NOTES FOR DAVID STEINBERG'S DISGUISED
AS A NORMAL PERSON
late 1960s and early
1970s, a new group of comedians emerged from the counterculture who
were more engaged with realistic commentary on politics, sex, ethnic
identity, and youthful lifestyle than the previous generation of
entertainers had been. One of the most visible of the young upstarts
was David Steinberg, who gained wide network TV exposure through his
appearances on Johnny Carson's
Tonight Show and The Smothers
Brothers Comedy Hour, as well as a stint hosting the Music Scene rock and pop music
program in 1969 and 1970. In 1970, he also made his debut recording, Disguised As a Normal Person,
recorded live at the Bitter End in New York City.
I was sort of an opening act," says Steinberg today. "I opened for a
lot of jazz musicians, because my style was very different than the
comedians of the time. I needed a listening
audience. So I opened for the Modern Jazz Quartet and people like Bill
Evans and Thelonious Monk in small jazz clubs. About 1970, I was on The Tonight Show quite a bit; I'd
already hosted The Tonight Show
a few times. I was able to then pull in my own audience, to fill up
clubs like the Bitter End, Cellar Door in Washington, Paul's Mall [in
Boston]. It would be a couple years before I would get a sort of
concert audience that would fill up to a little more than that."
When it came time to make his first album, Steinberg
hooked up with Elektra since its president and founder, Jac Holzman,
"was a friend of mine. They came to see the show, we started to talk,
they started to [ask] 'what would you like to do.' One thing led to
another, and we were doing this live appearance. The Bitter End was
very small. I doubt if you [could] get more than 120 people in there at
the time." The resulting recording, he adds, "was a good, interesting
version of my first material, what I was doing at the time. I still
talked a little more haltingly than I would later on, after I had my
own television show. I have, I guess, a slow storytelling style. Johnny
Carson always used to say to me off-camera, 'You're talking much too
slowly.' Once I heard that, I started to speed up my act a little bit."
Elektra was at this time also recording another hot
comedian named David, David Frye, who specialized in Richard Nixon
impersonations. Steinberg, points out Holzman, "was an actual comedian,
which David Frye wasn't. David Frye did stuff written for him. David
[Steinberg] had something of a schleb persona, not as bad as Woody
Allen. It seemed that he was able to catch the tension and anxieties
between young men and young women, especially dating, first dates, and
those sorts of circumstances." Steinberg himself acknowledges that
"Judy Disney" "was me being very influenced by Woody Allen. That
almost was my trying to do a version of a Woody Allen piece. I always
liked that piece of material. I liked the storytelling in that; it was
based on a sort of true story that I could just exaggerate."
While dating and Woody Allen's influence made their
way into some of the pieces on Disguised
As a Normal Person, the LP also included some political and
religious content that, though given a low-key delivery, was pretty
daring for its day. "Nowadays if you listen to the album, you will say,
'Well, you might sound like observational comedy,'" reflects Steinberg.
"But no one was doing that at the time. Just a handful of people. Bob
Klein was just sort of starting, Cosby had started, Richie Pryor was
just taking off. We were considered counterculture at the time. We
didn't know that a lot of things that we were talking about, a lot of
the paranoia and stuff like that, was accurate."
Indeed, most of side two was taken up by a couple
pieces—"The Coast, Bullshit, and Nixon," and a multi-part sermon—that
sparked genuine controversy. Merely using the word "bullshit" in a
recording, let alone the title of a track on an LP, was almost unheard
of in 1970. "That was shocking," acknowledges Steinberg. "It's hard to
imagine, because we've come so far. You could alienate an audience just
by saying the word offstage. I didn't really care. It was just, to me,
a good piece of material. I always liked that routine, because I could
improvise off the political moment in there. And I knew my audience would like it. What I
liked about it was how shocking it was. I did that at a tribute in L.A.
right after that for Johnny Carson; Jack Benny was the host. Carson
knew the routine so well he wanted me to do it, and he was right. They
responded incredibly to it. It was the first time I ever did this for a
big Establishment audience and saw it go over well."
Steinberg's sermons had already caused a stir in the
entertainment world, as "the Smothers Brothers were thrown off the air
for the sermon I did, just 'cause it was considered irreverent,
anti-whatever. No one had ever done any humor on the Bible." For that
matter, Steinberg adds, for all the many Jews working in standup
comedy, few before him had been so open about their ethnic identity.
"They weren't working in my style," he observes. "I don't mean to
disparage them, but you had Joey Bishop, Alan King, and Buddy Hackett,
who all had to, when they started out, change their names, because they
couldn't even appear to have too Jewish a name. That's how tense it was
to be openly Jewish. Stand-up hadn't developed into a form where Jewish
comedians expressed themselves. The difference was that I was in a
curious way militantly Jewish, and not sort of self-deprecating Jewish.
And the other comedians didn't deal with Jewish material, even though
they were Jewish themselves."
As a Normal Person consisted almost wholly of live material,
there were a couple of unusual, surreal insertions of studio-recorded
routines with "A Phone Call" and, in "Moses," at the very end of the
LP. "That was just me starting to play with surreal ideas that I
eventually did on my television shows, where I talked to a gorilla
foot," David explains. "I was just trying to break into what might
appear to be predictable on a live comedy album, and try to do
something else. That was just me playing around a little bit in the
The TV-shaped pictures on the front and back covers,
incidentally, were taken "from a David Susskind show called How to Be a Jewish Son. It was
George Segal, Mel Brooks, myself, a guy from Goldberg's Pizzeria, and a
designer of clothes. This was an almost legendary show in New York. It
was Mel Brooks probably at his absolute best. The show was shown almost
every New Year's in New York for ten years."
Disguised As a
Normal Person did well for a debut comedy LP, making it into the
national album charts, albeit peaking at a modest #182. It was,
however, Steinberg's only Elektra record, as "I think Columbia came and
courted me away real quickly, and probably made a better deal." While
Steinberg did a few more comedy albums, he branched out into other
areas of the entertainment field over the next few decades, directing
and producing numerous television programs. He's still very much in
touch with his roots, however, as the host of the current TV Land show Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg.
For more information about his past and present activities, check out
his website, www.davidsteinberg.tv. -- Richie Unterberger
unless otherwise specified.
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