“I would have been a lousy rabbi,” confided David Steinberg, candidly reflecting on what would have happened if he’d continued his yeshiva studies and followed in his father’s footsteps. The rabbinate’s loss is comedy’s gain, and Steinberg has 50 years of memories to show for it — as a performer, personality and in-demand director.
For the past two years, he’s turned the spotlight on other comedians with his Showtime series “Inside Comedy,” which returns for its third season Feb. 3 at 11 p.m. But the focus of the program leading into it is entirely personal — the biographical documentary “Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story” premieres at 9:30 that evening. The film follows his life and career from the Jewish community in Canada’s Winnipeg, to Chicago’s Second City troupe, to New York and Hollywood, including archival clips and testimonies from his comedy peers. The title, “Quality Balls,” comes from a comment made by his good friend Jerry Seinfeld.
When a Canadian company pitched the documentary to Steinberg, now 71, more than a year ago, he wasn’t interested.
“It struck me — and it still does strike me — as a little on the self-indulgent side.”
But his wife, Robyn, insisted he do it, “and I reluctantly agreed.” Busy with directing projects and the five months a year he spends on “Inside Comedy,” Steinberg hadn’t done stand-up for a few years, so he booked the La Jolla Playhouse to work out new material last summer. Not only did it provide fodder for the film, it rekindled his interest in doing stand-up, leading to subsequent solo bookings and a 20-city tour with Robin Williams last year.
“Quality Balls” also covers Steinberg’s appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson — 140, including guest hosting — his controversial-for-the-time political humor and his Jewish roots, which indelibly impacted his comedy.
“It’s certainly part of my comedy DNA and my DNA in general. It’s important to me as anything. It’s who I am,” said Steinberg, who is known as Dudy to his friends and family.
Although he was pressed to do so, “I never changed my name because nothing about that made sense to me,” he said. “Why would you want to get known as anything other than who you are?” Steinberg said he was determined to prove to an English teacher who didn’t think he would amount to anything that he could make a name for himself — as himself.
Steinberg grew up in an Orthodox home, the youngest of four children born to Russian immigrant parents; his father owned a grocery store and ran a shul. He was exposed to live comedy and radio shows early on because “television came late to Winnipeg,” and comics like Jack Benny and the duo Wayne and Shuster sparked his imagination.
“When you’re listening, you’re creating pictures in your head. But I never thought of it as a profession. I just laughed and loved them,” he said. “I had no plan to be in show business.”
That is, until he discovered and fell in love with theater at the University of Chicago. Still, he can’t pinpoint the moment he realized he was funny.
“It’s like saying, ‘When did you realize you were breathing?’ It’s just something that you do. It is who you are,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg, whose “Inside Comedy” returns for its third season Feb. 3. Photo by Kent Smith/Showtime
As for what attracts him to the stand-up medium?
“It makes you think about what’s going on around you all the time,” Steinberg said. “You have to have an opinion, even if it’s unpopular. It’s an incredible platform to express your point of view.”
He equally enjoyed the improvisational aspects of his “Tonight Show” appearances with Carson. “My fondest memories are just how much he allowed me to do what I do,” he said.
Observing that stand-up comedy is a more prestigious career option than it used to be, Steinberg quipped, “You can’t swing your arms and not hit a Jew in Beverly Hills who doesn’t have a son that wants to be a comedian.” His own stand-up plans include a likely Northeast run this summer, but he noted that controversial topics in his act are a thing of the past.
“I’ve lost my edge. I don’t deal with politics anymore,” he said.
Steinberg hopes to return to directing and to continue to produce “Inside Comedy,” which he called “one of my favorite things I’ve done.” This season’s lineup of interviews includes Jimmy Fallon and Zach Galifianakis in the first episode, and Jonah Hill and Alan Arkin in the second. Bette Midler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Dick Van Dyke, Andrew Dice Clay, and Key and Peele will appear in subsequent episodes.
Over the years, he has also directed episodes of “Newhart,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Designing Women” and “Seinfeld,” among other programs.
In his personal life, Steinberg said he’s proud of his longtime friendships with Seinfeld, Williams, Larry David and Mel Brooks, as well as his marriage and family — two daughters and one grandchild. He’s been with Robyn for 18 years, and says it works because “Robyn laughs at everything that I say,” adding, “She has a great sense of humor.”
Reflecting on his success, Steinberg attributes a lot of it to being in the right place at the right time. “The most important ingredient is luck, and that’s what I’ve had all the way through, and then being able to cash in on it.”
As for the notion raised in “Quality Balls” that he was the subject of Carly Simon’s hit song “You’re So Vain,” Steinberg demurs.
“You’d have to ask Carly about that. She’s a close friend of mine, and I am vain,” he said. “But I can’t confirm or deny.”