The new book Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades is written by a true insider: David Steinberg — “a comic institution himself,” as The New York Times has said. Steinberg includes personal stories about more than 75 legendary comedians, from late greats such as Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters to current stars such as Tiny Fey and Chris Rock.
The Canadian-born funnyman, 78, started in comedy with Chicago's famed Second City troupe, working with talents such as Jack Burns and Robert Klein and doing stand-up in New York City's Greenwich Village. He went on to a long, high-profile career that included 140 appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, directing scads of TV episodes (shows such as Friends, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm) and hosting Showtime's Inside Comedy series from 2012 to 2015. Throughout those decades he met (and, in many cases, befriended) absolutely everybody who's anybody in the funny business.
Steinberg now lives in Los Angeles and works on a handful of comedy projects alongside his wife, Robyn Todd. We asked him about his career, his famous pals and what really makes him laugh.
His family was part of his comedy education
My brother Fishy always took me to comedy movies: Abbott and Costello, the Bowery Boys, Marx Brothers, to name a few. I saw everything from the time I was 5 years old. I even skipped school to see movies again and again. Fishy loved comedy and he was always telling jokes. My dad also had a great sense of humor. He was a rabbi and his sermons were always funny. Sermons became such a large part of my comedy. That's not a coincidence. My life has always been a great inspiration for my comedy. I owe them all.
Advice to anyone considering a career in comedy
Figure out what makes you laugh and keep making it funnier. Writing is about rewriting, rewriting and rewriting. Be prepared to come back from failure — a lot. You have to learn how to fail and use that failure to get better and better. There are no shortcuts to comedic success. In comedy you have to learn how to crawl before you can walk.
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How humor evolves through the decades
The best humor is always personal humor. Ironically, the more personal the humor the more relatable it is to everyone. But humor always changes with events of the time. Along comes a Lenny Bruce and then a Richie Pryor and George Carlin, and that changes everything — comedy becomes about stories, not only jokes. Then Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, and the list goes on. The common thread? Laughter at life's expense.
The trick to directing a comedy
You need to do as few close-ups as possible because you miss the physicality, which is critical for humor. In a show like Seinfeld, the actors are so gifted that you just basically shoot who they are and stay out of the way. And the same with Curb Your Enthusiasm. I really don't recall giving too many notes to any of these brilliantly talented people.
His best story about Groucho Marx
There are so many. Once Groucho and I were having lunch at the Brown Derby restaurant and two priests walked in. They saw Groucho eating his soup and walked right over and said, “Mr. Marx, it is such an honor to meet you. We want to thank you for bringing so much joy into the world.” Without looking up Groucho replied, “And I want to thank you for taking so much out."
That was how fast Groucho was. Always. I loved him.
Larry David (we think similarly and find the same things funny or annoying), Martin Short (sensitive and hilarious) and Mel Brooks (I wouldn't have to talk at all). Larry and Mel are the funniest people I ever met. Every time I see them I leave smiling and feeling so good that I'm in their orbit.
Current TV shows that make him laugh
Ted Lasso. And I really enjoyed The Kominsky Method. There are a lot of wonderful shows now.
Thoughts on turning 79
Aging doesn't bother me. I try to stay active. I walk every day. I eat healthy. I stay positive. I take it one day at a time. And hope I wake up in the morning.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.