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Interview'The only comedian to have made Elie Wiesel laugh'

Jewish comedic legend looks back on 50 years of laughs in new memoir

Rabbinical student-turned-comedian David Steinberg has penned a new book detailing his unforgettable anecdotes with the funniest and most famous comics of the past five decades

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

David Steinberg arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on February 9, 2020, in Beverly Hills, California. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
David Steinberg arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on February 9, 2020, in Beverly Hills, California. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Have you heard the one about Moses and the burning bush?

“Moses takes off his shoes, approaches the burning bush and burns his feet. Moses swore; we’re not sure what he said, but there are many Old Testament scholars who believe to this day that it was the first mention of Christ in the Bible.”

So went one of the best known — and most controversial — riffs from David Steinberg, now 78, one of the most famous comedians in North America in the 1960s and ’70s.

Steinberg, a former rabbinical student whose early standup routines were based on satirical Bible sermons (“I had the only little black book in Hollywood that was written in Aramaic,” he writes), went on to a varied and prolific career spanning more than 50 years. From comedy to acting, hosting, writing and directing, Steinberg has reached millions of people around the world and worked with some of the funniest and most famous figures in comedy.

Now he has committed a lifetime of anecdotes, stories and insights to the page in a new book, “Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades,” which hits shelves this week.

From Sid Caesar to Chris Rock, and from Milton Berle to Larry David, Steinberg has worked with almost every well-known comedian in North America, starting from his time at The Second City Theater in Chicago in the 1960s all the way through to his stint hosting and directing the Showtime series “Inside Comedy,” which ended its run in 2015.

David Steinberg in Israel in 1958 while on a scholarship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

Born in Winnipeg, Canada, to Russian immigrants — his father was a rabbi — Steinberg studied in rabbinical school for several years before enrolling at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and later pursuing a masters at the University of Chicago. During his time in the Windy City, Steinberg was sucked into the world of comedy and the rest, as they say, is history.

While his latest book places the focus on the dozens of comedians he met and worked with over the years — from Richard Pryor to Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Betty White and many, many more — Steinberg has plenty of bragging rights of his own.

He was a guest or guest host on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” a whopping 140 times, claims to have been the first person to introduce Barbara Streisand to the story of “Yentl,” recounts the time he accidentally gave Bill Clinton presidential debate advice and says he “may be the only comedian to have made Elie Wiesel laugh.”

After decades of standup — and groundbreaking comedy routines lambasting presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, long before comedy goldmine Donald Trump ever took office — Steinberg kicked off a new career as a sitcom director. He picked up nominations and awards for his directing stints on “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Golden Girls,” “Designing Women,” “Mad About You” and many more.

Most recently, he sat down with some of the biggest names in comedy — including Don Rickles, Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres and Tiny Fey — to chat about their lives and careers on his interview show “Inside Comedy.” Excerpts from the show are woven together with Steinberg’s own personal experiences to form the core of his latest book.

Steinberg answered some of The Times of Israel’s questions about his career and his latest book via email. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Martin Short, Larry David and David Steinberg (left to right) at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in February 2016. (Robyn Todd)

Times of Israel: Why this book, now? How long have you been working on it?

David Steinberg: I’ve been working on this book for a few years. I’ve been through so much and have so many great memories that I wanted to share.

Were there any anecdotes you needed to excise from the book because your friends and colleagues didn’t want them told?

No. There was nothing to cut. These are all friends of mine. I’m talking about their comedy and lives and what many of them mean to me.

Your latest book is chock full of the funniest Jews in showbiz. Why do you think Jews have such an affinity for comedy, or comedy has such an affinity for Jews?

Jews have always found a way to find humor in everything. They’ve had to.

Do you think your tongue-in-cheek sermons and riffs on Bible figures would still work in standup today?

It would still work today, of course. But I don’t think it would be as controversial. But who knows? It’s very rare anything holds up because today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s cliche. But religious sermons will always have a certain audience.

It’s very rare anything holds up because today’s cutting edge is tomorrow’s cliche

Comedy as we knew it in the past is undergoing some major construction. I just hope it’s funny. Because one thing history has taught us is there will always be a need for laughter. The world will see to that.

David Steinberg and Robin Williams aboard a private plane in 2014 during their joint comedy tour. (Robyn Todd)

As someone who was well known for your anti-Nixon comedy, how was it to watch Trump arrive at the White House? And what do you think of how today’s late night hosts handled it?

Controversy is always good for comedy. I only wish that Jon Stewart was doing “The Daily Show” during the Trump years. Actually, I wish he never stopped.

When you started out decades ago, comedians were still being censored and even arrested for edgy material. Today we hear about cancel culture and wokeness — do you think we’ve made progress or are we moving backwards?

Probably a bit of both. Jack Parr got thrown off the air for saying water closet. And I was followed around by the FBI for talking against Nixon. And my sermons contributed to getting the “Smothers Comedy Hour” thrown off the air. So yes we’re making progress. But now between cell phones and “cancel culture” comedians can’t experiment the way they did and the pendulum may be swinging back in time. Today they call it “cancel culture” — in the old days it was good old fashioned censorship. It’s a complicated time for comedy — and the world for that matter.

Today they call it ‘cancel culture’ — in the old days it was good old fashioned censorship

Do you continue to watch new, young stand-up comics today? Do you have any favorites?

There are so many that I enjoy. Hasan Minhaj, Marina Franklin, Bo Burnham, Mike Birbiglia. There are so many more that I could name but there would be no room.

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