What started out as a documentary to probe the minds and community of comedians quickly became too expansive for just 90 minutes. A TV series could better capture the conceptual nuances and jazz-like rhythms of comic banter. Thus was born Showtime’s Inside Comedy, where director David Steinberg interviews some of that industry’s most prolific and singular talent.
The 10 shows–which Steinberg executive-produces alongside Steve Carell and Vance DeGeneres (Ellen’s producer brother), among others–delves into what influenced these comics and shaped their vision. It premieres Jan. 26 with Don Rickles and Jerry Seinfeld. Subsequent episodes include Carell and Ellen DeGeneres, as well as Chris Rock, Billy Crystal (during Oscar week), Larry David, Tina Fey, Jane Lynch, Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Tim Conway, Robin Williams, and Jonathan Winters. Shows vary from single interviews to those swinging back and forth between comics in separately conducted sessions–a process that took nearly a year to edit.
Steinberg–a Second City (Chicago), stand-up comedy, and Broadway veteran who has directed episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds and Seinfeld–noted two common denominators in his subjects’ creative processes: inspiration…and failure.
“You need to be influenced by someone,” Steinberg told Fast Company during an evening event at the Television Critics Association in Pasadena, CA earlier this month. “You need to see someone who blows your mind and you say, ‘Okay, I want to do that.'”
“Our show covers all kinds of comedy,” he added. “But if you’re talking about stand-up comedy, you can succeed at it by just writing something, and going ahead and doing it. You have to be onstage and you must fail. You have to try things and let the audience hone it for you. If you’re not getting a laugh, you’re not succeeding. It’s a very grueling process, and comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock–even now–when they want new material, it’s the same process as when they were starting out. They have to go to a small place and try it out. It might not work for a month or two, but then they find it.”
But while emerging as an artist, finding your voice is not the same as branding a product. “You have to dig deep inside yourself to find out what it is that makes you original,” Steinberg said. “If you start out with it being a business, you don’t stand a chance. If you start out because it’s the only way you know how to express yourself, you have a pretty good chance.”
The series has already generated buzz within the comedy community. Within minutes, Steinberg was interrupted by Lisa Kudrow, Don Roos, and Dan Bucatinsky, who co-created the web-turned-Showtime series, Web Therapy.
“Sorry to interrupt, but we’re so excited about his show,” said Bucatinsky. “Creating unconventional formats in television is very exiting to me. I believe inspiration is contagious. A documentary series that brings comedic talent of different generations to talk about comedy to each other is not your typical format, and I thought it was a genius idea.”
At a press conference for the show the following day, Larry David and Tim Conway touched upon what made Steinberg such an effective interviewer.
“He’s the kind of guy who you just want to confide in,” said David. “You want to tell him secrets for some reason. Also, any kind of psychosis that you have, he also has, so you know that he can relate. Any insane thing you’ve mentioned, he’s like, ‘Yeah, I did that in college.’ Everything you’ve thought of, he’s already experienced, and, I have to say, he brings out the best in you, which, for me, is a tall order.”
“David is a marvelous interviewer because he knows when to shut up,” added Conway. “He sees openings, he jumps in, he asks the question, and then shuts up and lets somebody else talk. Or he points to certain things that he knows will get him to another station in the interview.”
Steinberg said the magic sprang from not preparing for the interviews.
“I didn’t do any research,” he said. “A spontaneous interview feels differently than anything else you see on television. And that’s what makes them so surprising, and why the revelations come up. I’m not after a gotcha question. I’m not after deep revelations, although Jonathan Winters very openly starts to talk about his mental illness [bipolar disorder]. I am genuinely interested in what I’m hearing and making it a conversation. So as a result, it’s the two of us, in it together.”