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'Inside Comedy': David Steinberg on comedy, inside and out

The Sunday Conversation

The comedian reflects on what he's learned in his Showtime interview series 'Inside Comedy' and more.

February 09, 2013|By Irene Lacher
  • Comedic writer-director David Steinberg in his Los Angeles-area home.
Comedic writer-director David Steinberg in his Los Angeles-area home. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Veteran comedian David Steinberg, who has directed such hit TV comedies as "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld," returns to Showtime on Monday evening for the second season of his interview series, "Inside Comedy." This season he turns his lens on Louis C.K., Tina Fey, Bob Newhart, Jim Carrey and more.

Do you think comedy can be dissected?

I don't really dissect comedy. Nothing kills off humor more than overanalyzing it. On our show, it's just a conversation that I don't prepare for at all. Usually I know everyone because I've been around a lot, but the idea is to get their feeling about what it is that they're doing, the start, the middle and where they are now. What you get is very, very funny people who aren't switched on as they usually are on a talk show in front of an audience, so you can see how naturally funny they are.

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I thought it was interesting when Jim Carrey told you he thought that comics come from mothers with some form of mental illness. Is it a cliché that comedians really are dark souls or is there truth to that?

I haven't really found that. When I talk to Steve Martin, he's joyful when he talks about comedy. The same with [Jerry] Seinfeld talking about how, if there is any white light of comedy coming from anyone, it's Don Rickles. However, on the Jim Carrey show, where he mentioned that, I had a similar situation, so that was an odd little connection.

Where do you think that cliché came from?

It comes from how difficult it is to do comedy and stand-up comedy. The only way you get good at stand-up comedy is by standing in front of an audience and failing. You can write something and think it's brilliant and you go in front of an audience and they say no, that part isn't even funny. But this little thing on the side is. Then you have to work on this little thing on the side and it takes weeks, sometimes a month to get it right.

In last year's show, I asked Chris Rock, "How do you prepare for Madison Square Garden?" Even now at the top of his game, he goes to a place in Florida, he plays to whoever comes into the audience — old Jews, anybody — and he stays there for a month like, he said, Muhammad Ali in a workout camp before a fight. And for that month every night, if he can get that audience to laugh at what he's doing, which takes a while, then he can take it to Madison Square Garden or anywhere and it's always going to work. It's not that it's dark, it's that it's hard to do.

So what compels people to do it?

What compels people to do it is, in most instances, you can't really do anything else for a living. You have to be funny. You have to be born with a point of view. Usually it comes from being funny in your childhood. I used to have a rule that if you had a great childhood, a happy marriage and money in the bank, you'll make a lousy comedian. But I've learned from this show that that's not true.

What else have you learned about comedy from the show that you didn't already know?

The connection between comedians — at least the comedians on this level — is not an environment of jealousy or envy or any of that. It's almost like jazz musicians who appreciate what they all do. And that was a big surprise to me, the interconnectedness of all these comedians. The influences are all similar — Bill Cosby, Rodney Dangerfield, Carol Burnett. But what's interesting to me is that when all of us started out, comedy wasn't corporate. You didn't become a comedian to make money. You did it because it was the only way you could express yourself. Now it's gone corporate, so you can't throw a rock somewhere where someone's dad isn't going to offer me their son and say, 'Can they apprentice with you on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm?'" At least in this town.

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Do you think the corporatization of comedy has inhibited comedians or enabled them because it is, as we used to say, a 500-channel universe and you don't have to entertain everybody anymore?

Yes, the fact that you don't have to get as big an audience and it's more fragmented is healthy. You have cable now, where you don't have as big an outlet. You don't have to do 22 shows of anything, which is hard to sustain in comedy. It's all about the writing for a television comedy, and that takes forever. On "Curb Your Enthusiasm," it takes almost a year to get 10 shows written. It always reminds me of my old yeshiva days, where you used to sit over a piece of Talmud and analyze everything that was going on.

Comedy is still mostly shut out of the Oscars, isn't it?

Yes. It's amazing to me how people just assume that when they see something that's funny — oh, they're just funny people, and it's not worked on like acting. It is more elusive, in fact, than just acting.

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