David Steinberg is happy to let his friends bring the funny.
Once a stand-up comic himself, Steinberg became one of the most prolific directors of television comedies including “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Designing Women” and “Mad About You.” He explores the nature of humor by talking with pals who are among the form’s top stars — from Martin Short, Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal to Ellen DeGeneres, Larry David and insult czar Don Rickles — on the Showtime series “Inside Comedy,” premiering Thursday, Jan. 26.
“We were going to do a movie, a documentary film,” Steinberg explains to Zap2it, “then everyone we asked to be in it said, ‘Yes.’ Everyone. Steve Carell (an executive producer, with Steinberg, of the project) said, ‘If we do this as a film, Mel Brooks will get only four minutes. Chris Rock will only have three minutes.’ And each interview was something like 40 minutes long, sometimes even longer.
“We then set about to sell a bird that had never flown before, an episodic documentary about comedy. And luckily, we did, but we only use half of what we got in these 10 shows. This became about how to put people together, and it took almost a year to edit. That was the tricky part.”
That’s why one “Inside Comedy” edition merges Steinberg’s separate chats with Seinfeld and Rickles. “I interviewed Rickles in L.A., then it was at least five months later that we were in New York and I interviewed Seinfeld in the Hamptons. He didn’t know who else we had interviewed, and he said, ‘I know you have a plan. But before you say anything, Chris Rock and I saw Rickles … ‘”
“And he just went off and started to talk about Rickles, and that motivated me to put them together in the same show.” It also prompted Steinberg to license clips of performances both comedians gave at the White House, Seinfeld for President Barack Obama during a tribute to Sir Paul McCartney, and Rickles for President Ronald Reagan.
“I led Don toward talking about the Reagan White House,” Steinberg notes, “not knowing if I would ever get it. And that wasn’t even where I intended to go with Jerry. I was leading him to talk about his first ‘Tonight Show’ appearance, and instead, he veered off and said, ‘Well, something that was as big as that was this White House appearance I did.’ And when we got that, we knew it was more than just an incredible coincidence.”
The Winnipeg-born Steinberg’s TV history dates back to one of the only 45-minute-long primetime series a network ever has tried — “The Music Scene,” which ABC aired in 1969-70. “We were mystified ourselves, actually,” he recalls of the show’s length. “The other 45-minute show was about a planeload of people stranded on an island.” No, it wasn’t “Lost”; it was titled ‘The New People.“
“I was so young at that time,” Steinberg muses. “There were a bunch of us from groups like Second City and The Committee, and they drew the comedy side [of ‘The Music Scene’] from that. Then they saw it wasn’t working, so they got rid of everyone … except for me and Lily Tomlin.
“Then she got the offer for ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,’ so she left, and I ended up being the host. And I knew they were never going to pick it up again.”