The man has appeared Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show more often than anyone but Bob Hope. His David Steinberg Show first assembled the talent who would become SCTV. He’s worked with Groucho Marx and directed Newhart and Seinfeld. His irreverent sermons won over audiences at Second City and got the Smothers Brothers thrown off the air.
I made him talk about his cameos as the rabbi on Mad About You.
Fortunately, the affable Steinberg called that series he frequently directed “one of my favourite things I’ve done, too.”
“Paul (Reiser) and Helen (Hunt) made me do that,” he recalled. “I had turned down all these offers to just be a director. They said, ‘well, who can we cast as this rabbi,’ when it was written for me. I didn’t realize that. I said, ‘I have no idea, but let’s go to this person and that person.’ It took forever before I caught on to the fact that they wanted me to do it.”
In content and tone there’s not much similarity between Mad About You and the latest series he’s executive produced and directed. Living In Your Car, premiering May 7 on HBO Canada, stars John Ralston as a financial executive charged with fraud, obstruction and racketeering, trying to rebuild his life after he cuts a deal to be released from prison.
There is a clear stylistic similarity between the two shows, however: the fast pace, akin to a screwball comedy of the 1930s.
“I was always making them talk faster,” Steinberg said. “If you look at Mad About You, that was a notion I brought to that as well. Paul and Helen are walking through the apartment they’re talking fast and they don’t stop for a joke at all. Even if the audience is laughing, they don’t stop for it. That’s my style. “
“Once I found what I like, I do it everywhere.”
Though he’s earned the right to be highly selective with his projects, and his forays into Canadian television have been few (there was also Big Sound for Global a few years ago), he found what he liked in the Living In Your Car scripts.
The Movie Network played matchmaker between him and the writers after first meeting with Steinberg about Single White Spenny, a pilot that ended up going to Showcase.
“Their creative notions were the same as mine,” he said of co-creators George F. Walker and Dani Romain. “That’s always a good start, because you never know when that’s going to fall apart when you’re working together. It never did.”
“George and Dani had written eight episodes already and the Madoff crisis had just broken when I was in Toronto pitching these other shows. I couldn’t believe they had these scripts ready, and I jumped on board.”
There is a certain bravery in centering a series around a Goldman Sachs-esque executive, but Steinberg sees the timing as opportune. He also sees similarities with another series he directs: Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“That’s exactly the best part, to have an antihero like that. Of course I’m getting to be an expert at that – you can’t get more of an antihero than Larry (David). There’s more fun in a negative character. The old rule that you have to be wonderful in a father-knows-best world is gone.”
Casting was the key to avoiding the audience's Goldman Sachs-esque rage toward the lead character, whose wife, daughter and parents reject him, and whose desperation to regain his former life begins with clinging to a luxury sedan.
“The choice of John Ralston was very important to all of us,” Steinberg said. “We wanted someone to turn around your notion of what a bad guy is. John by nature is the most delightful person. As an actor he’s remarkable.”
“The goal was to make this like one of those ‘30s fast talking movies of Howard Hawkes or Preston Sturge, where they never stop, they don’t stop for a joke, they just keep moving, and the bad guys are charming. That was our notion, and to my surprise we seem to have accomplished it.”
Living In Your Car airs Fridays on HBO Canada.