"Inside Comedy"

“Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades,” by David Steinberg.

Think of your favorite comic and your mind will likely not conjure the image of David Steinberg. There are many lists that exist ranking the “greatest” comedians of all time.

Many of these have Richard Pryor as their No. 1. He was a close friend of Steinberg, who is on no “greatest” list that I have seen but makes a persuasive case that he could be in his new, entertaining and enlightening book, “Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades.” Steinberg does not offer his own list. But he gives a reader a colorful and personal panorama of the laugh makers he has known, plenty of them.

His admiration for the talents of others is boundless. He is not at all loathe to attach the word “genius” to dozens of comedic pals. He is generally self-effacing though he can pat himself on the back a bit, writing, “I was one of a group of people — along with Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and a few others — who pushed stand-up as an art form and made comedy an important part of the culture.”

Much of the material here is drawn from the series of interviews he conducted on the show he hosted (and co-produced with Steve Carell) on Showtime, “Inside Comedy.” It ran from 2012 to 2015 and showcased some 75 comics, Mel Brooks to Louis C.K., Bette Midler to Sarah Silverman.

The book offers anecdote-spiced biographical tidbits. Did you know, for instance, that Wanda Sykes worked for the National Security Agency for five years? Or that Richard Lewis stopped drinking for keeps in 1994? Or that Will Ferrell’s father played with the Righteous Brothers?

Steinberg has had a charmed life, spiced with such oddities as his “smoking weed” with Jack Nicholson and being the best man at mobster Joey Gallo’s wedding.

Steinberg’s foundational years were spent here. He arrived from his hometown of Winnipeg in Canada to attend the Chicago Jewish Academy at 15, studying to be a rabbi. A friend suggested he take some courses at the University of Chicago, and he fondly remembers attending classes taught by novelists Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. But vastly more influential was a trip he made to the Gate of Horn, the famous folk/jazz club in the Rush Street area. That’s where he saw Lenny Bruce.

“He was a revelation,” Steinberg writes. “I suddenly knew that I wanted to be as smart as much as I wanted to be funny. And then I realized that being funny is a version of being smart.”

He was next fortuitously drawn to The Second City. He would become a star in a galaxy that also featured Robert Klein, Joan Rivers, Alan Arkin, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and so many others.

The Second City was, he writes, “like a family. I was twenty years old, and for the first time in my life, I’d found something that I really wanted to do … I’d snuck in under the circus tent and found magic. I was on fire.”

He was there for six years and then off to New York where he starts a career and life packed with activities, accomplishments and friendships.

He was a successful stand-up. He made comedy albums. He appeared in a couple of Broadway flops. He toured for two years with Robin Williams. He married twice and had couple of daughters, though we don’t get much about those personal details. He has had TV shows of his own, appeared in many others and became a sought-after director for such shows as “The Golden Girls,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and on and on and on.

His journey is lively and might help introduce a new generation to some of the bygone comedians whose names have unfairly fallen into obscurity. He used to have lunch with Groucho Marx and tells us of the surprising depth of Red Buttons.

His friends have been very generous with their praise for the book and the now 79-year-old author: “He will always be one of my comedy heroes” (Jerry Seinfeld); “David has always been a comedy hero to me” (Martin Short); “David’s memory blows me away” (Lily Tomlin); “This book is like going to a comedy museum except you can laugh out loud” (Billy Crystal).

“Inside Comedy: The Soul, Wit, and Bite of Comedy and Comedians of the Last Five Decades” by David Steinberg; Knopf (352 pages, $30)

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