If you call now, Judge Paul Corupe will send you a boxful of crickets so you can have the same experience he did watching this tepid comedy act.
After a stint on Chicago's Second City stage, Canadian-born comedian David Steinberg launched a successful stand-up comedy career in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Winning fans with an envelope-pushing observational style that targeted controversial topics like Watergate and religion, he established himself as a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show, and made notable appearances on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In fact, it was Steinberg's designed-to-offend comedic "sermon" that poked fun at biblical parables that contributed to the cancellation of the Smothers Brothers show.
In 1976, Steinberg returned to Canada to star in The David Steinberg Show, a low-budget, half-hour variety show/sitcom that makes its debut on DVD in this 21-episode, four disc set from Koch Vision. Incorporating supposed backstage shenanigans into an overarching plot, each show would basically work like this: Steinberg would deliver a short monologue, and introduce that week's Hollywood B-list guest star for a few minutes of shtick. From there, Steinberg would bring out sleazy lounge singer Johnny Del Bravo (Martin Short, Primetime Glick), who would entertain the studio audience while the viewers would follow Steinberg and his guest across the street to the Hello Deli, a greasy spoon owned by Vinnie DeMilo (Bill Saluga, Going Berserk). There, a conflict would arise—usually about a sketch planned for later—but everything would work out in the end, and the show would go off without a hitch. As the show continued, several actors from Toronto's influential Second City stage jumped aboard to create unique characters that populated Steinberg's backstage life, including Irish security guard James MacGregor (Dave Thomas, SCTV), struggling actor Kirk Dirkwood (Joe Flaherty, Freaks and Geeks), and hippie musician Spider Reichman (John Candy, Stripes). To accommodate these talented performers, the show mixed scenes at the Deli with "production meetings" to flesh out each plotline in a more believable way.
Steinberg may have made his name with his cutting edge stand-up act, but as evidenced by this DVD set, The David Steinberg Show is about as razor sharp as a pair of well-worn safety scissors. This painfully unfunny and tedious series left religion and politics behind to tackle such "controversial" topics as TV commercials, weight loss and words that sound funny. Steinberg's weak monologues are so incredibly dated and innocuous that they couldn't elicit even a smile from this reviewer, getting the show off on a bad foot before we're subjected to the gratuitous mugging of Saluga's restaurant owner, Vinnie, whose funniest joke is that he rolls his eyes every time his short order cook says "Coming up!" To add insult to injury, Saluga frequently wanders out on Steinberg's stage in his incredibly annoying character of Raymond J. Johnson Jr. to subject everyone to the comedic landfill of his "you can call me Ray, and you can call me Jay, or you can call me Ray Jay" act. The rest of the humor ranges from hackneyed sitcom silliness at the Deli (Steinberg loses his pants) to bad sketches (Steinberg's recurring obnoxious "crazy psychiatrist" character diagnoses Flaherty). If this show was ever funny, it's completely lost on me.
And then there are the guest stars, who all seem to be up in Canada as a personal favor to Steinberg. While a few names are somewhat notable, including Milton Berle, Tommy Smothers and Ethel Merman, most of the shows feature third-bananas, has-beens and never-beens like Avery Schreiber, James Coco, Rip Taylor and Bill Macy. I mean, Mason Reese?! Game show personality Peggy Cass?!! Canadian-league football player Anthony Davis?!!! I don't think I've ever seen a more embarrassing line-up of so-called "special" guests than the bottom-feeders on this show, and it's certainly reflected on screen with lame songs, sketches and comedy bits that aren't compelling in any way—Ed McMahon doing a much-touted W.C. Fields impression is every bit as bad as it sounds.
The sole bright spot in the show is the participation of SCTV performers Short, Dave Thomas, Flaherty, and Candy, who ironically would later eclipse the stardom of most of Steinberg's guests. Short, who was yet to join the Second City-born show, is great as singer Johnny Del Bravo, a flashy precursor to his Jackie Rogers Jr. character, who steals the show every time he appears. The others, who must have been commuting across Toronto to work on the first season of SCTV, have smaller parts, but they also provide a much-needed pick-up from the staid humor of the rest of the show, despite being saddled with broadly-drawn characters and ridiculous accents.
Koch presents this pretty crappy show with a pretty crappy transfer. Obviously taken from the original master tapes with no effort made to clean up the source material, the video on these DVDs is extremely soft, with colors looking washed-out and weak. There is a significant amount of digital noise in the picture, not to mention incidents of warped tape. It's one of the worst TV transfers I've seen outside of a $2 public domain disc. The sound quality is just as bad, with extremely muffled tracks that are often hard to make out. One of the only redeemable shows on the set, the Milton Berle episode, is particularly difficult to hear, with dialogue often drowned out by background noise. There is one extra on the set, a 30-minute interview with Steinberg, in which he talks about his early career, the concept for The David Steinberg Show, what it was like working there and so on. It's more or less interesting, except for the fact that he doesn't discuss how the show was actually conceived and put into production.
In the mid-1970s, the youth audience that Steinberg had previously made an impression on with his edgy act had since moved on to Saturday Night Live and SCTV, rendering this show less than a small blip on the TV comedy radar. Steinberg has since found his creative niche behind the scenes, making a significant contribution to the world of funny-bone tickling as the director of groundbreaking shows like It's Garry Shandling's Show, Seinfeld, Get a Life, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. It's nice to see some of the more obscure Canadian sketch comedy shows hit DVD (can Four on the Floor be far behind?) but this is by far one of Steinberg's least interesting projects, a toothless, terminally unfunny show made all the worse by a lackluster transfer. Koch's The David Steinberg Show should be skipped at all costs.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Interview with David Steinberg
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