David Steinberg, Part 2

Thursday, February 28, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Feb. 28, 2002, in Aspen, Colo.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Today we bring you part two of a special interview with comedian and producer David Steinberg. Here’s a brief look at what David shared with us last week.

[Video clips play.]

Paulson: You mentioned the Smothers Brothers, an important chapter in television history and where you began to earn your way onto Nixon’s enemy list.

Steinberg: Yes, I’m proud of that.

Paulson: How did you get involved in that show?

Steinberg: Well, the “Smothers Brothers Show” was — first of all, it — what I should describe for you, Ken, and for the audience is what television was like at the time. We’re talking about three networks. We’re talking about when you were the number one network, you were seen by more people than saw “Seinfeld,” because it wasn’t the same numbers, but everyone that you cared about, that was watching TV, only watched one thing. CBS said, “You can have Steinberg back, but don’t go near the Bible.” So Tommy didn’t like that.

Paulson: Right.

Steinberg: Said, “Why are you telling me what to do?” He said, “You know, the audience is so hot tonight. You want to do another one of those sermons?” And I said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” And I went out, and I did — Jonah was the sermon. They — I didn’t — they suggested Jonah. So Jonah, I just sort of improvised it, you know, “Jonah went to Tarshish, which was that — God wanted him to go to Nineveh, and instead, he went to Tarshish. Tarshish was that way,” and I looked over, and it was towards Fairfax. You know, and I was — and this one — it was sort of a nice thing, and then I said, “He got into a boat commandeered by many gentiles.” I’m sort of paraphrasing myself. I don’t quite remember it. And I said, “And God brought a great — God, with that mystical sense of humor that is only His, brought this great storm upon the sea, and the gentiles, as is their want from time to time, threw the Jew overboard.” And then I, then I said that the New Testament scholars differ with the Old Testament scholars. New Testament scholars, they say whales — and they say a whale — Jonah was swallowed by a whale. New Testament scholars literally — here’s the line — “literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament,” and I made this gesture of Old Testament. And I was just improvising. So the audience laughed. We laughed, and all of that. I went back to New York. The — that show didn’t come on until, like, three weeks later, and when that show was supposed to come on, I got a call from Tommy. He said, “Did you, did you read the New York Times today?” And I said, “Yeah,” but used to go right to the entertainment section. I was on the front page, and it was “Smothers Brothers Defy CBS with,” you know, “Outrageous Steinberg Sermon.” This was an amazing thing to have happen to the culture at that time. It had never happened before, a show being yanked off for censorship issues. It became vague as to what the issues were, but it wasn’t just my sermons, which were really — they could easily pin them on the sermons, ’cause they’re — whereas it sounds tame now, it really wasn’t then. But it was the fact that Tommy and Dick would have Pete Seeger on and Joan Baez. They were starting to develop the counterculture on television.

Paulson: Have Tom and Dick forgiven you for killing their television show?

Steinberg: They’ve, they’ve forgiven me for the television show. I don’t, I don’t think Tom has forgiven me for taking his girlfriend away.

Paulson: I see.

Steinberg: I didn’t actually take her. They had broken up, and then we started. But he, for ten years, liked to say, “Steinberg threw us off the air and stole my girlfriend.” But it’s not the way it happened at all.]

Paulson: And yet, for being the pivotal figure in this drama, your career was not crushed. In fact, you were a very hot property, and you came back with a show called “Music Scene.”

Steinberg: Yes.

Paulson: Which, which has recently been re-released on DVD, and I enjoyed it then, and I’ve enjoyed it now. And I have been surprised at how much political humor you did then.

Steinberg: We were very political. Most people don’t know that. “Music Scene” was the first “Saturday Night Live.” And it was all of the contemporary music and a satirical group of people that ended up being Lily Tomlin and myself as the hosts. And yeah, I was very — I was, I was political, and so was the whole — we were all political. We all — if we weren’t political, we had the same political point of view as a group.

Paulson: You know, in an interview not long ago, I read that you said that “Music Scene” was the start of counterculture on television. It was always a battle, and you, you reflected that. I mean, there are skits in that show where you are actually making fun of censors, virtually every opportunity you could get. Could that have helped?

Steinberg: No, no, it did not help. But it was just a level of the frustration that I was feeling. You know, I was always — I mean, Second City, we had an audience that was rece — when you went to do a live show, the audience knew what your point of view was. The culture was splitting in half. That is what was the most interesting thing that was happening there. It — the counterculture was a way in which people identified themselves. You know, the, the — my dad used to tell me that the wonderful thing about Yiddish was that when a Jew from Russia met a Jew from Spain, they would talk to each other in this bastard language, Yiddish, which was a little bit of everything. And they knew each other. And I thought, what an incredible thing that is. And because, remember, it doesn’t belong to any country. And, and the counterculture was a little bit of the same thing. You would see someone with long hair. You would see someone who looked a certain way, who a certain — not just a certain dress, a certain attitude. And you’d say, “We’re brothers. We know each other. We’re sisters. This is, this is happening.” Then there was, the — to my great pleasure, this sexual revolution. As I was becoming a celebrity, it was like God just anthropomorphically kissing me on the forehead and said, “You can be a prince for a few years now. It’s a sexual revolution.” And, but that, that was counter to the censors and to what the notion of television was. And the notion of television was: stay within these boundaries; anything outside, outside these boundaries is anti-censorship, is anti-government, is being a Communist. ‘Cause everything was about being a Communist. The McCarthy period, which was in the ’50s, was breaking down with the counterculture. And the counterculture, these, you know, there are these silly expressions of anyone over — “You can’t trust anyone over 30” and like that, which was just ridiculous, but the — what we believed at the time, and I remember naively thinking this — is that, “This is how it’s going to be forever.” It’s now going to be free speech, because there were more people getting this, and it was working. And it’s now going to be Beatles, Rolling Stones, you know, this new music and a new way of life. And people used to like rock stars not because of their music only, because they exemplified a life that everyone wanted to have. I don’t mean just being rich, just this counterculture life. Certainly, drugs had a lot to do with it. Drugs were there and part of it, everything that was anti-establishment. On the other side was a group of conservative, silent majority, repressive people in the country. And they did not like what this was. They didn’t like what was happening to the youth of America. And they made the mistake of dividing on the war in Vietnam. They had — they could have had a battle culturally, but instead, they said, “If you’re against the war in Vietnam, you’re a Commie, needs to be controlled, you’re out of control.” Because there were a lot of them that didn’t agree with the war in Vietnam, as we found out later on. So imagine performing in that atmosphere.

Paulson: I was struck by some of the guests you had on the “Music Scene.” It almost seemed like you were, you were taking the “Smothers Brothers” experience and saying, “Well, you can take them off the air, but watch this.” They’d run into trouble with Pete Seeger, and, and you have this extraordinary segment with Pete Seeger on the show, a song called “Bring Them Home.”

Steinberg: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: Were you the instigator of that kind of thing?

Steinberg: Of course, yeah. Of course, it was not even — it was a no-brainer. And, and then, when — later on, when we — of course, the guests flocked to our show, ’cause they didn’t have an outlet. Once the Smothers Brothers were gone, we were their next outlet. But I remember John Sebastian was on the show, and he sang whatever his Lovin’ Spoonful song was. And incidentally, it’s the last time I stopped listening to rock music. I want you to know, it doesn’t go any farther than that. And, and he would be on with Groucho Marx. And the reason that Groucho came on the show is because he identified with the anti-establishment version of it. ‘Cause the Marx Brothers were anarchists in their own way within their movies. They were considered crude, and they were censored. And so, he saw this, and he just couldn’t get over this.

Paulson: And the show went off the air in a matter of months.

Steinberg: Yes.

Paulson: And from there, did you go to stand-up?

Steinberg: Yeah, then I went back to stand-up. And then with the Nixon reelection campaign, Watergate started to happen, and I was on the road a lot. I had done two al — I was — I had done two albums. I was about to do my third, and this was happening. And my material was literally a way in which to translate my life through being funny.

Paulson: Mm-hmm.

Steinberg: And I just thought to myself, “What a great way to go through your life, to say that this is your job. This is my life. That was terrible. I’m going to,” you know, sort of regurgitate it as funny. You know, in my — to my way of thinking, life was better in the telling than in the living, but still, I could live in that telling of it. It was so wonderful. So this started to happen, and it was obvious what was going on. They were stonewalling, and Nixon was corrupt, and he was a crook, and I didn’t believe in the administration. I didn’t like any of them. And I started to talk to my audiences this way. And I would take the best version of that and go on the “Tonight Show” with it in my op-ed page manner. And this is where I was getting ahead of Carson. What you, again, to imagine what the feeling was at that time, we didn’t know that people were followed around by the FBI. You assumed, you, you assumed that, but you didn’t really know it, and you didn’t really believe it. You didn’t really know that J. Edgar Hoover was gay or weird or whatever he was supposed to be — I don’t even know — but you assumed it, because he was too anti-gay. He was too homophobic and all that. So you assume that he’s hiding something. But you didn’t know that. So, I would go on the “Tonight Show,” and as we got closer to Nixon’s reelection, Johnny would have me hosting the “Tonight Show.” And, and I remember one time, Charles Bronson was on. And I hosted the “Tonight Show,” and I did a monologue about Nixon selling his tapes right before the reelection. Half the audience responded, as usual, and half the audience did not. The half of the audience that did not were pissed. The half of the audience that did were elated. So the goal of a comedian is to never perform to half an audience. It’s to get ‘em all. It’s being ahead of the time and behind the time is the same for a comedian. You’ve got to hit it right on. So I did this thing, and it was not vicious about Nixon selling the tapes, just, you know, it was ahead of its moment. And Charles Bronson came in. He sat down, and he’s a very, sort of, you know, menacing person, you know, authoritative person in his own way. And he said, “You know, David, I, I disagree with everything that you’ve said.” I said, “I know. I knew that ’cause I’ve heard you, you know, be vocal about this. You like President Nixon, don’t you?” He said, “Yes, I think he’s doing a good thing. I think the kids are wrong. I think you’re wrong.” And I said, “You know, you’re so entitled to that.” We didn’t miss a beat and went into the next part of the interview. From then on in, Ken, this is an interesting thing, everywhere that I would perform — at that time, I would have an — I’d do concerts in the colleges. I’d work in a place where there were jazz musicians, ’cause I couldn’t perform in real establishment places. Everywhere that I went, I would get heckled, heckled by someone. Now, it’s a myth that comedians get heckled. That doesn’t happen. Drunks will try to help you, but they’re never really against you. They’re, they’re — they’ll disrupt you, but they’re usually for you. And for me, I was finding my own audience, this counterculture anti-establishment. They would come to see me. You wouldn’t walk into my show if you didn’t know what I did. So here was a guy saying, “You mockey. You Jew bastard,” from the audience, and so I was very light about it, and, you know, I’d be funny with him and all of that. And, and then I’d go to — that was in Florida, I remember, I saw it for the first time. Then I went to do another show in Philadelphia. And again, I would hear this — right about the same time, in the middle, where I was really getting deep into Nixon stuff — I had a thing about Nixon having a face that looked like a foot and, you know, remember all that stuff, but more than that. I don’t want to just put it in this sort of adolescent version of how bad he looked. But, I would be heckled, and naive as I was, I just didn’t think anything of it. When I had my first above-ground appearance, it was at The Plaza Hotel, and that was very unusual for someone like me playing an establishment place. New York Times had a big ad, and I’d never — mine was always Village Voice or — again, counterculture. So I remember, my sister came in from Los Angeles to be with me. And my ex-wife Judy and I were there backstage, and we were at — The Plaza gave you suites and all that. And I was about to go on, and there was a knock on the door. And they said, “It’s the FBI.” And I immediately said, “Flush the marijuana down the toilet. Whatever we’ve got.” “We don’t have any.” “OK, fine.” And I opened the door, and they came in, and they said, “There’s been an assassination threat on you tonight.” This is opening night. “And if you — and the note — the caller said, ‘If you do your Nixon material, then someone’s going to take a shot at you.’ So we’re going to be there, and we’re going to protect you, and — but we would advise you to not do the Nixon material.” So this has never happened to me. I was frightened. In the audience was, I remember, Neil Simon and Streisand. It was a big opening, and, and they had come to hear me do myself, and now I had to now curtail what it is that I was doing, because someone’s going to take a shot at me, and I thought, “I can’t do that. I cannot not do this version of myself, ’cause I’ve worked so hard to be this.” And my sister and my ex- or my wife are saying, “Don’t, don’t do this. Don’t do any of this stuff,” and all that. So I hadn’t decided what to do. I got in the elevator, and there was a Afro-American gentleman dressed very nattily. And he said he was from a magazine, a sort of well-known political magazine, and I can’t even remember what the name of it was, but there is — was no magazine that you could be from that I didn’t know about. And I didn’t know about this magazine. And how did he get back to this elevator when I had this security with the FBI? And he just wanted to know what I thought about the president and what my, you know, feelings were so he could write about it and all that and connecting with me in the sort of camaraderie type, you know. And I got it. I said, “This guy is taking notes.” And I said, “I — it’s not — I, I wouldn’t just say this about Nixon. I would say this about Johnson. I would say — this is not Democrat or Republican to me. My role is to go at whatever I think is funny, and that is my right, and that’s what I’m doing, but it isn’t just Nixon.” In a way, I just tried to help myself.

Paulson: Right.

Steinberg: I went on stage, and I did the sermons, got the suggestion. And you know, it’s a performing mode, and I found myself — instead of just doing the sermons by standing in front of the audience, I actually got up on a chair to just sort of — if someone was there, I was saying I wasn’t frightened. And my family still talks about this moment. And then I just went into the Nixon material. From then on, the FBI, two guys in particular, stayed with me. They knew who all of my friends were, and they followed me around for a period of about seven months.

Paulson: Really?

Steinberg: And then, when Tony Ulasewicz with the dirty tricks came on the air, and I saw these guys, and they looked familiar, I realized that it was part of the sort of dirty — Nixon’s dirty tricks thing, and I was just being investigated. And that —

Paulson: That’s quite a story.

Steinberg: Yeah, yeah.

Paulson: I’ve never heard that.

Steinberg: No, I’ve never really talked about it publicly because — the reason I never wanted to talk about it is, I wanted to continue my career. I wasn’t interested in the fact that they were doing that. I was interested in moving forward. So I never — now it’s so far away that I don’t mind bringing it up.

Paulson: Having never made the enemies list myself, is there a list, and do you have a number? Like, are you in the top 10? Is there a ranking?

Steinberg: Twenty, I’m sorry to say.

Paulson: With a bullet?

Steinberg: I’m in the top 20, yeah. My cousin who’s a lawyer found out for me, so yeah.

Paulson: And so, with Nixon’s departure from the White House, there went a lot of material.

Steinberg: First of all, he bumped me off the cover of Newsweek on my birthday. He resigned on my birthday.

Paulson: You think he planned it what way?

Steinberg: Yes, yes, he had to be obsessed with me.

Paulson: So you knew you were on the front?

Steinberg: Yeah, they had already sent me the cover. I had already given the cover — it was a cover with Richie Pryor and Lily Tomlin and myself, the three of us in these sort of masks of the theater, you know, happy, sad, whatever. And I, I sent it to my mother, and she said, “Dear, well, maybe they just weren’t going to put you on the cover. They just wanted to test this out to see if it was working or something.” I said, “No, he resigned and bumped me off for the cover.” So that was it, and in truth, for me, stand-up comedy was never as exciting as it was after that. And then what started to happen in the country is, “Saturday Night Live” happened. You know, “Saturday Night Live,” of course, went after Gerald Ford. And that was clutzier. It had broken open.

Paulson: Right.

Steinberg: It had broken open. There was no longer that tension that you worked an audience with and all that. It was easier, and I enjoyed it from — in a commercial way, but it wasn’t as much fun dealing with what was going on then. In fact, my last album was an Arab takeover of America, that I did with Don Novello. And we got it all wrong. It was called Good-bye to the ’70s, and we thought that the Arabs would have taken over by the end of it, and, but that’s — I was looking for some political weight. I never, never found it again, but I still stayed on the “Tonight Show.”

Paulson: Instead, you found an amazing second career.

Steinberg: I did.

Paulson: You have been a television director, and it’s Hall of Fame. I mean, you’ve, you’ve directed “Seinfeld,” “Newhart,” the “Golden Girls,” “Evening Shade,” “Mad About You.” You were the executive director of “Designing Women.” This is the cream of American television for two decades.

Steinberg: Amazing.

Paulson: How did you get there?

Steinberg: I did so many lousy shows, Ken, that are not on.

Paulson: I see.

Steinberg: That you can’t find. I’ve buried them. I did a lot, I did a lot of shows, but you get a little bit lucky, but if you can get on a good roll, the good people start to find you. And I was — I became a director who could get into the writing, in a way. I had a great advantage as a comedy director, and that was, I was a comedian. When a comic person has a director who they don’t know, and that director says the most brilliant thing they’ve ever heard, it’s hard for them to accept it. If a comedian says it, it’s a jazz musician. You’re talking language. So I think I was just very fortunate that, that I had my comedy career, and I still — so long as Johnny was there through the ’80s, as I was developing my directing career, I was still on the “Tonight Show” right until the last week. So I still had that good feeling of having an opinion and being able to lay it somewhere. But the writers were — all the writers were almost ex-protégés of mine. They were all comedians on the way up like Jerry or Paul Reiser. And I — we, you know, I, I helped Paul on one show that eventually became “Mad About You,” and, and these guys just rewarded me with their incredible gifts, which were their shows.

Paulson: And you had seen, first-hand, how senators, censors and standards and practices reacted to the shows of the ’60s. Was any of that still around as you became a director?

Steinberg: The censorship, yes. There was a version of it. Standards and practices sort of disappeared, because that was — you always had to check with standards and practices. And these were good guys. We knew each other well, and we would negotiate. I’ll do this for that, you know. And they were still around. But, yeah, they still would come in and say, “That’s too much. And this — you have gone too far.” Even on “Mad About You,” they’d say, “That’s too far.” “Uh, you’re dealing with infertility. What — how far can you go?” So they, they would try to be the determining factor. And the — and, and my question was always the same: “Why is your opinion more conscientious than mine?” ‘Cause we have a taste factor as well. And comedy writers work on their comedy like it’s a piece of Talmud. You can’t imagine how much work goes into these shows. So why, then, does a censor representing the network say, “Oh, no, don’t do that; that goes too far”? And why does everyone take it?

Paulson: Right.

Steinberg: And it, it sort of broke down, but the difference — the reason that shows on HBO are so much better than shows on the network is that the creator and the artist is free to be a version of themself that you’re not on network television even to this day.

Paulson: Have you learned things about comedy behind the camera that you didn’t get when you were in front of it?

Steinberg: Oh, oh, it’s like — one has nothing to do with the other is what the shocking thing is. Later on, you sort of can combine the two of them, but it’s — directing when you haven’t directed, and I, I learned — I tried to learn everything when I was performing. I was just a student of it. It’s like trying to describe swimming to someone who’s never been in water. You say, “Oh, well, you’re going to go in there, and the water’s going to get in your eyes, and you’re going to have to hold your nose.” You could do all that. But until you jump in, you don’t really know what it is. And then when you jump in, you realize, “I gotta do this to survive, that to survive.” Then you could combine what you know from before, from your other athletic ability, and you put it together, and it helps. But I certainly know, one thing I feel I know is comedy is about the only thing I feel like, you know, I know the rules. I know when to break the rules. I know — I’ve failed more than anybody. Really, when you have a long career, you’ve just failed more than everybody else. And that failure is the thing that moves you forward. That’s really the truth.

Paulson: You’ve got a great story to tell. Is there a book in the future?

Steinberg: Book right now I’m working on. I’m not sure if it’s going to be “The Ego Has Landed” or “David Steinberg Disguised as a Normal Person.” But it will be one of those. I’ve been working on it. It’s very, sort of, fresh in my mind. You helped rekindle it in some ways.

Paulson: It’s a — it’s been a great conversation. I have to ask you, you had a terrific album in — I think it was about 1974, Booga! Booga! It’s hard to even say the name of that without your inflection. You know, it’s — just doesn’t sound right.

Steinberg: Yeah.

Paulson: Exclamation mark, exclamation mark. But you do a bit on there about being 33, and you predict where you will be, oh, about 30 years from there, and you basically say you’re looking at massive reconstruction.

Steinberg: I’m sure that’s true.

Paulson: If you were to do the same routine today, has your perspective changed? About life, about comedy?

Steinberg: Oh, yes. It, it — yes, it’s changed about everything. My, my life is as important as my comedy right now. And I think, at that time, all that mattered to me was being a performer and being funny. Now I have two daughters, two teenage daughters, and if that isn’t a journey, then — for humor and, and everything — I don’t know what is. But, yes, my feeling is to — I’m easier about everything. I’m more interested in what — I’m very comfortable being catalytic to someone’s humor without it needing to be forced through me, which is very good for a director.

Paulson: Well, thank you for sharing some extraordinary stories today. It’s been great to have you here.

Steinberg: Thanks, Ken.

Paulson: Thank you.