Bob Einstein, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 76, sustained a half-century-long comedy career that spanned from The Smothers Brothers to Curb Your Enthusiasm. He created indelible characters, from Super Dave Osborne to Marty Funkhouser, starred on several TV shows, and wrote and produced many shows for others, working alongside Sonny and Cher, Joey Heatherton, Dick Van Dyke, and the legendary Redd Foxx.
If you read any of the obituaries written about Einstein, you’ll notice a phrase that appears in several, describing him as a “comedian’s comedian.” Through his five decades in comedy, he worked alongside many of the funniest people alive, and the reason for that was simple: Bob Einstein was funny in a way that others weren’t. His voice, in every sense of the word, was unique. His fellow comedians knew this and respected him, so obviously, they wanted to work with him. And they did, from Arrested Development and Curb to his brother Albert Brooks’s classic film Modern Romance.
Through all of Einstein’s work, it was the moments when he had a scene partner — a foil, a person to bounce off of, or just a person who would listen to one of his classic jokes — that he truly shined. Today we celebrate the life of Bob Einstein by looking back at his funniest jokes, his distinct sensibility, and the many hilarious moments he shared with his fellow comedians throughout his long career.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Officer Judy Tickets Liberace
Bob Einstein’s first job in comedy was writing for one of the hottest TV shows of the 1960s, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, after Tommy Smothers saw him on a local television show. In the Smothers writers room, he was taken under the wings of these comedy powerhouses and met his future writing partner, a young Steve Martin. (They would go on to work together on Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour in 1970 and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in 1971.) Though he would later make his name with his characters, his on-camera career began on Smothers Brothers when he appeared as Officer Judy. The character made his debut by lip-syncing to a Judy Collins record, but soon evolved into a gruff, no-nonsense cop who could appear at any moment. Famously, as seen in the above clip from a 1969 episode, he once pulled Liberace over for playing the piano too fast.
It’s not hard to see Einstein’s later characters in Officer Judy — in no small part because we’re looking at a piece of the real Bob Einstein, just in a police uniform. (When appearing on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars in 2017, Einstein talked about attending at least one Smothers cast party in his character’s costume. He was then pulled over by the actual police.) Through Judy, Einstein’s first professional job in comedy led to one of his most well-known characters and laid the groundwork for the long career that would follow.
Modern Romance: The Sporting Goods Salesman
One of Einstein’s most memorable performances was alongside his brother Albert Brooks in his 1981 film Modern Romance. In it, Brooks’s character has just broken up with his long-term girlfriend and is trying to “feel healthy.” He first buys a ton of vitamins, then heads over to the sports store where he encounters Einstein’s (very good) salesman. When Brooks asks him how he’s feeling, he instructs him to punch him in his abs to answer the question.
Throughout the three-and-a-half-minute scene (which you can watch on TCM’s website), Einstein steals the show as he convinces Brooks to purchase more and more high-end equipment, rather than the runner’s kit in a box he was initially eyeing. When Brooks pushes back and tries to only buy one sweat suit instead of two, Einstein pauses, makes a face of disappointment, then responds: “I misjudged you. I’m not perfect. Buy the box. You’ll like it.”
Modern Romance was the only onscreen collaboration between the brothers, but it’s really all you need. Each of them uses the tools in his toolbox to his fullest, with Brooks as a put-upon pushover, and Einstein as a slick and aloof bully. Brooks put it this best when he succinctly said, “My brother was so funny in this scene.”
The Tonight Show: Super Dave Osborne
If you’ve heard anything about stand-up before the ’90s, then you know that making it big depended on reaching Johnny Carson’s couch on The Tonight Show. The way to do that was to tell a good joke, and Bob Einstein knew how to tell a good joke. In this November 1989 appearance, Einstein is introduced as his Super Dave Osborne persona, a hapless daredevil who can never quite pull off a stunt. As he sits down, he hands both Johnny and Ed gifts in the form of their own Super Dave wallets. (Einstein used gifts frequently as an opening joke on the talk-show circuit. Here’s another wonderfully structured one from Letterman’s Late Show in 1992.) I’ll let you see how this gag unfolds for yourself, but the laugh that Carson gives at the punch line is one of pure glee, and it’s made all the better by the mirthless expression Einstein maintains as he lands the joke with perfect timing.
Super Dave: “King of the Road” Sketch
Up until this point, we’ve been looking at Einstein’s guest appearances on other shows, but here is the ultimate Super Dave clip from his own series of Super Dave shows. (Over the years, Super Dave had a Showtime show from 1987 to 1991, three stand-alone specials on various networks, a direct-to-DVD movie in 2000, and as evidence of the character’s universal appeal, he even had his own Saturday morning cartoon on Fox in 1992. Here’s an episode for the full nostalgia experience.) In this piece, Dave unfortunately won’t have time to perform a stunt to close out his show, but instead he’s going to showcase his own mobile “Sing Along Bus.” It … doesn’t go well.
The key element of Einstein’s comedy that is demonstrated here is not the most nuanced tool in his toolbox, but it’s the one that has been ripped off the most consistently since then: the fake dummy. Super Dave’s stunts always ended poorly, and even if you weren’t convinced that Dave was injured each time, each bit still had to create suspense for the audience, who knew exactly where the joke was going to go. It was a truly difficult tightrope to walk.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: Little Orphan Funkhouser
How could you possibly choose just one clip of Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm? He’s one of the HBO comedy’s most unforgettable creations: blunt, self-centered, protective of his family, occasionally religious, and always swinging wildly through emotions while somehow remaining completely unreadable.
In the scene above from season six, we see Marty a few days after losing his mother, exercising to distract from his grief. When he encounters Larry blithely enjoying an ice cream cone, he tolerates Larry calling him rude for not returning his condolence phone call. Then, when he refers to himself as an orphan, he has to deal with Larry’s incredulousness at his use of the term. And after reminding Larry about the funeral, Larry immediately pivots to talking about how one must be vigilant when eating an ice-cream cone. But despite all that rudeness, the most anger we see from Marty is when his attempts to pay Larry back are rebuffed because he does so by using a $50 bill he was carrying in his shoe.
Curb is famously improvised from an outline, and Larry David has spoken many times about how an episode can change shape as it’s being filmed. All of the emotional turns in this scene take place in less than two minutes, and it’s hard to say which parts were scripted and which were improvised because it all feels so natural. The scene serves as a testament to both actors’ desire to stay true to their characters by attempting to irritate each other as much as humanly possible — the ultimate hallmark of a great Curb joke, and a reminder of Einstein’s essential role in the show.
Arrested Development: Larry the Surrogate
In a show as dense with jokes as Arrested Development, there’s not always room for guest stars to shine. Larry the Surrogate is a one-joke character; he’s there to literally speak for George Sr. while he’s under house arrest. But in spite of this, Larry does shine, and it’s all because he has one trait that is present through all of Bob Einstein’s comedy: Larry is deadpan. He is as deadpan as one can be. He is the embodiment of deadpan.
Here, that’s all Einstein really has to do to sell it. On one end of the line, George Sr. yells at his son indignantly, but it then has to go through Einstein’s surrogate, who says in his gravelly voice, “I ought to pull down your pants and spank your ass raw,” as if he’s reading out baking directions. Einstein was perfectly cast in this role, and he squeezed every laugh possible out of it by working so hard to seemingly do so little.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: Bob and Jerry
Bob Einstein was the first guest to have the distinction of appearing on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee twice (in 2012 and 2017), but sadly the bulk of those two guest spots are trapped behind the fence of Netflix’s unembeddable videos. However, the above video, comprised of several short snippets of Bob and Jerry spending time together on the program, encapsulates Einstein’s essence as a performer: He was always in the moment, ready to comment on any little thing that could go wrong, while still remaining the consummate storyteller.
His second episode in particular swings from the sentimental as he tells the tragic story of his comedian father Harry Einstein’s death while performing at a Friars Club roast, over to the story of meeting a coked-out Redd Foxx. But throughout the episode, almost constantly, he is telling jokes to Jerry.
Bob Einstein loved telling jokes. Here’s a great moment when he interrupted a serious discussion at a Curb panel at the Paley Center to tell a dirty joke. Here’s a transcript posted by a fan of a joke he wrote. Here are 16 minutes of him telling jokes on other people’s talk shows. Here’s what is arguably Einstein’s most famous moment on Curb, in which he tells Jerry Seinfeld, on their actual first day of meeting, an incredibly dirty joke, which elicits a real laugh of surprise from the comedian. Even transcripts of his jokes are funny. Bob Einstein loved to tell a good joke, and few did it better. Rest in peace, Mr. Einstein.