What's funnier than a classic Canadian comedy show from the 1970s that supposedly pushed the envelope of sitcom style? Everything, according to Judge Bill Gibron.
The original backstage comedy that broke all the rules…including one's involving being funny.
Sometimes, longstanding reputation belies the truth. To listen to the legend, the "experimental" Canadian sitcom from the early '70s, The David Steinberg Show, was an inventive, influential masterwork. It broke down barriers, blurring the line between fiction and fact by featuring a premise that explored its star's life both before and behind the camera. It offered up yet-to-be-discovered superstar talent, soon-to-be comedy icons with names like John Candy, Martin Short, Dave Thomas, and Joe Flaherty (all of future SCTV fame). Perhaps more importantly, The David Steinberg Show supposedly set the stage for Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, and Curb Your Enthusiasm—series that took the notion of mixing backstage and onstage material as a means of defining and reshaping the entire idea of a comedy.
Well, perhaps its time to set the record straight. While Steinberg's version of the behind-the-scenes farce had it beat by six years, Mary Tyler Moore did the exact same thing with her first post-sitcom series, Mary. She played a variety-show host whose life we followed both before and behind the camera. The premise promised to blur the line between fiction and fact. It offered up yet to be discovered superstar talent, including David Letterman, Michael Keaton, and Swoosie Kurtz—and yet, sadly, no one is screaming for Moore as the co-creator of the self-referential show business satire. Nope, all the accolades keep landing on Steinberg's doorstep and, after viewing the six episodes on this "best-of" DVD sampler, the rationale behind such an outpouring of praise is suspect.
You see, The David Steinberg Show is only moderately successful at what it is attempting to do. As my fellow Judge, Paul Corupe argued in his well-considered opinion on the complete season set, Steinberg's humor has not aged well at all. He is a comic clearly caught in the zeitgeist of his decade, making jokes about Last Tango in Paris, his half-hearted Jewishness, Imperial Margarine, and racial tensions. The only funny quip out of six mostly mediocre monologues was a slur at gentiles. According to Steinberg's Dad, non-Jews are well-meaning, but they are also more than likely to sell their children for whisky. Are you laughing? If not, then you're definitely not going to enjoy this comic's laid back, wistfully observational style. Indeed, Steinberg is like a dour Jerry Seinfeld after too much cough syrup and a bad night's sleep. He takes forever to get to a punchline, milking the pauses like they endear him to the audience. Being old enough to remember the comedian from his talk-show appearances, I found this version of Steinberg practically inert. There is nary a goofy "booga-booga" or psychiatrist gag in sight.
As for the scripted material, it is generally hit or miss. Martin Short is sensational as the hateable singer Johnny Del Bravo, Steinberg's untalented cousin. However, he's not funny—he's frightening. He's horribly unlikable and sleazy without being satiric. Instead, when he threatens to molest Adrienne Barbeau during a duet, you actually fear that a rape might occur. As for the rest of the SCTV players, we get only snippets of their supporting roles. Flaherty has no character whatsoever, Candy is a "cool dude" bandleader who speaks like he's watched one too many beach movies, and Thomas is tripped up by having to deliver every line in a faux Scottish accent. They add very little to the show's dynamic and argue that Steinberg and his staff stifled what were obviously incredibly funny and talented performers. So where does the majority of the proposed mirth come from? Why, from that one-note novelty act, Bill Saluga. Perhaps best known—or stated in a different way, only known—for his obnoxiously pointless Ray J. Johnson Jr. character (ask Gabbo to explain that horror to you), Saluga further cements his hack status by playing the prototypical stereotype, Italian deli owner Vinne DeMillo. When Luigi from The Simpsons provides a more graceful characterization, you known you're in I-Tie trouble. Saluga sounds like he swallowed Chef Boy-ar-dee and stumbles around with his pants hiked up to his neck. While he doesn't resort to outright racism (he thankfully refuses to put an "a" at the end of every word), he's still a chore to endure.
Then there are the guest stars. This "Best Of" features the aforementioned Barbeau, Jon Voight (unable to keep a straight face throughout), Ethel Merman (lifeless and subdued), Ruth Buzzi (doing her standard spiel), Robert Vaughn (like Merman, completely out of his element), and Michelle Lee (bubbly, but boring). None of the situations set up for them are interesting (Barbeau and Merman are singing, while Voight and Vaughn want to discuss political issues, etc) and Steinberg barely interacts with them. In certain instances, like the Buzzi episode involving a local lodge meeting, the guest appears for a bit, then it's all Steinberg and company. As a result, the performers appear ancillary to the process, disregarded for more of that standard Steinberg spoofery that appears to have been born out of too much intellectualizing and a lot of Borscht Belt blather. It would be nice to think that this occasionally clever comedian could make the transition to the sitcom with ease. Unfortunately, The David Steinberg Show is only witty in retrospect. In actuality, it is a definitive example of the law of diminishing returns.
Talking about the technical specs of a show crafted over 30 years ago on rickety recording equipment is like shooting defective video fish in a bucket. To say that The David Steinberg Show looks bad in its 1.33:1 full-screen image is like arguing that kinescope fails to capture the crispness of old black-and-white footage. The transfer here is chaotic, with washed-out colors, annoying flaring, occasional bleeding, and an overall murky look. Sometimes, the show almost gives off a newly-crafted sheen, but it's ancient artifact city, typically. Even more annoying is the sound. The laugh track is so prominent and the dialogue so poorly captured, that we can barely hear the lines being delivered. Only when Saluga is pouring on the Ray J. Johnson Jr. lingo do we feel like we're hearing a professional television production. Along with a promo for Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg (???) from TV Land, the only bright spot on this entire DVD is a 30-minute interview with the star. Substantially older, still as exuberant as he was back then, Steinberg does tend to toot his own horn. Luckily, there is more information than ingratiation during the course of the Q&A.
Just like the oddball approach of providing a "best-of" disc for a series already available in a full-season set, The David Steinberg Show seems like an acceptable idea made confused and complicated in the execution. There is some minor redemptive material here, entertainment derived from the ability to revisit actors and attractions from the past, but this is not the classic many claim it is. In fact, it barely beats Mary in memorability. The only thing you'll be inspired to do after watching this over-hyped myth is to rethink your definition of "influential."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• 30-Minute Interview with David Steinberg
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