David Steinberg may not be a household name, but it is a name that means a great deal to anyone in the world of comedy. Indeed, Steinberg -- the host of Showtime's Inside Comedy, which is now vying for a nomination for the outstanding variety, music or comedy series Emmy -- is essentially the genre's Kevin Bacon, a guy who knows and/or has worked with everyone, and, just as importantly, a guy who virtually everyone who knows and/or has worked with him likes.
The 70-year-old Canadian got his start in comedy nearly a half-century ago, when, after seeing a performance by The Second City sketch comedy troupe, he decided to pursue a career as a stand-up comic. By the end of the sixties, after performing with Second City and at various establishments big and small, he had risen to the top echelon of that field, described in the press as something of a cross between Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. He became a frequent guest on TV variety shows, and one of Johnny Carson's most frequent guests on -- and occasional guest host of -- The Tonight Show.
Ultimately, before it was fashionable for accomplished people to do so, Steinberg became a TV writer and director. He worked on stand-up specials, earning Emmy noms for producing Billy Crystal: Midnight Train to Moscow (1989) and Robin Williams: Live on Broadway (2002). He worked on variety and award shows, winning Emmys in back-to-back years for his contributions to the 63rd (1991) and 64th (1992) Oscars telecasts, and earning another nom for his involvement with the 84th (2012). And he worked on sitcoms, including Seinfeld, Mad About You, Friends and Curb Your Enthusiasm, earning Emmy noms for his direction of Seinfeld's "The Tapes" episode (1990) and Curb's episode "Mary, Joseph and Larry" (2002).
About eight years ago, Steinberg, who off-stage is an understated conversationalist, began interviewing some of his comedy pals as the host of a TV Land show called Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg (2005-2007), which was taped before a live audience. One of the show's fans was Steve Carell, who suggested that Steinberg do "a comprehensive version of that show" as a documentary film. Intrigued by the idea, Steinberg began reaching out to comedians of all eras and varieties, and found that virtually everyone whom he approached was willing to speak with him. By the time he'd taped the first batch of interviews, though, he realized that he had way too much material to fit into a feature film, and would either have to edit it down to just a miniscule sampling of each comedian or find an alternate forum that would enable him to show more of it.
It occurred to Steinberg that the interviews might be better suited for a television series -- something like Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, only less stiff and lengthy. It was with this in mind that he began showing a sizzle reel of his footage to people in the industry, hoping that some network might find it a good fit for them. It wasn't long before Showtime bit. The premium cable channel took it on for a 10-episode season, featuring 30-minute episodes, most of which would cut-between multiple subjects who share in common some common theme or relationship, even if that commonality is not obvious until one watches the episode.
Inside Comedy's first season ran from January through March 2012, and featured Don Rickles and Jerry Seinfeld; Chris Rock; Steve Carell and Jane Lynch; Billy Crystal, Martin Short and Brad Garrett; Larry David; Sarah Silverman and Garry Shandling; Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner; Ellen DeGeneres and Tim Conway; Kathy Griffin and Steven Wright; and Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters (the latter of whom has since passed away). It was then renewed for a second season, which ran from February through April 2013, and featured Louie C.K. and Bob Newhart; Judd Apatow and Tina Fey; Drew Carey and Martin Mull; Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin; Jim Carrey and Keenan Ivory Wayans; Will Ferrell and Betty White; Susie Essman and Carol Burnett; Ben Stiller and Mike Myers; Robert Klein and Bill Maher; and Robert Schimmel (who was killed in a car crash two weeks after taping his episode).
The show has been well-received by critics and audience alike, who seem to respond to Steinberg's relatively simple approach and the sort of interview it produces: he doesn't prepare questions in advance (preferring to essentially let the conversation go where the subject takes it); he is not interested in "putting on a show" (he basically just shows up at a hotel suite or home with Robyn Steinberg, his second wife and co-producer of the show, plus a cameraman and some lights, which, along with his familiar face, clearly puts his subjects at ease); and he doesn't try to make himself the star of the show (even if he is just as experienced and knows just as much about the topics being discussed as most of his guests).
Steinberg says that his goal with this endeavor has always been to capture comedians engaging in the sort of unguarded shop-talk that he overheard backstage years ago he was a young stand-up comic opening for world-class jazz musicians. He has succeeded. The most common complaint about the series, to which I also subscribe, is that the episodes aren't longer; that being said, more wisdom about comedy and comedians can be gleaned from any one of these episodes than any other source that I know of. Perhaps the biggest lesson that one can learn from watching Steinberg and his guests is not to be reductive or dismissive about what they do. Not all comedians are tortured souls who privately yearn to play Hamlet; instead, the best among them are insightful craftsmen who have watched and learned from their predecessors and peers, Steinberg as much as any of them.