In an age of assimilation, a couple of generations removed from the ghetto, can Jews still be funny? Yes, says David Steinberg, host of the new talk show, "Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg," which premiered this past Wednesday on TV Land. "Kvetching is funny. That's what Jews do," he says.
Mostly middle-class and divested somewhat of their ethnicity, comedians like Larry David, Jon Lovitz and Jerry Seinfeld, whom Steinberg directed many times on "Seinfeld," retain a Jewishness, if not in the subject matter of their material, then in their style or delivery.
Steinberg says that Seinfeld uses the historic Jewish trope of beginning a joke with a question, not unlike the way Sholom Aleichem's characters answer a question with a question, while David, who appears on the second episode of "Sit Down" airing Wednesday, is not "afraid to go as far as he can in creating a stereotype" about Jews. Lovitz, another one of Steinberg's guests, is Jewish "in his look, in his face, the lying character." Steinberg traces a direct line from Jack Benny's penny-pincher to Lovitz's liar.
Perhaps the guest who comes closest to the traditional Jewish comedian is a non-Jew, George Lopez, who hails from East Los Angeles, once home to a community of Jews, now a barrio. Lopez wields his Latino ethnicity the way that many past Jewish comedians -- from Al Jolson to Lenny Bruce and even to Steinberg himself --used to wield theirs.
Steinberg has always been comfortable with his Jewishness. He refused to Anglicize his name years ago when the networks asked him to. "In America," he says, "they want you to be American first, something else second."
Raised in Canada, Steinberg grew up Jewish first in an Orthodox household.
He once joked that "David Steinberg is not the name of a star. David Steinberg is the name of an accountant."
Steinberg has no desk or sidekick, like Johnny Carson, on whose show he appeared more than any other guest but Bob Hope. He gives no opening monologue, just a brief introduction. Unlike James Lipton, he draws little attention to himself, sitting in an egalitarian two-chair layout and permitting a younger generation of comics to shine. That may be a unique legacy for a comedian. Then again, his book of biblical humor coming out next year boasts the eponymous title, "The Five Books of David." Well, who said comedians can't be self-referential?
"Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on TV Land.