White-haired whiz kid David Steinberg directed Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, substitute-hosted The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson golden age and documented his stand-up routine in two Grammy-nominated albums after finding his comedic footing as an early member of Chicago’s fabled Second City improv troupe.
Steinberg puts all that expertise to work in his current gig as host of Inside Comedy. In season 2 of the Showtime series (Mondays at 11 p.m. starting Feb. 11), Steinberg talks shop with guests including Louis C.K., Judd Apatow, Tina Fey, Ben Stiller, Steve Martin, Bob Newhart and Will Ferrell.
One recurring motif: Comedy is hard. Steinberg and his professionally warped colleagues share nine rules for how to succeed in the funny business, and life, by really really really trying.
"There is no way to get better in stand up comedy than by failing," says Steinberg. "Even if you’re as successful as you can be, like Jerry Seinfeld, when you try that new piece of material, you will fail again. You have to take risks."
For Instance: When he’s testing new material, Louie C.K. says he expects "about 30 seconds" of good will from an audience before the jokes are forced to live, or die, on their own merits.
"The odd thing about comedy is that the more personal you are, the larger the audience," Steinberg says. "It’s the opposite of the television formula which is to get as wide an audience by being as general as you possible can."
For Instance: Keenen Ivory Wayans heeded the advice of a comedy club manager to be "more specific." When he quit doing generic pop culture jokes and started telling stories about a tough dad and school bullies, Wayans’ career took off.
"Once you succeed at something it’s hard to keep it fresh and exciting so you have to keep challenging yourself," says Steinberg, whose own evolution from stand-up comedian to TV director illustrates the point. "You have to be a moving target or it won’t work."
For Instance: A star at Second City, Tiny Fey failed to get a performing slot at Saturday Night Live, so she switched focus and launched her TV career as an SNL writer. Steinberg says, "I asked Tina how she sees herself now and it’s mostly as a writer, but she’ll probably end up directing."
"Know where you came from, thats the rule," says Steinberg who notes that a few names—Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, Steve Martin—keep popping as key influences. "Buy a Lenny Bruce record, watch Richie Pryor, take a look at Bill Cosby in concert and see how he uses the space and creates his brothers just by making the sound of a door slamming. Don’t steal any of it, but study how they did it."
Steinberg adds, "In comedy, looking back is more important than looking around at your contemporaries because they are too much influenced by the same time period as you are. In some ways that creates boundaries rather than opening up fields for your own originality."
For Instance: Judd Apatow deepened his comedic sensibility by absorbing mentor Larry Shandling’s mantra that The Larry Sanders Show was about "people who love each other but show business gets in the way." Keenen Wayans instructed his younger brothers to watch movies by Mel Brooks.
Steinberg says, "There’s no question, no matter what anyone says, the goal is, 'Please like me.' But your need to be liked has to be suppressed when you’re on stage. You can’t try to be the kitten that the audience wants to pat. You have to make the audience come to you and do it on your own terms. At the same time, I know it sounds a little contradictory, you have to find out what they want to hear and connect with them."
For Instance: Though he will talk to fans, Louis C.K. refuses to let strangers take his picture and if they don’t like it, too bad. C.K. also distrusts adulation when testing new material. "I don’t like to ride the crest of applause." He prefers hearing someone say "I don’t like that guy but that shit is funny."
Silence from an audience instructs comedians when they’re bombing, but quietude can also function as a potent storytelling tool, Steinberg says. "Silences are the most underrated part of comedy," Steinberg says. "It’s about how long is the pause? It’s about the spaces in between."
For Instance: Bob Newhart built the timing for his entire act around imaginary conversations filled with silent gaps.
"I used to say 'If you’ve had a good childhood, a happy marriage and a little bit of money in the bank, you’re going to make a lousy comedian,'" says Steinberg. "The one thing an audience always has in common with a comedian is troubles. The Yiddish word for that is tsuris You’re always putting your tsuris on stage whether you like it or not. No one is untroubled, unless they’re just, you know, an imbecile."
For Instance: Six months before he died in a car accident, the late Robert Schimmel was interviewed by Steinberg for Inside Comedy. "Robert talked about his cancer and how he’s taken this tragic life that he was living even then, and turned it into comedy material," Steinberg recalls. "He was very articulate in describing how that liberates people from being depressed."
"Improv teaches you to listen and not jump ahead and write the scene before responding to it naturally," Steinberg says.
For Instance: Steinberg observes, "The best Second City people could hear what you were saying and still keep a theme going and all of that. Tina Fey falls into that category."
Citing improvisational comedy troupes that have spawned several truck loads of comedy stars, Steinberg observes, "The most important thing to get from Second City and then the Groundlings, and now Upright Citizens Brigade is that you work from the top of your intelligence. Get your laughs from being smart, not by being dumb. And if you’re playing a really dumb character, then do it as smartly as you can."
For Instance: Steve Martin plays dumb brilliantly. Steinberg says, "Steve sees the guy he plays as a happy idiot who gets angry at the slightest thing. The way he does that is totally original and unique."
[Images Courtesy of Showtime]