To them he’s just David Steinberg. To us (now that he’s made it), he’s Canada’s own David Steinberg

PETER GODDARD March 1 1971

To them he’s just David Steinberg. To us (now that he’s made it), he’s Canada’s own David Steinberg

PETER GODDARD March 1 1971

To them he’s just David Steinberg. To us (now that he’s made it), he’s Canada’s own David Steinberg



THE RECEPTIONIST in Playboy magazine’s Park Avenue New York office swiveled around with a throaty, “Can I help you?”

Yes, I said. I’m here to interview David Steinberg. You know, David Steinberg, the comic.

“Oh,” she said, “you must be the gentleman from McLeens.”

No, it’s Maclean’s . . .

“Then you’ve got the wrong floor,” she said, swiveling around again.

It was a situation David Steinberg could have used. He’d have appreciated the high-pressure nuttiness of it all. It was the kind of reallife idiocy I’d heard him describe during guest appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, the Dean Martin Show, the Dick Cavett Show or even the late Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (it was Steinberg, remember, who in 1969 got the Smothers Brothers in trouble with the CBS censors). It was the sort of civilized insanity that drives us to staring bleary-eyed at the walls of our apartments. Yes, it would have been perfect for David Steinberg. With that toothy innocence he’d have made it sound, by turns, provocative, controversial and a little sexy. He’d have made it sound, above all, witty.

“All my material is really out there. It really happens to me,” he was saying when I finally located him in the office of Arlyne Rothberg, a director of talent at Playboy and Steinberg’s manager. “I don’t believe in trying for dumb jokes just to get laughs. And I think most of my success — you know, the stardom thing, getting recognized on the street — comes from being able to make TV work for me as McLuhanistic me-

dium. You know, to appear cool and relaxed.”

A McLuhanistic comedian? Well, it doesn’t sound as farfetched when Steinberg explains it. His intellect responds easily to disparate subjects and in his 29 years he has learned from many sources: from his father, a Winnipeg rabbi who spoke to his son in Yiddish; from the year he spent when he was 18 at a Hebrew university in Israel; from the University of Chicago where he got a master’s degree in English Literature; from the five years he spent with Chicago’s famed satirical company The Second City; from his addiction to films, especially François Truffaut’s; from the Marx brothers; from Mark Twain; from psychologist R. D. Laing; from old Wayne and Shuster radio shows he listened to at night when he was growing up in Winnipeg.

“I was 15 when I left Winnipeg to escape the middleclass Jewish thing. I had lied myself into a corner there, kidding myself about what I

was doing and about what I was going to do. I was really thinking big at 15 and Winnipeg was just too small. I had performed at the YMHA and at various civic centres. I was just the kid announcer — but already I was the dynamic performer. The people didn’t know I was performing, but I was. I made myself into a legend.”

The illusion became reality with the Second City. Steinberg was with the company in New York and London. He wrote much of their material. Then he left to work in the theatre — first, in the offBroadway hit The Mad Show, and then in two on-Broadway flops, Little Murders and Carry Me Back To Morningside Heights. In 1968 he opened at the Bitter End, the Greenwich Village coffee house that has launched such diverse talents as Peter, Paul and Mary and Dick Cavett. A New York Times reviewer described him as a combination of Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Shelley Berman. David Steinberg had arrived.

Oh, there were problems. There are always problems. The Bitter End, always in financial difficulty, had made deals with tour bus companies to push the occasional busload of sightseers through the front door. So every so often the place would be full of nice Middle Americans getting their first taste of the big time, and up on stage there’d be this clever Canadian kid grinning like a schoolboy as he mocked religion, satirized sex and took potshots at the government. And the more biting he got, the more he smiled. It was upsetting.

“It got so every time a bus came by they’d avoid my block. Even with TV the censors were always on my back.”

In April, 1969, Robert D. Wood, president of the CBS television network, canceled an edition of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour because, he claimed, one of Steinberg’s monologues would be considered “irreverent and offensive” by much of the show’s audience. The material in question was a sermonette in which Steinberg wound up urging the audience “to put the Christ back in Christmas and the ‘ch’ back in Chanukkah.”

“In a way I’ve modeled myself for TV, I’ve found a particular space for myself on TV. At college concerts I’m much more political, much more radical than I am on TV. A concert is like a bullfight; it can be all yours if you win the audience. But I don’t think I could go too far along that line . . . I’m not as good at it as Mort Sahl. The best nightclub performer in the business is Richard Pryor, but on TV he’s through. The minute

people see how radical he is they turn him off.”

Steinberg loves writing. “My hope for success,” he says, “lies with my material.” All kinds of writing. As a friend says, “David is so inventive he just evolves into doing other things.” A few years ago he evolved into writing a much praised TV special for NBC called This Is Sholom Aleichem. He’s also written a pirate movie — “I play the Burt Lancaster part”

— which will start shooting later this year. He wrote the book for a musical comedy based on the lives of the Marx brothers which was entirely rewritten by someone else and turned into a bomb called Minnie’s Boys. “The interesting thing about integrity,” Steinberg told a reporter, “is that it never pays off.

“Right now I’m writing my biography for Bennett Cerf which I don’t think will get beyond my Winnipeg days. I will always have an allegiance to the place where I was born. The society in Winnipeg when I left was not bad

— I was just out of rhythm with it. Canada’s interesting that way. In Canada you can be outside society and still feel a sense of security, but in the States when you’re outside you’re really outside.

“My YMHA has asked me to come back as a special guest and although it’s so hard to find time for these things I think I can tie it into a piece Esquire wants me to do. I guess your roots stick with you. I remember talking to Richard Chamberlain about his role in the movie about Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky, you know, had every malady going, from cholera to homosexuality. Luckily, I said, he didn’t come from Winnipeg. Now I would have said that if I had come from Ames, Iowa. But I came from Winnipeg.

“You know what I remember most? I remember listening to Wayne and Shuster when they did their skit about the Mimico Mice playing the Toronto Maple Leafs.

I used to think that was so funny. I used to laugh and laugh . . . ” □