hard to sort of let people aggrandize you, because when you're a comedian, you should know better.
I couldn't get over the response to it, actually.
One of the things the film did was explain to new generations of people the social and political relevance of what you were doing back in the '60s. What was it like for you to see those things revisited onscreen?
You know, I was just doing what I did, and what I do... The politics were scary back then -- when you hear the FBI tell you that somebody's going to take a shot at you, that's a scary thing, because there's no way you have any way to discredit the FBI. But I just knew that I didn't want my life to be about much else other than expressing my point of view comedically. Without that, I wouldn't quite say life isn't worth living, but certainly some version of that.
It was a different time for comedy. Were you aware of the impact you were having?
I wasn't the only one -- George Carlin was, and Richie Pryor was, and what we were doing was being a real version of ourselves, without allowing agents, producers or television to mould us in any ways. In some ways, it prevented me from attaining things I thought were important, but what I didn't get to do made me able to do other things that gave me the career I ended up having.
Let's talk about the renaissance of your standup career. When you first appeared at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival (in 2002), you basically hadn't done standup for about 20 years. Since then, you've really revived it; recently, you were out on tour with Robin Williams. What has it been like to re-immerse yourself in standup comedy after so much time away?
Here's what's interesting about my standup, at least from my point of view: I'm no longer interested in anything topical. I'm interested in looking back at what I did and where I've been, and talking to my audience about that. And hopefully, they'll find it funny and they'll laugh and they'll learn something; actually, I don't care about the learning part, but I do care about the funny and the laughing. I feel my version of the past is going to be funny and compelling -- it might seem an odd thing to do, because as most comedians get older, they try to act younger. I don't have that problem. I lived in a unique time -- I still can't believe what Johnny Carson was to me; I got to meet Groucho Marx; I was in the company of all these people who were idols of mine, and those are the things I want to talk about onstage.
How meaningful -- or not -- was it to you to go back to Winnipeg, to the comedy festival (in 2002 and again in 2012), and perform so well?
Everything about Winnipeg is meaningful to me -- I was born there, I was a teenager there, and everything about what I do now was formed in Winnipeg. I listened to the radio in Winnipeg and heard Wayne & Shuster and Foster Hewitt and Jack Benny. And I got up in front of large groups of people there, at the YMHA; I didn't realize at the time it was the foundation for standup comedy. I'll tell you the truth: I basically thought I was a f***-up, but everything that was the most screwed up about what I did back then was, in fact, the thing that springboarded me to stardom.
With your recent TV show (Showtime's Inside Comedy), you've shown that you're fascinated with the way comedians' minds work. What's so interesting?
You know, I used to open for jazz groups, because the bookers didn't think I spoke loudly enough for standup comedy. So I opened for the Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis and people like that, and I never forgot the way the jazz musicians talked to each other backstage. They were funny and interesting and slightly competitive, but also completely respectful of each other. And that never left my mind, and when Showtime offered me a show, I said I wanted to do the same kind of thing, but with comedy, because comedians also have a certain language that they speak to each other. There's a shared understanding that binds us together.
Your shows have done really well, but these days you've got Jerry Seinfeld driving around, getting coffee and talking to comedians about comedy. Are you OK with another voice joining the comedy conversation?
Well, Jerry was on my first show, with (Don) Rickles, and anything Jerry does is OK with me because we're good friends. Would I like to be the only one out there interviewing comedians? Sure. But I've had two seasons (of Inside Comedy) with a lot of big names, and quite frankly, I'm running out of Jews.
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