02/18/2013 07:24 am ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

David Steinberg -- Comedy Outside The Box

Comedian David Steinberg is brilliant. The gifted stand-up comedian, who made over 130 appearances on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," skillfully dissects the comedy minds of some of the most creative comedians on planet earth in his one-on-one sit down conversations on Showtime's "Inside Comedy": Don Rickles, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Ellen DeGeneres, Robin Williams, just to name a few.

Season two has just begun and it boasts another group of comedians we can't seem to get enough of including Tina Fey, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Steve Martin and Jim Carrey. And when the guest list doesn't seem like it could get any better, it somehow does. The comedy legends line up and spill their guts: how they got their start; how they managed to get their sea legs; how they bombed in the early days but kept on going after those miserable failures in front of hostile comedy club audiences; how skunks can improve their personal hygiene. (The last one I made up. If you didn't find that funny, then I failed -- comicbombed.) There are laugh-out-loud moments -- so many of them! Steinberg spent some time with The Huffington Post to talk shop. The world has just become a better place.

You were very popular in the 60s and 70s as a stand-up comic. You always made me laugh out loud. Why did you stop doing stand-up until now?

I drifted into directing and then all of a sudden that took off so quickly that I just followed it around. But what I kept on doing was the "Tonight Show." I did it until Johnny retired.

It's incredible that you were on the "Tonight Show" over 130 times. Do you remember the first time you appeared on Carson's show and how nervous you were?

Of course. I think the first time I was supposed to be on the show, I was bumped and the second time I was bumped. I think it was the third or fourth time I was on. In fact my mother said, "Honey, maybe they'll just say your name on the show." (Laughs) It took awhile for me to get on but once I did we just connected. Yeah, I remember it very well. Then, right away, he asked me to host it. I did so many things in my career. I directed. I produced. But in truth, the career part that I enjoyed the most was doing the "Tonight Show" with Johnny.

Did you ever consider that you might take Johnny's place when he retired? You would have been a good host for the "Tonight Show." Did it ever cross your mind?

Well, it crossed their minds a little bit. When Johnny started to think about retiring, he hadn't committed so he said, 'Do you want to throw your hat in the ring for hosting?' I said, 'Well when do you think you'll be retiring?' He said, 'Oh, 10, 15 years.' I had been a stand-by host all those years and I had started to direct a lot and I thought I don't really need to as long as you're here, I'll just keep on coming on. And that was it. No, I never guided myself one way or the other. I just did what appealed to me. And, luckily, I'm still doing it.

What were your goals back then?

My goal was to always be in comedy. That's the only thing I know. I never needed any Hamlet version of myself. (Laughs) I loved being on the show all the time, and if I wanted to make appearances, I made appearances all over the place, and I'd still find an audience because I was on the air with Johnny.

You became a member of Second City Comedy Troupe in 1964, and you performed with people like Robert Klein. When you were working with Robert, were you intimidated at all by him or did you just enjoy the learning process?

I think if you talked to Robert it might be vice versa. (Laughs) I can only say that because he's on the show this year. And he tells me... I was there first. I was there about a year before Robert even got there. He talks about how intimidating I was. I said, 'Well I must have been lovely to work with.' He said, 'No, you weren't lovely to work with but you were good at what you did.' (Laughs)

I've missed your stand up, but happily you're back. You've been out on the road with Robin Williams.

I just finished a 13-city tour with Robin Williams. It's both of us on stage... basically it's a non-stop funny show. He's like as brilliant a stand-up comedian as there ever was. And sitting down, just answering questions and improvising, he's unbelievable. And then he goes back to me into the entirely opposite end of his style, and somehow the audiences just went nuts for it.

It must be great fun touring with Robin.

Great fun! It's sort of amazing to see how his comedy mind works.

What's it like working with and spending 24/7 with the very high-energy Robin Williams?

He's not that high-energy level when he's not on stage. He's really a well-read, well-informed, very laid-back person, not that high-energy version. That's a performing style more than who he is in person. He's actually delightful to be with. [At this point in my life] I only will be with delightful people because it's not worth giving away your time otherwise.

I love your show "Inside Comedy" on Showtime so much! It's great when comedians talk shop. If you hear two dentists talking about their trade, it's boring, but when you hear two comedians talk, it's hilarious. Keenen Ivory Wayans joked about how brutal stand-up can be performing in front of hostile audiences. I could never do stand-up and take a chance on humiliating myself. How hard is that for you?

The thing about stand-up comedy in particular is that there is no way, and everyone will tell you this, to get better at stand-up -- that is talking for an hour in front of a live audience who are paying money to hear you -- without failing. And failure is something that takes place in front of an audience. Jerry Seinfeld will always tell you... he'll say when he does the new piece of material, he gives nothing away. He goes in with the confidence of his [standard material], the moment he does the new piece of material, that audience retreats, and they're silent and they can feel that it isn't done with the confidence of the other. So basically, what makes it brutal (laughs), to use Keenen's words, is that you can only get better at it by failing in front of an audience. There's no way to do it at home quietly.

Someone said, "Failure doesn't come from falling down. Failure comes from not getting back up." How do you get back up after you fail on stage?

Because you're good at it. You know that's what you do. You know that you have an original voice. This is what works for me, and that's what makes you a comedian.

It's interesting to watch people talk about failing because we all fail in life, but comedians have a way of making failure funny.

Yes, and that was the goal of the show. I didn't want it to be just like a serious conversation about comedy. You see the comedians who are not as switched on as they would have to be in front of a big live audience, and yet you see how naturally funny they are. Their DNA makes them funny.

When you were doing clubs when you were first starting out, did you pull for your fellow comedians or is it too competitive?

No, I didn't find it competitive. When I was starting out, comedy wasn't this corporate structure that it is now where you make a lot of money. It was something that you did because it was a skill that you had that you just needed an outlet for. So it wasn't competitive. In fact, most all the other comedians were friends and supportive. The ones who were ahead would guide [the others.] I remember going to see Cosby even as I was starting to get known on the "Tonight Show" and he was very supportive. I found it to be a very solid strong community in a way. In fact, I think that's what people like about "Inside Comedy," because you sense that there is a connection between all of us that isn't about competitiveness in any way. It's about a unique experience that we all have.

Steve Carell is the co-executive producer of "Inside Comedy." How did he get involved in the project? Do you know him well?

Yeah, I know Steve. We're both from Second City. He's a generation or two after me at Second City. If you were in Second City in the earlier days -- even now -- it's a connection that you keep forever so we knew each other that way and people who run his company were very close friends of mine and they said you know everyone, Steve knows everyone, why don't we do a film of all the comedy connections, and that's what we started out to do. We raised two million dollars for the movie, and then as we looked at the film, we thought: God we've got everybody and if we make this a documentary film, then Bob Newhart will be on for three minutes and Mel Brooks for two minutes and so you couldn't include everyone so we just said why don't we do something that's never been done before which is a comedy documentary series.

Television has changed over the years. We have 300 - 400 channels. It drives me crazy. Do you miss the old days when we just had three networks?

It was so much fun. When I would do the "Tonight Show" in New York when there were three networks, I mean it seemed like every 2nd or 3rd person had seen that show at 11:30 at night. It was incredible. And Johnny sort of ordained the culture so what he liked, the audience generally liked. It was an easier time to get shows made that you wanted. There's a lot of great shows out there now.

There are a lot of great shows, but they're scattered amongst many, many channels.

Yeah, so you don't know who's watching what. It's a different time, and not necessarily better. It just is what it is. But there's so much opportunity for everybody which is incredible. That's the good part.

How important is it for comedians to be accepted by other comedians? Do you look for that validation from other comedians?

It's important. It's more important to be validated from another comedian than a PhD from Harvard or Yale.

Who are your best friends in comedy?

Larry David is a close friend; Seinfeld is a close friend... Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, we go back to the first shows we did together when we started out... and Martin Short. I started his career.

How did that happen?

It was "The David Steinberg Show" that I did in Canada that was sort of a well-known hit show there. And Martin came and auditioned for me. I put together that SCTV group. Marty was incredible on that show. He always said to me he remembered that after he auditioned for me. I said, 'I'm going to make this easy for you. You've got the job.' He said he couldn't get over riding on the subway home to Toronto that he had received this job. We're good friends to this day.

You were on the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." I read a little trivia about you. I knew that the show had been cancelled but I didn't know the whole story. You did some sermons that took them down. (LOL)

I did two. They were thrown off the air for a sermon that I did and that's largely because if you're doing anything on religion anywhere in America, you're going to offend someone. Imagine doing that in 1968. It was considered controversial to do that in prime time, and the Smothers Brothers were sort of pushing the envelope politically although you could hardly see that if you watched the shows now. If you could read the little signals they were sending out, you would know what their political point of view was, and that wasn't allowed at all. You had to deal with censorship. Anyway, yeah, I was responsible for their cancellation (Laughs) It was me.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Late Blooming Celebrities