For decades, comedian David Steinberg has polarized generations with his countercultural political satire. From his mock sermons on “The Smothers Brothers Comedic Hour” to President Richard Nixon hiring people to heckle his shows, Steinberg stands as a comedian without fear who is unafraid to push the envelope.
Steinberg will bring these sensibilities to Chautauqua Institution as he discusses politics, humanity and the inner workings of comedy with Sirius XM radio host Kelly Carlin at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater.
Starting his stand-up career as one of Johnny Carson’s most-featured guests, Steinberg became a lightning rod for controversy in the early ’70s. Associate Director of Education and Youth Services Matt Ewalt highlighted how his brand of comedy pushed censorship.
“His mock sermons on the ‘Smothers Brothers (Comedy Hour)’ led to its cancellation,” Ewalt said.
Carlin said Steinberg, along with Robert Klein and her father, George Carlin, were part of a unit of comedians whose roots came from political satire and criticisms of society, especially religion.
“It was the early ’70s, you weren’t allowed to do that,” Carlin said. “You couldn’t take down religion or politics. That group pushed the envelope.”
Steinberg faced backlash, taking shots at presidential candidate Nixon on “The Tonight Show.” In an interview with The Wrap last year, Steinberg said that despite pressure from CBS and “parties around the White House,” Carson let Steinberg continue doing his shtick, telling him “you just do whatever you want,” leading to Nixon hiring hecklers to attend Steinberg’s shows when he took office.
“I didn’t know that they were hired by the president,” Steinberg told The Wrap. “I found out later because it would be the same two, three people. … They’d only heckle when I did the Nixon material. Now it seems obvious, but then, it was unbelievable that they would care about a comedian not even with a huge following like myself.”
And with Nixon’s practices come comparisons to President Donald Trump’s own impact as commander-in-chief so far, with both presidents’ outspoken nature and the parallels between Nixon’s Watergate scandal and Trump’s Russian controversy.
Carlin wonders if, with satirical television like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” taking down institutions and the government, that loss of respect led to Trump’s election — something she wants to dive into with Steinberg.
“Are we OK with all of this burning down now (of government) because this is what we wanted on the left?” Carlin said. “Is it OK that the right and the left have a common enemy? I think that’s an interesting conversation.”
Outside of politics, Carlin is interested in talking about Steinberg’s role as a utility man in comedy. A man the Hollywood Reporter once called the Kevin Bacon of comedy, Steinberg has connections spanning from Jerry Seinfeld to Jonah Hill.
In an interview with “George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight,” Steinberg acknowledged his tendency to take on everything in comedy.
“I’m sort of like a nymphomaniac,” Steinberg said. “I never said no to anything.”
From directing episodes of critically acclaimed shows like “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” to his Showtime show, “Inside Comedy,” where he talks to comedians about life in comedy and their experiences in a variety of mediums, Steinberg’s done it all. Carlin wants to explore how he’s handled the various jobs inside comedy.
“I’m really interested in talking to him about what kind of muscle he has to use in stand-up, versus improv, versus writing for other people, versus directing,” Carlin said. “All those things use different comedic muscles.”
Carlin also wants to discuss the role of comedy in culture, and the lack of respect it gets compared to other genres.
“Comedy is the bastard stepchild of art forms,” Carlin said. “It doesn’t get the same respect as drama. We see that with the Oscars, comedy rarely gets nominated for best picture. In some ways comedy is not seen as important because of laughter, but laughter is a huge part of humanity.”
Ewalt said Steinberg’s the perfect person to talk about issues of free speech, censorship and political pressure on the art form of comedy.
“David’s work speaks to multiple generations,” Ewalt said. “It’s that perspective that brings Chautauquans together in conversation about how comedy changes, critiques and challenges all of us.”
Staff writer Brian Contreras contributed to this report.