A comic of biblical proportions

A comic of biblical proportions

David Steinberg to appear at Gilda's Club in Hackensack

Now David Steinberg said unto Gilda Radner: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the Not Ready For Prime Time Players that that Lorraine Michaels will show on Saturday nights, live, in New York City.”

Okay, that’s not exactly the language Mr. Steinberg used.

But Mr. Steinberg does take credit for advising Ms. Radner to quit his own comedy show on Canadian television to accept the offer for Saturday Night Live, which she got the week after Mr. Steinberg hired her.

“She was going to turn them down,” Mr. Steinberg said in a telephone interview last week. “I said ‘No! Take the opportunity to do a show that’s on in the States.'”

David Steinberg

And he is prone to waxing biblical – whether in his 2007 memoir, “The Book of David,” or in his famous improvised sermons, which won him popularity and infamy in the 1960s.

Mr. Steinberg will be in Hackensack on Sunday night, November 2, for a comedy benefit supporting Gilda’s Club Northern New Jersey.

Mr. Steinberg came by his biblical knowledge the hard way. The son of a rabbi-turned-grocer, he was sent from his native Winnipeg to a Chicago yeshiva for high school. “There were some brilliant brains in the yeshiva,” he said. One day a year, on Purim, they would be let loose, to “make of fun of the rabbis, and the Bible even.”

His later sermons “were just a version of what they were doing.”

The costume Mr. Steinberg wore on the road from yeshiva to the Tonight Show (Mr. Steinberg was Johnny Carson’s second-most-frequent guest, after Bob Hope) was not a class clown’s. “I was more a leader than I was a clown,” he said. Unlike Krusty the Klown on “The Simpsons,” Mr. Steinberg was not disowned by his rabbinic father for following a career in show business.

“My dad saw me in Second City. He didn’t get to see the next stage. He died young,” Mr. Steinberg said. His mother, however, did see him on television.

“If you’re a son of Jewish parents and you went on the Tonight Show in the sixties, that was like getting a Nobel Prize in the Jewish community of Winnipeg,” he said. “No one had made it there, and it was a huge thing.”

The comedy career, he has said, is something he sort of stumbled into as a student at the University of Chicago “with literally no plan in mind” when he saw a performance of Second City, the famous Chicago improvisational troupe. He started a comedy act with a friend; when members of Second City saw it, they hired him.

One of the directors suggested “that I use some of my yeshiva theological background,” Mr. Steinberg said in an interview a few years ago on Fresh Air. His first reaction: “I’m not going to do that. I escaped that.”

But then he decided to give it a try. He asked the audience to suggest “an old Testament personality. They gave him Moses. “I was doing it five years later, almost intact from that first improvisation that night.”

Sure enough, his 1968 album, “The Incredible Shrinking God,” opened with his Moses sermon – and a joke based not on the actual Bible, but rather on a midrash quoted by Rashi: “When Moses was a little child,” Mr. Steinberg intoned, “he cast off a cherubic light from his face. So his father Amram turned to his mother Yocheved and said: ‘Yo! Let us take the little child and thrust him into the Nile. So that we might have decent lighting in here again.’

“So much negative mail poured in,” Mr. Steinberg later recalled. “The most negative mail that CBS had ever received. Tommy Smothers showed me gleefully all this negative mail.” Tommy was one of the two Smothers Brothers whose popular comedy show skirted close to the edge of the acceptable and at times, according to some critics, including some in the White House, went well over it.

The network at this point was looking for an excuse to close the show, Mr. Steinberg said. And what he didn’t know at the time was that CBS had told Mr. Smothers: No more Steinberg sermons.

“I didn’t know that conversation had taken place. He asked me for a sermon. I said sure. They suggested Jonah,” he said. While it never aired on CBS – the show was canceled – Fresh Air played a recording of the sketch, which had more than a trace of yeshiva humor.

“Jonah got into a ship that was commandeered by 23 gentiles,” Mr. Steinberg began. “A bad move on Jonah’s part. And the gentiles, as is their wont from time to time, threw the Jew overboard.

“Now, here there are two concepts that we must deal with. There is the New Testament concept and the Old Testament concept.

“The Old Testament scholars say Jonah was in fact swallowed by a whale,” Mr. Steinberg said, adding a slurping sound.

“The New Testament scholars, the gentiles, say, ‘Hold it, Jews. No.’ They literally grabbed the Jews by the Old Testament. They say, Jonah could not have been swallowed by a whale, because whales have tiny gullets and cannot swallow whole prophets.

“Therefore they offer their own theory, that Jonah was in fact swallowed by a gigantic … guppy.

“And to this day, the New Testament doesn’t sell,” he concluded.

In a phone conversation last week, Mr. Steinberg declined to offer a d’var Torah on this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha. But he did present one, after a fashion, on next week’s portion, Vayera.

“I’m called Duddy,” he said. “It’s the sort of nickname I have in Yiddish” – it is short for David. “I was called Duddy my whole teenage life, even when I was in yeshiva, even when I was in Israel,” where he studied at the Hebrew University.

“I was Duddy.

“But when I went to get my birth certificate for the first time, there was no Duddy. Instead of David, it said Isaac David Steinberg. There’s no Isaac in my family.”

He asked his father, who said, “No, I didn’t say Isaac.”

“It’s not my name,” said Mr. Steinberg. “I’ve done everything to get rid of it.”

The discrepancy between the name on his birth certificate and the one on all his other documents adds to the hassle when he crosses the border.

“The irony to me has always been – Abraham and Sarah didn’t have any children, and supposedly three angels came by. One of these angels, as a human, said, thank you for looking after us and for your generosity and for all of that, you are going to have a child.

“So Sarah laughed at them.

“So the way you say laugh in Hebrew is tzechok, from tzechok comes Yitzhak. I don’t know how it got there, but for a comedian, my dad couldn’t have given me a better name.

“That’s my version of the Torah portion.”

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