'Sit Down Comedy': Funny Business

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Considering the enormous amount of slavish, fawning hype with which television pollutes the American mainstream, there's something automatically refreshing about an interview show in which a guest snaps at the host, "What's your next question, dirtbag?"

Of course, it's asked playfully and even affectionately, but still, when Mike Myers blurts it out during the premiere of "Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg," at 10 tonight on TV Land, it serves as welcome irreverence, a poke in the eye of showbiz sanctimony.

As a matter of fact -- if I might ask your kind indulgence (I may? Oh, thank you), it reminds me, in a reverse sort of way, of an interview show that former Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley and I concocted years ago: "Fess Up," on which the guest would be seated between Rita and me and forced to answer intrusive and impertinent questions. If they refused, they would be beaten soundly about the head and shoulders by the hosts -- using harmless pillows or a rolled-up newspaper.

Rita and I would become convulsed with laughter contemplating this bold step to be taken against TV's hokey phoniness. Unfortunately, nobody would give us a million dollars and so we abandoned the idea, at least until the next time we thought of it and started laughing again. Ah, but you see what I have done here (for illustrative purposes only): I have cunningly shifted the focus away from David Steinberg and onto myself.

And that's what Steinberg sometimes seems yearning to do, or actually does, in the course of the one-on-one interviews. In fact, Myers catches him at it, and after a Steinberg anecdote about Steinberg, Myers sarcastically asks: "What else did you do, David? Because this is about you now, isn't it?" On the series's third show, a chat with Bob Newhart (to air Dec. 28), Steinberg talks quite a bit about Steinberg, but that's largely because Newhart is reluctant to talk about Newhart.

Newhart came up so short that the episode is only a half-hour. Happily, the premiere with Myers and next week's encounter with Larry David are an hour each.

Steinberg envisioned the show as a series of conversations, as opposed to the kind of quasi-journalistic interviews that the insufferable but efficient James Lipton does on Bravo's faded "Inside the Actors Studio." As Myers points out, Steinberg isn't loaded with background poop, instead going about the task much more informally, to the point of looking, on occasion, severely unprepared.

Steinberg, however, also appears to be having a good time, and that helps a lot. Maybe there's nothing we really need to know about Myers, or David, or future guest Martin Short (who can do a dead-on Steinberg impression), but it's gratifying to find out that these people are amusing as well as funny. Steinberg doesn't let them get away with doing old material and passing it off as spontaneous chitchat.

Nor is subject matter limited to "the art of comedy," thank heaven, because few topics lend themselves so ironically to deadliness. Myers starts out talking about his, and Steinberg's, native Canada, a country so blandly "nice," Myers says, that "we make the Swiss look sexy."

Myers recalls that as a child actor, he once made a commercial with Gilda Radner, whom he idolized. He vowed that someday he would be a member of the "Saturday Night Live" cast and of course, he would later serve with great distinction, even though "I constantly thought I was going to get fired," he says.

Myers once said that his insane and hilarious "Austin Powers" movies grew out of his father's love of James Bond films, but he tells Steinberg that his mother was also an inspiration. She served in the RAF during the war, and he speaks touchingly of their relationship. He also wanted the films to evoke "the wrong '60s" -- not the decade of peace and love but the one that was also the last gasp of the swingin' cocktail lifestyle, a sex-obsessed time marked by "the inappropriate assigning of everything to be libidinous."

Hey, this guy's not just funny -- he's smart!

Next week's hour with Larry David is also a great big treat, even though David is coming off probably the worst season in the history of his HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Fortunately, the worst season of that show is still better than the best season of many a standard, played-by-the-rules sitcom. David says that the obsessively disputatious crank he plays on the show is the Larry David he wishes he really were -- and what a scary thought that is.

We happy few who are die-hard, laugh-hard fans of the show -- episodes of which Steinberg has directed -- can dissect it to bits, but David's own explanation of its origins and his character is a model of oddball simplicity: "There's nothing that strikes me funnier than people calling me the vilest of names." It follows, somehow, that when David made his living (just barely) as a quixotic stand-up comic, he loved doing a bit in which he played "a dairy lobbyist," and he liked to begin by asking the audience whether he could address it "in the tu form" rather than the less intimate "you."

Crowd pleasers not. But he kept doing them.

David knew he wasn't cut out for stand-up because "I didn't want to travel . . . I don't like packing." What better reason for a career choice? David doesn't do anything so brash as calling Steinberg a name, but he does complain that he wasn't given dinner as part of the arrangement: "I need a meal. . . . I'm starving!"

A TV Land spokeswoman says there'll be more "Sit Down" sessions next season if the response is good over the next six weeks, and that female stand-ups will be included. Steinberg's status in the comedy world and his ability to call on friends for favors clearly play a part in being able to land such great guests. It wouldn't be fair to say there's never a dull moment, but there are few. Comedians can be funny even when they are not officially comeding; what Steinberg's guests have in common isn't professionalism or a formal skill, but something in the DNA.

They were born to be funny. They can't help it. It's their gift and their curse and our -- dare we say it? Yes, we dare -- blessing.

Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg (60 minutes) premieres tonight at 10 on TV Land.

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