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Interview with David Steinberg

David Steinberg is a wee slip of a lad. So there it is in print. We were eating raspberry sherbet one day, and Steinberg said, "Look, when you do this article, how are you going to start it?"

Well, how about David Steinberg is a wee slip of a lad?

Steinberg nodded. "Not bad. It's got something.

Nothing you can put your finger on maybe, but definitely something. It's true, too. Truth never hurts a newspaper story too much. I am a wee slip of a lad. You should have seen me in high school when I was even more wee. I played guard on the basketball team. I was short, but I hustled."

Steinberg thought about that for a moment. When Steinberg is thinking, his mouth opens a little, and it's not exactly a smile but more as if he were standing by to shout "Fire!" or announce the impending destruction of the universe. He spoke.

"Short, but he hustled." he said slowly. "It has a nice ring. It would be good for a headline or an epitaph. The thing about headlines is, you have to get a lot of facts into a small space and the facts don't necessarily have anything to do with one another. Like in those trash tabloids - National Enquirer. National Insider, all those. You see headlines like, '5-2, SHE SHAVES BEARD. IS TATTOOED'. There's a real art to it headline like that." Steinberg mused about headlines. "Short, But He Hustled," he said at last. "Why don't you make that the headline? There's my life story, right there." How tall are you, anyway? "Oh, about 5-7, maybe a little more." he said.

That's not exactly what you'd call short.

"No, come to think of it. I guess it isn't at that," he said.

On that note, the first interview with Steinberg came to a close. Leaving the raspberry sherbet to melt, he walked out onto Wells St. and leaned against the front of Second City while a small boy shined his shoes. A hippie walked by, looked at Steinberg, stopped, came back and shook his head. There must have been a Hindu bell concealed somewhere about his person, because when he shook his head, it tinkled.

"Gee, you look familiar," the hippie said, "Now who is it you remind me of?" "God" said Steinberg, "I remind you of God. That's not surprising. After all, I was made in His image. As a matter of fact, you resemble Him a little yourself." The hippie nodded and walked on. For Steinberg, it wasn't entirely a joke. He takes his religion seriously. His father was a rabbi and he studied to be a rabbi himself. He wrote a thesis on the Old Testament, "I was made in the image of God, and so was everyone else," he said. "I wonder what would happen if people began to look at it that way?" But rabbinical studies gradually begin to look like the wrong path for Steinberg. "I wasn't entirely sure that was what I wanted to do, and you have to be sure," he said.

He went to the University of Chicago in the late 1950s. "Something funny happened," he said. "English literature began to creep into my mind. I started reading a lot."

He also began appearing in plays, got involved in campus literary, political and dramatic activities and began to get the reputation of being a natural comedian. In 1963 he joined Second City, working with director Paul Sills and a company that included Del Close and Avery Schreiber. At Second City he began to develop his "Sermons." He would ask members of the audience to suggest figures from the Old Testament, and then he'd improvise illuminating little talks. "MOSES!" He would shout. "Moses! Say it loud, and it's almost like praying! Abraham! Isaac! These were men who had a close rapport with God, who some of you will recall from last week's sermon."

After two years at Second City, Steinberg went on his own, appearing in a Jules Feiffer play on Broadway; in the soon-to-be-released "The Next Place," filmed in Peru, and in night clubs. A recording of his sermons will be released soon. He has been signed for six appearances on the Dean Martin Show this season, and it is just possible that he is on the brink of becoming a star.

But that is still a few months in the future, if it comes, and Steinberg is back at Second City now. He rejoined the company for the opening of their new theater in Piper's Alley, he does his sermons every night, and his peculiar gait and timing are perfectly suited to skits such as "The Oral Examination for the Ph.D. in Philosophy."

In that one, he stalks up and down the stage in a baggy old robe, examining Burt Heyman, the Ph.D. candidate. "Let's do some mathematics," he says. "Five and three? How much?" Heyman, who plays the bewildered student at the mercy of a madman, says, "Uh, eight?" "Good, lad, good!" says Steinberg, nodding encouragingly. "Now then. How fast are they moving?" He takes a large bicycle horn out of his robe and holds it over Heyman's head. "When the horn honks, that means a wrong answer," he explains.

As he stalks up and down the stage, Steinberg walks in a way that reminds some people of Groucho Marx. But it's not quite the same walk. It's sort of a sustained fall, with each step saving Steinberg at the last instant from toppling forward.

"It's my own walk," he said. "It's not Groucho's. He has his own walk. I'll tell you something. If the Marx Brothers were, in charge of this country, we'd all be a lot better off. Of course, they might not be as funny as Johnson. But then, nobody is. Well, maybe Humphrey is."

This came up at 2 one morning, after Steinberg had finished the last show at Second City. He marched arm in arm with his girlfriend, all the way from Second City to Mother Blues, where it developed that everyone had neglected to come supplied with identification. "But I'm 27," he said, a line that won't get you far in Old Town, often though it is heard. So he settled for some tacos at a Mexican restaurant.

"There's one thing that bothers me," he said. "When I give my sermons at Second City, there are always people who think I'm ridiculing the Old Testament. That's not the case at all. The sermons are funny, and they're meant to be funny, but they're serious, too. I never think of jokes when I'm doing them, I think of the facts. Sometimes just repeating the facts will make the point."

During the recording session for his album, Steinberg came across such a point in his sermon on Job. "Then God laid waste the crops and dried up the rivers and sent a plague to cover the land," Steinberg intoned, "with that mystical sense of humor which is uniquely his..." Some of his sermons are completely improvised on the spot, Steinberg said. Others, like his comments on Moses, are set pieces, although they change slightly every time they're told. "Sometimes you'll be whizzing along and come into a dead end," he said. "One night, for example, I was telling the story of Cain and Abel, and after Cain murdered Abel I had Adam ask him, 'Cain, why did you slay your brother?' At that point, I couldn't go any farther. I mean, if there were an answer to that question, you'd have a key to the whole Bible. Because mankind descended from Cain, not Abel. "So I had to stop, back up, and start again. It's funny, but the only time an audience really believes you're improvising is when you make a mistake.

Improvisation adds excitement to a performance. It's the difference between watching a live baseball game, and one where you know the score."

By this time it was late at night and Steinberg was serious. "So why not?" he said. "I'm not funny all the time. Offstage, I'm usually serious, like everyone is usually serious. The older generation of comedians wouldn't understand this. They think they have to be funny every moment. Once I had lunch with Buddy Hackett, and all during lunch he was performing, firing off one-liners, being funny. All I could think of was: Look, I know you're a very funny, talented man. But is that all you want me to know about you? Don't you want to be serious, and let me see that side?"

The ultimate problem with the whole hippie movement, Steinberg said, is that it isn't serious. "Eventually the hippies will go back to their suburbs and plant their flowers," he said. "Love is fine, and it's great that hippies are for love. But they seem to have the attitude sometimes that anybody who doesn't walk around sighing Love, Love, is a dead person.

"Well, there are a lot of things that have to be changed in this society, and you aren't going to be able to do it with flowers. You have to be committed - I guess that's an old-fashioned word, but it's the right one. For the last several years the hero has been unfashionable in movies and plays. Gary Cooper has been replaced by the antihero, like Charles Aznavour, who just sits around and digs everything. "But that phase is about over with. The whole psychedelic thing is falling apart at this instant, just when Newsweek and CBS think it's at its height. You can buy psychedelic posters on Michigan Ave. now, and that means the movement is dead, It will take another year, maybe, before people find that out.

"The trouble with the psychedelic movement, and Pop Art before it, was that they couldn't stand the light of day. For the last five or ten years, there hasn't been a fashionable art movement that could stand up to attention. Take Andy Warhol, for example, first his Campbell Soup cans and then his underground films. It's the idea of his stuff that is interesting - not the stuff itself. A Warhol work of art dies the moment you look at it."

The hero will come back into fashion, Steinberg predicted. It will begin to seem chicken to drop out. There will be a reaction against put-ons.

And what then?

"Who knows?" said Steinberg, and he was through with being serious for the moment. "We shall see, I guess." What will you do in the meantime?

"Well, I have a couple of offers to do Broadway plays. And I'd like to make movies. I think I'd rather make movies than anything else. And there are some roles I'd like to play at some point or another in my life. I want to do Hamlet and Lear. And I have an ambition to do an Othello even more offensive than Olivier's..."

Short, but he hustles.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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