The Ear: The <i>Daily</i> Factor

Comedian David Steinberg continues in his role as “Ear”—that is, a sounding board--to some of the funniest people working today.

DAVID STEINBERG: A bit casually dressed, are you--jeans and T-shirt?
Jon Stewart:
Clearly, I didn’t realize we were to wear bat mitzvah attire. You said come by Friday night. It’ll be late. We’ll sit. We’ll talk, I thought. In typical life, what would you wear? Let’s say you’re directing.

I’d dress like you.
But tonight, a suit. Very nice. I like the cuffs.

The cuffs are nice, yeah. A little too much, you think?
No, no, no.

A little too Jewish?
Is that a Jewish thing, the cuffs?

I don’t really know. I’m not the expert on what are Jewish things or what are not Jewish things.
Oh, really, Mr. Steinberg?

When I was doing The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, he used to always know whether I had good or bad material by how quickly I said “Jew.”
What would the over and under be?

Three minutes would be long for me. I would’ve been in there with, “You know Jews, Johnny…we have a different way of seeing the world.”
And he would respond with something along the lines of, “You certainly are a silly, silly people.”

Would he talk to you during the commercials? What would the general tenure of the discussion be? ‘Cause I’m always looking for someone to fashion my commercial banter.

We would always be laughing about something. Sometimes it would be about how what I just did “sucked.” But like most comedians, Johnny and I bonded not just about the people we liked but about the people we hated. So there was a lot to talk and laugh about.
Now, that’s interesting—constructive things. Do you think he was the last of the guys that did a talk show unneurotically?

Yes, he did something that was different from what’s going on now. He could actually ordain the culture. If you had a good appearance with Johnny, you had a career the next day. Your show has a similar importance. It affects culture. Are you enjoying it?
As much as you can enjoy something that is relentless.

Because of the news you deal with?
Because you feel a little bit like you’re trying to make something entertaining for people that is inherently not entertaining. And by the way, there’s nothing more exciting than a comedian discussing the process.

Yes, it’s riveting.
I consider us like drunken guys at a bar yelling at the TV, and they try to turn that into something relatively pleasant to watch. It’s a little dispiriting.

When you have guests that maybe aren’t your favorite people, what do you talk to them about during the break when you have that awkward three minutes?
This gets to what you were talking about. Did you have that experience doing The Tonight Show?

It’s not as if I never disliked a guest. I had guests that surprised me.
It’s amazing to me the change in pacing of those shows. If you go back and watch the old Carsons and the old Jack Paar shows, it’s a pace that feels like a Calgon bath. And it’s so enjoyable to watch. Today, you have on the former Secretary of Defense in four and a half minutes--it’s kind of literally like speed dating, where you just sit down, and you immediately go, “You were wrong about troop flow going to Iraq.” My only focus group is people in cabs as they’re driving by me. You know: “Why didn’t you ask that guy...?” Dude, I had three minutes! I don’t know why! I’m sorry!

I have a theory about your show. Do you care to hear my theory?
Do I care to? I’m on the edge of my seat. I’m on pins and needles.

Well, in the ‘70s, there were a lot of sitcoms like Petticoat Junction that are very well remembered now. And your show is a very smart, funny, witty show, and...
Are you saying that my show is the Petticoat Junction and that I, I guess, am Uncle Joe?

My theory is, why is all the dreck from the past remembered and worshipped? In other words, there were great shows that were on at the same time, and all people remember are Petticoat Junction and Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres. Nice shows. But there were other great shows that are not remembered at all. So my theory is, maybe Plato and Socrates were not the best philosophers of their time. Maybe they were the Petticoat Junction and the Beverly Hillbillies of their time.
Wow. That is a good theory. So how does this tie to me?

Your show is topical.
Can I tell you something? Mexican food has a longer shelf life than our show. We don’t have any shelf life for our shows. They dissolve on your tongue like a tab of acid. Can you watch yourself?

No, I don’t watch myself ever, really. I mean, in fact, even if I need to edit myself, I have someone else come in. Do you watch yourself?
No, ‘cause why try and learn something from what you’ve done? My feeling is I already have the job. Why learn from what I’m doing? The best part is, as judgmental as you are, no one is more judgmental than your biggest fans. They’re the ones who watch your show way closer than you would ever in a million years and ascribe all types of motivations to the things you do, and their criticisms are the ones where you really go, Oh.

How do you get their criticisms?After a show. Walking down a hallway. Someone will come up to you—I played a casino in Toronto this weekend, and as I was leaving, a couple came up and said, “Oh, we saw you tonight.” I said, “Oh, well, I hope you had a nice time.” “You did a lot of the material we saw you do in Toronto a year and a half ago.” And I sort of just stood there, and I went, “Yeah, they didn’t tell me you were gonna come to this one, too.”

Were you a funny kid?
I wasn’t morose.

You weren’t morose.
I don’t think so. I mean, humor is incredibly subjective. It’s not like singing and painting. Singing and painting are magic. Somebody can paint a beautiful picture, and people can look at that and think, That’s magic. I don’t know how to do that. So for a comedian, no one thinks what we’re doing is anything. They just think we’re [bleep] lucky. That’s always what it is.

Yeah, it’s true.
You meet people on the street, and they say, “You’re a comedian. I got a friend of mine I work with down at Midas. Now, he’s really funny.” You’re just a guy making funny faces and tape pieces.

You do get that. I always hear singers say, “And now I’d like to sing best of Sinatra.” Comedians, you can’t say, “And now I’d like to do Richie Pryor’s album.”
There goes my tour.

You have two kids, right? My kids are in their twenties, but yours are still little.

Have you spoken to them about drugs yet?
Just the ones I’ve been testing on them. This age is so wonderful I cannot place myself into the dilemmas I will face when they’re older, because I’m still way too in love with this phase. So I try very hard not to—'cause I’m weak. I’m soft, and my love of these two little people is heartbreaking. Sometimes it can be hard, though. We were in a coffee place, and a little girl we know comes over to my son. She’s the sweetest, really—just the most delightful little girl ever. She comes over, and she just takes his Doodle Pro, just walks over and takes it. And he doesn’t even throw a tantrum. He literally does not know the world can operate that way. He turns to me, and I just look, and his eyes are filled with water. And his lip is out, and I immediately in that moment think, I am going to have to kill this little girl I don’t want to, really I don’t. I know in my heart that she is a decent and sweet little girl who only wants the thing. But she made his eyes water. And I cannot have that on my watch.

Talk about your starting-out places.
I was working as the day bartender at a Mexican restaurant on MacDougal Street--which, by the way, if you’re ever looking to live the dream, the day bartender makes nothing. But there was a club right down the street called the Comedy Cellar. And there was a guy there named Bill Grundfest. He did the best thing for me ever, which was: “I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’m not gonna pay you, but I’m gonna let you go on every night as the last guy.” And so I went on for two years at the Comedy Cellar at 2:30 or 3 a.m. as the last guy. It was me and the waitstaff and a table of drunken Dutch sailors. And in that place, I learned how to be myself. It was the thing that made me want to be good. You begin to develop an internal barometer that doesn’t include the audience. And that was a really big thing to learn: not to fall in love with the audience.

Jon, when you started out doing stand-up, were you single? Did you get the benefit of groupies and stuff like that?
Oh, you know the comedy groupies. I’ve always thought that the world’s greatest comedians get less than the world’s worst bass player. And they always say, “Sense of humor is so important to me. That’s why I’m in love with Don Rickles.” Yeah, sure, sense of humor is very important to you in theory.

Do you think about how you’re going to be remembered?
People always say, “What are you trying to do here? What’s your game? What’s this Daily Show, anyway? What’s that all about? You know, what’s your statement? What’s your agenda?” What we’re trying to do is to do our show at the same level Seinfeld did the sitcom—to me, that was perfect.

One last question: If you could choose a candidate, who would it be?
I’m gonna go with Lincoln. I think he has a certain quality about him. An honesty, if you will.