The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Canada’s David Steinberg is probably best known today as the host of Showtime’s Inside Comedy. As you no doubt gathered from the title, in it Steinberg sits down with a number of popular comedians and speaks to them about their craft. However, if that’s the only place you know Steinberg from, you may not realize that he was once one of those popular comedians. Over the years, David has been the host of two comedy shows bearing the name The David Steinberg Show, released a number of comedy albums, and his satirical sermons that he delivered on The Smothers Brothers Show has been cited as one of the contributing controversial elements that led to CBS’ eventual cancellation of the program (Steinberg’s father was a rabbi, so religion was never too far away). Today we examine the second show called The David Steinberg Show, which aired on CTV in 1976 and gave birth to a number of comedy’s brightest stars.
The first David Steinberg Show was an hour-long sketch show that aired on CBS for five weeks in 1972. Steinberg himself was the only constant, and featured guest actors who would jump into the fray. But let’s jump forward four years, and across the America/Canada border to examine the second David Steinberg Show. This iteration followed the model of The Jack Benny Program or The Muppet Show, in which the show mostly followed the behind-the-scenes adventures of David as he prepared to make “The David Steinberg Show.” For example, in the episode I viewed, the majority of the program, David is attempting to woo Robert Vaughn (he played one of The Magnificent Seven) to be on his show but makes some promises that he’s unable to keep. While we do see some of the show-within-the-show, the majority of the episode is focused on the backstage shenanigans that occur while trying to keep his guest happy.
But enough of me burying the lede: this supporting cast is stacked. As Spider Reichman, the hippie bandleader of the fictional show we have John Candy. Andrea Martin appeared irregularly as Steinberg’s secretary. Joe Flahrety plays Kirk Dirkman, a deliveryman who somehow works his way up to network executive overseeing David’s show. Dave Thomas plays James MacGregor, the show’s Scottish security guard, and Martin Short plays Steinberg’s cousin, Johnny Del Bravo, who is trying to make it big in the music industry. In his recent memoir, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend, Short describes Steinberg’s show as a “test run for SCTV… We had all worked together before in different combinations, but this was the first time that the five of us were collected in one place.” SCTV actually premiered the same week as The David Steinberg Show (though Short wouldn’t join the cast until 1982) which meant that at the same time that they were working on the 26 episodes of Steinberg they were also pulling double duty, creating the legendary SCTV.
The Robert Vaughn episode of Steinberg was the 14th, a little more than halfway through the season, and though I don’t have the numbers to back me up on this, the content of this episode might indicate that it may have been clear that this was only going to be a one season show. The program opens with Candy and Short reading a newspaper, reporting to Steinberg that his show doesn’t even crack the Top 20, having been beat out by a ton of game shows like “Celebrity Lacrosse.” (When The David Steinberg Show was eventually cancelled by CTV and replaced with Stars on Ice because, as David said to Short, “In Canada, anything ‘on ice’ is better.”) Desperate for ratings, David goes to the big star Robert Vaughn and promises him that on his show, Vaughn can talk about quality television, about the issues that really matter to him. Meanwhile, Vinnie DeMilo, played by Bill Saluga, who owns the “Hello Deli” which is across the street from the theater, along with John Candy, attempt to convince David to turn his show into a game show, since that’s what really attracts the ratings. David eventually gives in, so when Vaughn appears on the show to talk about quality television, suddenly the format changes beneath his feet and he’s on a new game show called “Swinging Daredevil Bonanza.” As you might imagine, the game show format explodes in Steinberg’s face, and boy is he embarrassed by the whole ordeal.
In many ways, The David Steinberg Show feels trapped between two eras. On the one hand, it’s clearly emulating an older style of program: a beleaguered host surrounded by a cast of wacky characters who eventually manage to pull of a show. This concept was successful when Jack Benny did it in the forties and fifties and it would prove successful again when Tina Fey did it on 30 Rock many years later. Here, however, it drifts much closer to Benny than Fey, with a constant pattern of scenes that serve to setup an enormous misunderstanding at the end of the episode, but don’t do an awful lot on their own. On the other end of the spectrum, you have a surprisingly meta show, dealing with the ins and outs of the television industry long before this was something on the public radar. Sure, before this you had shows like Dick Van Dyke which dealt with the people working behind-the-scenes, but this show assumes a much more intimate knowledge of the industry long before this kind of thing was in the zeitgeist to the level it is now. Then there’s the level of meta humor throughout this episode. The main thrust of this episode is about how David’s show is being trounced by game shows at the same time that his show was being trounced by game shows. And then on top of that you had that cast. Clearly Steinberg knew how to pick ‘em when you had five repertory players who would go on to write and perform in SCTV, one of the most influential comedy shows of that time period.
Granted, I’m judging a series based on this one episode, but The David Steinberg Show is interesting not just as a time capsule for the 1970s, or as a way to see what a young Dave Thomas looked like, but as an entertaining way to spend a half hour. The pace feels very slow, and the twists in the story are telegraphed from miles away. But if you’re looking for a way to see the cast of SCTV hone their chops, or Martin Short to make one of his first splashes on television, The David Steinberg Show is the place for you.