Biblical Bio: Life of Steinberg

By Max Gross

Published June 18, 2007, issue of June 22, 2007.
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The Book of David
David Steinberg
Simon & Schuster, 191 pages, $23.00.

Getting bumped from “The Tonight Show” sucks — but getting bumped three nights in a row feels like wandering in the desert for 40 years. At least that’s how David Steinberg describes it in his new quasi-memoir, “The Book of David.”

“David reflected now on his ancient brother Job, who had suffered, yes, but not like this,” Steinberg writes, “for this was show-business suffering, and surely there was no suffering like show suffering, like no suffering he kneweth.”

The three nights of expectation and disappointment, in fact, are given more of the full treatment by Steinberg than his first marriage — which is glossed over in a swift three-paragraph chapter. (In Steinberg’s retelling of the three nerve-wracking nights — which are literally turned into 40 nights of waiting and kvetching before assuming his rightful place on Johnny Carson’s couch — he is usurped by such unlikelies as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. Granted, Manson and Sirhan were very funny… but no, they were never really on “The Tonight Show.”)

But, then, nobody will read “The Book of David” to really find out the intimate details of Steinberg’s marriage — and Steinberg seems fine with that. The potato salad in Carson’s green room is far more interesting than, say, the names of Steinberg’s daughters.

For those who don’t know David Steinberg, he was a pretty funny stand-up comedian and actor who, during the 1970s, had his own television variety show called, appropriately enough, “The David Steinberg Show.” “The Book of David” chronicles (extremely loosely) his early life before he decided to leave acting and become a television director — a career in which he has since become extremely successful (Steinberg has directed episodes of “Seinfeld,” “Designing Women,” “Mad About You” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). But unlike other show-business memoirs, this one is told as if the author were writing a book of the Torah. (And packing in as many references to Paris Hilton and Kim Cattrall as a 191-page book will allow.)

In this sense, “The Book of David” is in a long tradition. Certainly, every Jewish writer from Woody Allen to Joseph Heller has tried his hand at retelling a book or two of the Bible (each with sly little asides to modern readers). Allen did it to brilliant effect in “Without Feathers.” And Heller’s book “God Knows” is an underrated masterpiece. There’s something in “Bible speak” — that vague, generalized cadence where so much is left unsaid — that has set many imaginations on fire, and Steinberg is no different.

But it’s much rarer to see a writer cast himself as a character at the center of a biblical drama.

Life for Steinberg began in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and his career in show business started shortly after he first heard the voice of God. The God that Steinberg describes is a far more mellow dude than one would find in some evangelical screed — or, for that matter, a Christopher Hitchens screed. “You should be a comedian,” God advises after he and Steinberg get to know each other.

With not a little bit of kvetching, Steinberg seems to follow God’s advice. When he’s an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he visits “the Temple of the Willingly Damned” and sees Lenny Bruce for the first time. “He had not been so moved by meeting God Himself,” Steinberg writes.

From there, Steinberg embarks on a life in the theater, an extremely healthy sex life in which he explores numerous “fertile crescents” and his entry into the legendary comedy troupe Second City.

“David’s sermons [that is , his stand-up material] became the dessert at Second City for which His people and their congregants had saved room and could not leave satisfied without,” Steinberg immodestly writes.

One can see little glimpses of the more traditional memoir seeping through the cracks of his book, and it must have been tempting to have produced a normal autobiography, because one can tell that in the ’70s, Steinberg really was interacting with some of modern American history’s great characters. Carly Simon, Jerry Orbach, Mike Nichols, David Geffen and dozens of others appear in the book, only to drift out again. At one point, Steinberg befriends Groucho Marx, who proceeds to introduce him to a frail Adolph Zucker — one of the founders of Paramount Pictures — by saying, “Adolph! You remember Chico, don’t you?”

Serious students of comedy and film will, undoubtedly, be stifling an impulse to strangle Steinberg when he reveals nuggets like that. Anyone who’s rubbed elbows with legends like Groucho (and Steinberg and Groucho were, indeed, friends) must, undoubtedly, have great tales to tell. One almost wishes Steinberg told his story straight. But, then, anyone who has ever had to sit through Hebrew school has felt something similar when reading other books of the Bible.

Max Gross is a writer for the New York Post.

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