David Steinberg comes across as such a genial, emotionally healthy fellow one can appreciate why he’s survived so long in the comedy game when some of his contemporaries didn’t. So it’s easy to forget what a fascinating career he’s enjoyed until treated to something like “Quality Balls – The David Steinberg Story,” a breezy trip through the comic’s career, from his early Second City days to standup material that landed him on Richard Nixon’s enemies list to his third act as a successful director. The title might come from an admiring observation by Jerry Seinfeld, but this is completely Steinberg’s show.
Those only marginally familiar with Steinberg will likely marvel at the names he can casually drop (Johnny Carson, Groucho Marx), and might wonder why his biblical sermons — which he began by ad-libbing, remarkably, a byproduct of his time studying theology at yeshiva before he began pursuing comedy — caused such a fuss at the time.
Yet Steinberg’s pleasant demeanor masks an utterly fearless streak, which included tackling Nixon in a way that caught the administration’s attention and performing his Moses routine on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” which got the popular show canceled when star-producer Tom Smothers challenged the network by booking Steinberg again after his first appearance garnered boxes of hate mail.
One of the most timely aspects of the documentary, given the current latenight baton pass, involves Steinberg’s instant rapport with Carson, which not only led to countless guest shots on “The Tonight Show” but also serving as a substitute host.
It’s practically worth sitting through “Quality Balls” for those clips alone, although the doc (directed by Barry Avrich) does a nice job of taking in the totality of Steinberg’s career, including how a favorable New York Times review launched him, how Burt Reynolds used his clout to get him into directing (beginning with the movie “Paternity”) and why he gravitated toward moving behind the camera as a shift from the grueling nature of the comedy-club scene.
“Quality Balls” features Steinberg venturing back on stage, and that offers a taste of his low-key act, which was built around telling stories as much as drop-dead punchlines. Beyond Seinfeld the special features a vast assortment of family, comics and colleagues, including Larry David, Phil Rosenthal and Alan Zweibel (pictured with Steinberg and David above), relating observations and anecdotes.
Showtime will air the doc prior to the return of Steinberg’s half-hour program, “Inside Comedy,” in which he interviews fellow comics about their craft. It’s a quality combination — reason to applaud all involved with a hearty “Booga booga.” The only minor drawback is that while we’re always being told how hard comedy is, Steinberg, once again, sort of makes it look easy.