Born: August 9, 1942
Blue Meter: Tame
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All video pulled from YouTube.
|1975||Goodbye to the Seventies|
|1974||Booga Booga||Buy: Amazon|
|1971||Disguised As a Normal Person||Buy: Amazon | iTunes|
|1970||The Incredible Shrinking God||Buy: Amazon | iTunes|
Specials (and other video)
|2005||Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg||Buy: Amazon|
|1977||The 2nd Annual Young Comedians Special|
|1976||The David Steinberg Show||Buy: Amazon|
Books (by and about)
|2007||The Book of David||Buy: Amazon|
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Basically a quiet, cerebral performer with a slow, methodical cadence, David Steinberg’s conversational style was always brightened by a Groucho Marx-inspired penchant for iconoclasm and whimsy. He combined both traits in his famous mock-sermons, the carefully enunciated lectures on Biblical figures that always contained Marxian asides.
After telling the stories of Jezebel and Lot, he paused to add, “I can’t do Onan tonight—I suggest you go home tonight and do it yourself.” In his re-telling of Moses and the burning bush, God urges Moses to take off his shoes and approach. Moses burns his feet and God gleefully shouts “Aha! Third one today!”
At a time when religious comedy was strictly taboo, The Smothers Brothers invited Steinberg to appear on their show. The second time was enough for CBS. They shut the show down. Steinberg’s monologue was the last straw in the network’s ongoing battle with the brothers. David had offered the story of Jonah on April 6, 1969. It ended like this:
“...And the gentiles, as is their wont from time to time, threw the Jew overboard. The Old Testament scholars say that Jonah was in fact swallowed by a whale. The Gentiles (the New Testament scholars), said, ‘Hold it, Jews. No.’ They literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament. They said “Jonah could not have been swallowed by a whale…because whales have tiny gullets and cannot swallow whole prophets.” Therefore they offered their own theory. That Jonah was in fact swallowed by a gigantic guppy…”
Though harmless and silly by today’s standards, as performed with grand seriousness by David Steinberg, it was deemed subversive and dangerous. So was Steinberg, a mild mannered fellow from Winnipeg whose father, a rabbi, now made his living as a grocer.
Steinberg studied theology in Israel then enrolled at the University of Chicago, earning a Masters in English literature. His show business career took off after joining The Second City in 1964. He was part of “The Mad Show” off-Broadway and then, branching out into straight acting, appeared in several Broadway productions. When his friends suggested he try stand-up, he was surprised: “I felt this was very insulting! I’m an actor, I had a pompous image of myself.”
In the summer of 1968 at The Bitter End he developed his sermons, and resurrected from his Second City days a Groucho Marxian routine where he played a madcap psychiatrist stalking members of the audience and shouting “Booga Booga” (a cry not far removed from Groucho’s “boogie” jeer at a singer in “Night at the Opera”). As Steinberg recalled, “it did not work. The audience didn’t like me…they didn’t get me.” At least the waitresses did, which helped the young comic’s spirits: “If a waitress will sleep with you when you’re dying on stage…that’s some acceptance.” A reviewer from the New York Times dropped by, gave him a glowing review, and then, suddenly, there were lines around the block and audiences were now laughing uproariously at material that hadn’t gotten a chuckle before.
In the 60’s, a time that saw a mild resurgence of interest in intellectual comedians, including Woody Allen and Dick Cavett, David Steinberg became a regular on talk shows and in clubs. Like Allen and Cavett, Steinberg was a quiet monologist, short but intense, able to keep a crowd quiet and listening. His most distinctive trademark aside from his slight build and mop of black hair, was the discernable scar on the left side of his chin. He got it when he was four years old, after stumbling onto a ginger ale bottle. He turned the incident into an anecdote—one that typically involved his Jewish upbringing, and the notion that if his father hadn’t kept driving and looking for a particular hospital, the cut would have been tended to earlier and more efficiently.
Like Woody Allen, Steinberg sometimes obsessed on being Jewish. The result was occasionally a pointless, if not anti-Semitic generalization: “Jews could go to the Nautilus from today till a year from now. When they take off their shirts—the breasts sag.” Other times he was bristling with satire, as in his description of the Orthodox rabbi concerned that his bride was “a Jewess.” Said Steinberg, “Yes—and I am the Jewee!”
Most of his act was secular. Some lines echoed Woody Allen, like his ultimate goal “to sexually satisfy the entire King Family right before their big Thanksgiving Special.” He offered observations more than jokes: “The reason I feel guilty about masturbation is I’m so bad at it.” Like Fred Allen, he enjoyed creating images: “President Nixon has a face that looks like a foot.” He savored words and drew his audience into each word thanks to his measured cadence and the confidence to speak slowly and calmly without worrying about the amount of laughter.
One of his classic routines described, in grandly slow phrasing and multi-syllables, a sexual encounter with an airheaded girl named Judy Disney: “Imagine. You have attained undreamed of horizons of virtuosity. You have devised and executed maneuevers that would mystify even Masters and Johnson. You have become to sex what Julia Child is to a chicken. And as you’re lying there in the afterglow of a moment that poets devote their whole lifetimes to describe, she turns to you and says, “Hey. That was cute.”
Steinberg remained a popular talk show raconteur into the 80’s and occasionally starred in a cable TV concert special, but over the years was far busier behind the scenes directing TV commercials and several films, including “Paternity” and “Going Berserk.”