By Richie Unterberger

In the 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.

    "Up until then, 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."

    Although Disguised 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 recording studio."

    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, -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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