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The World According to Steinberg : Comedy: Johnny Carson's retirement temporarily put an end to his novel reflections, but he returns to performing live at the Moonlight Tango cafe, beginning Tuesday.

August 08, 1994|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OD'd on O.J.?

Are we terminally frazzled by electronic overload?

Will Yiddish ever become Canada's official language?

Actually, any hope for the last ended with the death of Yasha Steinberg, a Romanian rabbi who emigrated to Winnipeg, Canada, where he and his wife, Ruth, begat three children, Fishy, Tammy and David.

Of the three, David, who went to Chicago at age 15 as a yeshiva student, proved the most troublesome--so much so that when he left home again to visit Israel at 18, Yasha said, "I kiss the train that take you away." And when David returned to Chicago one more time in the early '60s, it was to join up with the Second City troupe, where he later begat the phrase that swept the nation, "Boogah, boogah."

Over the years, in theater and movies, television shows and commercials, Steinberg the Younger has demonstrated one of our more agile comedic minds, and in his appearances on "The Tonight Show," he has been one of our most engaging raconteurs.

The retirement of Johnny Carson temporarily put an end to Steinberg's novel reflections (his first album was called "David Steinberg Disguised as a Normal Person"). Now he's back extemporizing live in a series of stand-up performances at the Moonlight Tango cafe, beginning Tuesday, where indeed he'll discuss O.J. Simpson, the media, and other matters pressing on our mental state.

"Carson and I were an interesting tennis match," Steinberg recalls. "We clicked from the start. Carson appreciated word-play and the use of imagery in stories. He made it so that I could come on any time I wanted, but I'd limit my appearances to eight or 10 a year. The show was the one constant in my professional life. When Johnny retired, I realized I'd lost an outlet for how I think comedically, not as a director or actor. I'd lost my Op-Ed page."

At 52, Steinberg has retained most of his whippet-like youthfulness (a rigorous basketball game Saturday mornings at his outdoor court helps keep him fit). He looks the ideal dinner party host: brilliant smile, neat frame, a buoyancy of demeanor that could float over the heaviest swells of emotional turmoil. But there's something in the corner of the eye that suggests the born prankster's anarchic glee.

If Steinberg seems a bit of a Zelig-like figure, someone whose image carries a pleasurable chime of recognition, but not quite in any specific connection, it's because his career has taken radically different turns. And it has been 10 years, "The Tonight Show" notwithstanding, since he felt any need to be in front of a camera or an audience. "That's how it's broken down," he says. "Acting for 10 years, stand-up for 10 years, then directing."

After his tenure with Second City, his acting career began with a replacement role in Off Broadway's "The Mad Show," then Jules Feiffer's "Little Murders" on Broadway, followed by "Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights," where he was directed by Sidney Poitier.

But, he says, "I never got much pleasure from acting, which I find inhibiting, especially after being at Second City, where you worked out anything that came to mind. I've never been career-oriented. I've never had a goal, except just to do what you do, express yourself. When you talk to Bill Murray or Martin Short, I think they feel the same way."

Steinberg's stand-up career, which evolved out of a series of biblical sermons, was at first problematic. "It was terrifying," Steinberg recalls. "There's nothing more awful than an audience disliking a comic. It's not a song, it's not a part, it's you ! 'Go away,' they're saying. 'It's not working.' But the rule of thumb in club life is, if a waitress will sleep with you, you'll stay a month."

Apparently Steinberg found someone sympathetic among the help at New York's Bitter End, where he hung on until New York Times reviewer Dan Sullivan (who later worked as Los Angeles Times drama critic) showed up one night and proclaimed Steinberg "the most original comedian in years."

"The next day the line was around the block," Steinberg says. "I had no idea of the power of a single review. That one literally made my career."

*

Steinberg's introduction to movies came nearly a decade later, when Susan Sarandon advised him to join the cast of "Something Short of Paradise" to learn about movie-making. Critic Leonard Maltin cites Steinberg's role in it as "obnoxious."

By this time Steinberg had already amassed considerable TV experience, as a writer-performer on "The Smothers Brothers Show" (his "sermons" were among the reasons the show was knocked off the air), and host of "The David Steinberg Show" in Canada, which introduced Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, Andrea Martin and John Candy, who made up the unforgettable "SCTV" troupe. He directed Candy, Flaherty and Eugene Levy in the cult movie favorite, "Going Berserk."

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