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The serious side of making people laugh

Larry David, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Don Rickles are among those discussing the business of being funny for David Steinberg's 'Inside Comedy' series.

January 26, 2012|By Martin Miller, Los Angeles Times
  • David Steinberg, left, and Larry David, talk comedy on "Inside Comedy."
David Steinberg, left, and Larry David, talk comedy on "Inside Comedy." (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Young comedy writers often ask Larry David for advice on how to make it in Hollywood. Here's what he tells them — don't have a family, don't get married, don't have any responsibilities.

When people rely on you — at least financially — your negotiating strength is diminished or completely eliminated, David said recently during a conversation about all things comedy with David Steinberg. The pair, friends since their early days as stand-ups in New York City, were together in David's comfortable Santa Monica office to promote Steinberg's 10-part Showtime series, "Inside Comedy," which begins Thursday.

The "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star is one of an all-star team of comedians Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Ellen DeGeneres, Don Rickles and Mel Brooks, among others — that sit down with Steinberg to talk about their influences, their early days in the business and their journey in comedy. The interviews underscore the extraordinary cultural rise of comedy, especially stand-up, from small clubs in New York's Greenwich Village to dominating prime-time television and movies.

One insight into the entertainment business revealed during David's segment is, as Steinberg put it, the power of no — something much easier to exercise if you're solitary. It is a word David availed himself of at what turned out to be critical moments in his career. When NBC executives pressed for changes in the early days of "Seinfeld," to make it more palatable to a broadcast audience, David refused.

"It's easy for me to have said no," said David. "I didn't have a family or anything. I had a little apartment I could have gone back to and I didn't mind it. I had nothing to lose.

"But if you've got a family and kids and school and all that," the 64-year-old Brooklyn native continued, "you have to be like, 'Yeah, what do you want me to do?' You have to say yes. There's nothing else you can do."

Originally, the project was envisioned as a movie, said Steinberg, an executive producer of the series along with comedian Steve Carell. But after some initial interviews, they quickly realized they had way too much material for a film.

"The half-hour I did with Larry would have been four minutes in a movie," said Steinberg, who spent a year editing the project. "I didn't want to lose the value of those interviews."

In the series, David and Rock have stand-alone episodes, while the other comedians are combined into single episodes in groups of two or three. The premiere pairs Seinfeld and Rickles, bouncing back and forth between Seinfeld's worries about what success does to a comedian's instincts and Rickles' road to becoming an insult king. Archival footage of performances is woven throughout the episodes.

The series shines a light on the formative experiences of the developing comic mind — an up-and-coming Billy Crystal is crestfallen after telling Orson Welles that he was a fan, only to have the legendary actor dismiss him with an expletive; Frank Sinatra seemed never to remember the name of his warm-up act, Brad Garrett, usually calling him "Greg Barrett"; and David bragged as a kid that it was his whistling that opened "The Andy Griffith Show."

"That was a great lie," said Steinberg. "Who would challenge you?"

"Yes, when I lie today my lies have an unusual quality that you have to believe," said David. "They have a quality that's like 'Why would he think of that?' So, I'm a step ahead of people on my lying."

Steinberg is well acquainted with David's behavioral quirks — the two met on the set of "Fridays," an early '80s comedy sketch show patterned after "Saturday Night Live." But Steinberg was already someone David knew and admired.

"Whenever he was hosting 'The Tonight Show,' I would always watch it," said David. "He was really this bright, sharp, funny guy who wasn't doing jokes for the sake of jokes. He was just talking and being funny."

"Yeah, I was hard to book because of my act at that time," added Steinberg, whose long list of directing credits for television includes "Curb Your Enthusiasm." "I ended up opening for jazz groups."

Steinberg points to his interview with Rock, where he talks about the importance of finding a place to fail — for him, in a small club in Florida. Comedians cannot go from the page to the big stage and expect to do well.

"The audience will tell you where it's working and where it's not," said Steinberg. "It's the same as when you start out as when you're famous."

"The one thing about stand-up is that when you're looking at that comedian, he's got the microphone and the audience, it's a cool thing to do," added David. "When it's really working, there is no better feeling."

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, stand-up comedians, with few exceptions, were considered a lower form of entertainment life, they said. It was not something to aspire to, and it didn't pay much.

"Today, comedy has become corporate and a huge business," said Steinberg, 69, a native of Canada. "But back then, if you were dating someone and they brought you home and said, 'Oh yeah, he's a comedian,' the mother wouldn't have been happy about that."

"There's another reason for the mother not to be so happy," added David. "We weren't the handsomest lot in the world either."

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