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Singers, Sax Players and a 'Fugue for Tinhorns'

Saxophonist Harry Allen and singer-instrumentalist Eddie Erickson are just two of the performers on a new CD, The Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet Perform Music From 'Guys and Dolls'. Erickson, who's best known as a guitarist, is featured on the disc as a vocalist, singing Frank Loesser's tunes alongside Rebecca Kilgore.

14:10

Other segments from the episode on August 20, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 20, 2007: Interview with David Steinberg; Interview with Harry Allen and Eddie Erickson.

Transcript

DATE August 20, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Comic and director David Steinberg on his life and
work, on guest hosting "The Tonight Show" and his new memoir
"The Book of David"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our first guest today, David Steinberg, discovered improv comedy as a very
young man and has been living off it, and working in it, ever since. In the
1960s, he became famous for his improvised comic sermons about the Bible, one
of which was partly responsible for CBS yanking "The Smothers Brothers Comedy
Hour" off the hour. Steinberg continued to release hit comedy recordings of
his stand-up act, but in the past 20 years David Steinberg has done most of
his work behind the camera, as a director, usually working with other
like-minded, quick-thinking comics. His directorial credits read like a who's
who of cutting edge TV comedy. They include working with Gary Shandling on
"It's Gary Shandling's Show"; Paul Reiser on "Mad About You"; Bob Newhart on
"Newhart"; Jerry Seinfeld on "Seinfeld"; and Larry David on "Curb Your
Enthusiasm."

In the 1960s and '70s David Steinberg was one of Johnny Carson's most frequent
guests and earliest guest hosts on "The Tonight Show." Decades later, he's
still a TV host, interviewing other comedians on TV Land's "Sit Down Comedy
with David Steinberg." He also recently published a memoir, his first, titled
"The Book of David."

David Steinberg, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. DAVID STEINBERG: Oh, thank you, Dave. It's a pleasure to be here.

BIANCULLI: I want to start the interview with you by playing a portion of you
interviewing somebody else.

Mr. STEINBERG: OK.

BIANCULLI: It's from "Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg"...

Mr. STEINBERG: OK.

BIANCULLI: ...which is the show you've done for two seasons now on TV Land...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes, yes.

BIANCULLI: ...and I'm on the record of liking that show a lot. In it you
spend a half hour or an hour just sitting in front of the audience with a
fellow comic, talking, and the part that I want to play is a time that struck
me as so unusual. It's a visit with Jon Stewart.

Mr. STEINBERG: OK.

BIANCULLI: And the conversation is so casual that Stewart doesn't even know
that you've returned from commercial and resumed the program for real.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

(Soundbite of "Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg")

Mr. STEINBERG: Your real name is Leibowitz?

Mr. JON STEWART: What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: That is indeed my real last name. Stewart is my middle name.

Mr. STEINBERG: Stewart. Oh. So you were a Stewart, so that's how you took
the last name Stewart. Why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: I--that's an excellent question. There's a simple answer. I
was distancing myself from my family.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: Well, that makes sense.

Mr. STEWART: Yes.

Mr. STEINBERG: I understand that.

Mr. STEWART: OK, good.

Mr. STEINBERG: You see when I started...

Mr. STEWART: Are we on TV again?

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah, we are.

Mr. STEWART: Oh.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Oh, I didn't know about that.

Mr. STEINBERG: It was a sort very subtle sort of transition.

Mr. STEWART: I had assumed that if you said, `We have to take a break for a
commercial,' at some point you might say, `And now we're back.' So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART ...I had assumed that while we were here now--now I find we are
back and just at the moment when I'm like `and I'm gay--what? Oh, we're back.
OK. That's great. All right. Now what do I do?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEWART: It's a very subtle technique of getting exactly what you need
from your guest and then fixing it in post.

Mr STEINBERG: It did occur to me to say, `we're back,' right? But since we
just went into dialogue, I thought we could just continue talking.

Mr. STEWART: This is, and people don't realize, this is the improvisational
performer in you.

Mr. STEINBERG: That's correct.

Mr. STEWART: This is...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Is he right? Is that the improv performer in you?

Mr. STEINBERG: What I wanted to do, Dave, was to do a show where it's me
interviewing comedians, but it's two comedians talking, so my notion was sort
of like jazz musicians so it's not just--I didn't want anyone talking about
their craft, I want to show the craft by just being funny about the
conversation and your life, and there's an example of it.

BIANCULLI: Now, one of the things in your book, "The Book of David," that you
mention is that you actually broke to a different level with Johnny Carson on
"The Tonight Show" by getting away from that sort of prepared, preparatory
material.

Mr. STEINBERG: I did. You know what happened, Dave, was very early on he
asked me to host the show, and actually on my second appearance on "The
Tonight Show," he said to me, `You know, I get really tired doing the show. I
think next Monday I'm going to take off. Do you want to host the show?' I
said, `Sure.' You know, I was, you know, 26 years old, thinking that I
deserved all of this. I was so arrogant, and I said, `Sure. Yeah. Why not?'
and in hosting the show, I saw what happens. I have to look at a question, I
have to lead the guest in by asking a question that he will answer, and then I
had to know what his outline was, I had to know when he was getting out by
looking at a note. And you remember, you're on camera so you're sort of
sneaking your notes, you have to look at it ahead of time...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...but it makes for is it didn't allow me to really listen to
the other guest real well because you're just letting him talk and then when
he's funny, it's over, you just move on to the next thing. So having learned
that as a host, I thought, I would love to just free Carson up from having to
look at a note at all. So I said, `Why don't we just--I will give you just
subjects. I'll give you sports. In fact, we were in New York at the time. I
said, `We'll talk about the Nicks'--at that time I was single--`and we'll talk
about dating. And you can go in any order you want. I will have a beginning,
middle and end worked out. If we get to it, it's fine. If we don't get to
it, it's fine.' And he said to me `David, this is just the worst idea.' He
said, `It just won't work.' I said, `Fine.'

And then, he didn't let me do it that night, but the following six weeks--but
four weeks later I replaced--a guest dropped out so I was brought in at the
last minute, and I said, `Just let's try it. Here are the areas and all of
that.' Well, I thought it was going to work, but what I didn't realize about
it, Dave, is that the connection with Carson--if I would introduce my material
or my ideas, whatever it was, let's say about dating. I'm talking about a
date with a girl who dropped her contact lens in my mashed potatoes or
something like that...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: He was always funnier about the material that I had than I
was. Or as funny, but he was free to participate whenever he wanted to, so
what I realized at the end of that show is it's not just about the lines and
how witty you are as a guest. It's about the connection. When you're on
television and you connect with Johnny, when he connected with me, that was
the palpable feeling that the audience had that was more important than how
witty I was, how many lines I had, how funny I was. And I started to feel it
even when people would talk to me on the street. `Oh, Johnny seems to enjoy
you so much, and it's so much fun watching you two guys together' and all of
that. So I guest lucked into the right way to present myself.

BIANCULLI: Was there during that first time when you weren't doing material,
when you were just trading topics, that you got a sense from him that he loved
what you were doing and accepted it?

Mr. STEINBERG: Well, yes. I would get that just because there's only one
way that a comedian gets love real fast in his mind from someone else, and
that is laughter. He would just--we would just laugh, he would laugh at me,
laugh at what I was saying, and I had an advantage over other comedians
because I had come from Second City, where I could improvise off of my own
material, so it was a little bit looser than most people at the time...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...and I think--and yes, and he committed to me right away
and he would commit to me on the air. He would just say `That's just great,'
or laugh or put his finger under his eye and just--that laughter made all the
difference.

BIANCULLI: Here's a question about the book I don't want you to take the
wrong way.

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh, I have a feeling I'm going to just from the question.

BIANCULLI: No, no, no. You talk about your comedic influences as a stand-up
comic being Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, and then you were lucky...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...enough to have a reviewer actually mention that...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes, yeah.

BIANCULLI: Those two exactly.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: The part I hope you don't take an insult or...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...or take umbrage at is whether in writing, the style of the book
that you're writing, doing it biblically all the way through...

Mr. STEINBERG: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Are you still emulating Woody Allen? Are you trying to?

Mr. STEINBERG: Well, you couldn't emulate a more brilliant comic mind. So,
no, I don't take umbrage at that at all. Yeah. Woody's writing is the
best--I love the way he writes. Now, when I got the review, my influences
were Woody Allen as a comedian, and Lenny Bruce, who--I had seen them, and
they were spectacular. When I got that review at the bitter end, and they
said a cross between Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, I found it embarrassing
because I had thought I had carved my own niche out at that point.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: I didn't realize I was just copying my idols, so in answer to
your question: yes. You know, the people you respect, you know, so long as
you're not plagiarizing or stealing from them, you have to let that influence
be in you. Woody, because of the craftsmanship of lines and self-deprecating
style and an elevated kind of comedy.

And Lenny Bruce, when I saw him--I was at University of Chicago and I was was
21 years old. I hadn't ever seen--I came from Canada, I had never seen a play
or a comedian, and William Alton, who was running Second City, took me to see
him, and what I absorbed from Lenny Bruce, just in looking back that I didn't
even realize was, I learned from him that you don't need the entire audience
if you're a comedian. If fact, if you're too needy of that entire audience,
you're not really going to find your own style. Lenny, in those days, in
Chicago, he was packed always at the Gate of Horn, but he only had a third of
the audience with him, and the two-thirds of the audience, they were there to
sort of scowl or just--you know, he was always described as Lenny "Blue Boy"
Bruce...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...and he'd been arrested in Chicago, and I don't know what
they were there for, but they had no identification with them at all, and he
didn't seem to mind at all. So that was a really important lesson for me, is
don't play to the sort of mass audience, don't water yourself down. Find your
audience the hard way, by finding a third and then maybe that'll become a
little bit bigger and bigger. So those are the two lessons from both of those
guys.

BIANCULLI: And then, one more question about you as an author. What was
toughest about writing comedy for the page rather than improvising it or
writing it for the stage?

Mr. STEINBERG: Not being able to talk. I mean, what I do is--I'm a
storyteller. I talk. I talk everything, and getting your voice on the page
is just almost an impossibility. That was the difficult part of doing this,
and, you know, writing in the biblical style--so we wrote the biblical style
all the way through--and my friend Joe...(unintelligible)...was really helpful
in all of the Bible St. James stuff, helping me with that all the way
through--but I still felt--I didn't get my real voice in, and the editor,
David Rosenthal, said, `You know what you want to do is you want'--because the
most absurd stories that you read in the "Book of David," the biblical
parts...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...are mostly true. Very few of them are not true. Just a
couple I exaggerated, but they're mostly true. And so David Rosenthal had a
wonderful suggestion, `Why don't you do footnotes in your own voice?' And I
thought, Oh, that makes sense, so that's where I felt comfortable finally with
writing this in this style, the footnotes.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, I think they're the funniest footnotes I've ever read, but I
don't know how many funny footnotes you read. I mean... that's a safe
compliment. But I'd like you to read one so that everybody will know what
we're talking about here.

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh, sure.

BIANCULLI: On page 148 of your book, you have a footnote that is...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: ...dealing with a time that you were the host of a Friars' roast
of Milton Berle. And because...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: ...Friars' roast is such a raw place...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: ...almost all the jokes, all the comedians came up, where making
fun, not of Milton as the TV superstar, not of Milton as the guy who pushed
television forward in its earliest generation. But how would you say what it
was they were focusing on? Help me here.

Mr. STEINBERG: Well, Milton--we don't know who started this rumor--most
comedians feel Milton himself--Milton is known for the size of his "Berle,"
let's say.

BIANCULLI: All right.

Mr. STEINBERG: So, you know, most of us believe that that's Milton's notion,
from his viewpoint, looking down. We don't know if it's true or not.

BIANCULLI: OK. So basically, so this footnote is describing comic after
comic coming up and making variations on the joke, and then you get to the
poor last guy in line...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: ...seemingly with nothing left to say.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes. I was the host of that evening. The roastee, it's
called, rather pretentiously, for some reason. And yes, it's a symphony of
these kind of, let's say, Berle jokes, using our euphemism. So the final
roaster was Dick Shawn. And, you know, I felt almost apologetic as I walked
him to the dais, because there was no joke left that hadn't been used.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

STEINBERG: And he's the last guy there, and every--it's just been a variation
of Milton's amplitude, for lack of a better word, and I just didn't know what
Dick was going to do. But Dick was a visual comedian and he, you know, there
are verbal comedians and visual comedians, and a visual comedian, he just
created pictures all the time. And he just stood up to the mike very
confidently and he said, `I actually got to see it. It was at the Friars'
Club in New York and Milton was in the steam bath, and I thought he was there
with his son.' Now, that's a brilliant use of--that's how brilliant Dick Shawn
was as a visual comedian, and of course he just killed--the whole room just
went nuts. And he said, `Thank you very much,' and the evening was over and
that was it.

BIANCULLI: Comedian, director and now author David Steinberg. We'll continue
our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: We're talking with David Steinberg who has a new book called "The
Book of David."

One of the things you talk about in your book, "The Book of David," is what
you call the temple of Second City.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: And you were either lucky enough or skilled enough or both to get
in very early to a group in Chicago when there were incredible talents there.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes. Yes.

BIANCULLI: Nichols. May. Arkin. Klein. Willard.

Mr. STEINBERG: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: I assume they were all there when you were there for your six-year
stretch.

Mr. STEINBERG: Well, Nichols and May had already gone to New York, so the
second company--well, actually, Nichols and May didn't stay in Second City.
They helped create it and then they moved on. And Shelley Berman, the same
way. but this was Alan Arkin and Barbara Harris and people that are known to
Second City people. Eugene Troobnick and Andrew Duncan and Bill Alton. They
were amazing. Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin in a relationship scene were
amazing to see. I was at the University of Chicago with literally no plan in
mind. In fact, most of the theme of my book, Dave, is that I had no plan.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: I never had a plan. And I saw Second City, and I really
didn't know what I was going to do. I wasn't--no one would have picked me for
being a success at anything at that point. And I snuck into Mandel Hall at
the University of Chicago, and I saw these guys doing this and I said, `Oh my
god,' I said. `I do this. I've been doing this my whole life, what they're
doing.' And I don't do it as skillfully and I don't know, I've got to figure
out how they do,' but it was amazing. And I was on fire at that point and you
know I wanted to follow them like you'd follow the circus. And I had a friend
of mine at the University of Chicago, a lawyer, studying law, his name was
Gene Cadish, and he was interested in show business. And I never understood
why, because he wasn't particularly good at it. He was a great lawyer.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: But he said, `Why don't we do an act, you and I?' And I said,
`Well, what are we going to do?' I said, `I don't know. You write something
and we'll see,' so I wrote an act that was like Second City, like what I had
seen. And we played at a place called the Crystal Palace. We got a gig just
by fluke. We were opening for a great performer, Oscar Brown Jr, so we had an
audience immediately. And we did these little sketches and some little review
somewhere in Old Town in Chicago wrote, `Second City should see Steinberg and
Cadish.' And that night Del Close...

BIANCULLI: Oh, you couldn't ask for anything better than that. That's--yeah.

Mr. STEINBERG: It was a dream come true.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: And Del Close and John Brent and people from that company,
Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber were the new company there, they came and they
saw us and they hired us. And I was away.

BIANCULLI: Who were you best at onstage with at Second City?

Mr. STEINBERG: Well, you know, it's really a good question. Bob Klein and
Fred Willard were brilliant together. They were brilliant together, and they
were brilliant, you know, they were great by themselves, too. I was--I had my
eye more on the audience, you know? Early on, the director suggested that,
you know, why don't you do--the thing about Second City that was so different.
And in the '60s, that's before "Saturday Night Live" found Second City
people...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: In the '60s we were like the Rolling Stones in Chicago. It
was intelligent humor, humor done from the top of your intelligence. It was
political. It was just as smart as it could be with the directors there,
Patinkin and Paul Sills and Viola Spolin, they were masters at this forum in
teaching you how to do it, so it was incredible. So when--I think it was
Sheldon suggested to me that use some of my yeshiva--theological background--I
thought, Well, what do you mean? I'm not going to do that. I mean, I escaped
that.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: And that night I just thought, well, you know, why don't I
just go out there and, you know, I knew the Bible from my background. I was
taught Hebrew at an early age and speak it. And I'd been to Israel and all
that at Hebrew University. So I asked for a suggestion for an Old Testament
personality, and the suggestion, I think, was Moses...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...and I did a version of that sermon of Moses and I was
doing it five years later almost intact from the first improvisation that I
had of it that night.

BIANCULLI: Comedian, director and author David Steinberg. We'll continue our
conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

When David Steinberg performed with the Second City improv troupe, one of his
signature bits was to take on the character of a preacher, ask the audience
for suggested biblical topics and characters and deliver a sermon on the spot.
The most memorable example was on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," a
popular CBS variety series.

Well, you became not only famous doing sermons, comedy sermons...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...but you became infamous...

Mr. STEINBERG: I did.

BIANCULLI: ...because of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," which is a
project...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...that's so dear to my heart.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: When you did one sketch on the show and...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: ...so much negative mail poured in.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes, yes.

BIANCULLI: Later on in the same season, Dick is away for the week, he's off
racing.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Tommy is in charge.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: You do another skit that kills. And then, if I can believe all of
you people that are telling this history, off the cuff, Tommy just sort of
says, `Hey, you got another sermon in you?'

Mr. STEINBERG: It's exactly how it happened. I mean, well, first of all,
let me just tell you about Tommy Smothers. Tommy Smothers, one of these rare
individuals who loved talent. He loved the musical talent. He loved comedy
talent. So he had seen me on "The Tonight Show" and asked me to do it. I did
Moses and, as you suggested, the next week the most negative mail that
CBS--and they claimed any network--had ever received up until that point. So
he showed me, gleefully, all this negative mail--and, incidentally, what I
didn't know is that CBS had told him that you could have Steinberg on as much
as you want, but no more sermons.

BIANCULLI: Mm.

Mr. STEINBERG: And he knew that. I didn't know that that conversation had
taken place and he said, `You know, do you want to do another sermon?' And I
said, `Sure,' because our piece had gone so well that night. And I went out
and, again, I always improvised, even though I had done so many of them by now
that they were no longer--you could just give me any name and I had done a
version of them somewhere.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: And they suggested Jonah, and in the middle of Jonah, I think
I can say it now...

BIANCULLI: Well, actually, wait a second.

Mr. STEINBERG: Sure.

BIANCULLI: I may actually have this to play.

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh, oh. Great.

BIANCULLI: So this is from the program that got the Smothers brothers fired.

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh, great.

BIANCULLI: An improv performance by David Steinberg on the subject of Jonah.
This is from 1969.

(Soundbite of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour")

Mr. STEINBERG: ...he got into a ship that was commandeered by 23 gentiles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: A bad move on Jonah's part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: And the gentiles, as they're wont from time to time, threw
the Jew overboard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: Now, here there are two concepts that we must deal with.
There is the New Testament concept and the Old Testament concept. The Old
Testament scholars say that Jonah was in fact swallowed by a whale. The
gentiles, the New Testament scholars, the say, `Hold it, Jew. No. Jonah
was--they literally grabbed the Jew by the Old Testament.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: They say Jonah could not have been swallowed by a whale, the
New Testament scholars say, because whales have tiny gullets and cannot
swallow whole prophets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: Therefore, they offer their own theory that Jonah was in fact
swallowed by a gigantic guppy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEINBERG: And to this day the New Testament doesn't sell.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Do you have any memories about how that was going over as you were
doing it? It sounds like a lot of laughter.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah, yeah. You know what? I haven't heard it in so long.
See, what happened as a result of that--what we just listened to never got on
the air.

BIANCULLI: Right.

Mr. STEINBERG: Because CBS yanked the show. Didn't just say, `Oh, let's
just not do Steinberg.' Took the Smothers brothers off the air.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: Now, in a way, it was safe for them to take them off their
air for a religious piece that you could see could be offensive to what then
we called the silent majority. Never having heard it, you don't know, is it
irreverent? Is it fair? You know, you could see where they could use that
and no one would question them because it sounds as irreverent as anything
you've ever heard. But in truth, the Smothers brothers were against the war
in Vietnam. They felt--we all felt then that there were others like us out
there, and they tried--and Tommy tried to sneak in the snort of revolutionary
political stuff on the air. It was very--if you listen to it know, you
know--and you compare it to, let's say, Bill Maher, who's remarkable in his
courage, as far as I'm concerned...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...but you wouldn't really understand what it was about, but
then you couldn't get anything on the air because you had to go through
standards and practices, the censors, and they sort of combed through
everything we did. We sort of had to fool them to sneak anything on the air.
So it seemed to all of us that the White House was after, in retrospect...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...that the White House after getting the Smothers brothers
off the air. They had a major influence on the country, the number one show.
They didn't want Pete Seeger singing his anti-war songs, or Joan Baez or
anything like that, and so they could easily go at me and anyone would say,
`Oh, sure, well, yeah. That is offensive,' like that.

BIANCULLI: We're talking to David Steinberg, author of "The Book of David."

One thing I want to talk to you about that isn't in your book that I'm
surprised that it's not is that you sort of stop when you get to your
directing career. And I'm fascinated by your career...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...as a director. The credits include "Mad About You" and
"Seinfeld" and "Friends" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "It's Gary Shandling
Show," "Newhart." Now, you seem to have specialized over the years in
directing stand-up comics, especially stand-up comics who do some, if not a
lot, of improvisation. It seems like a perfect way...

Mr. STEINBERG: Yes.

BIANCULLI: ...to take what you've learned. You say there's no design to your
life but these seems like a pretty good plan.

Mr. STEINBERG: Well, it was a plan in retrospect, but I don't think it was a
plan at the time. But I couldn't have asked for anything better than a show
like "Curb" or all of them. And every one of them was--you know, again, when
a stand-up comedian has a show, like "Seinfeld"...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...or Paul Reiser or Ray Romano, they have a co-executive
producer who are major writers. On Ray Romano's it's Phil Rosenthal. On
"Seinfeld" it was Larry David. But...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...and Paul Reiser, too, worked with many executive
producers. And the thing about these guys who make it in sitcoms when they're
comedians is it's not--they manage to capture something of their aura as a
stand-up comedian in their own writing on the show. So you're looking at guys
who are also really good writers, and that's how you break through. So
Seinfeld was a really good writer.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: And so was Paul Reiser, and so was Ray Romano. And that's
how these shows sort of pop. Now, the odd peculiarity about comedians is,
comedians--I keep on mentioning jazz musicians because it's a little bit of
the same--comedians like to have other comedians around them, so if I'm a
director and I also am a comedian and I say something to Paul Reiser or Helen
Hunt...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...and you say exactly the same thing--you Dave, you say
that...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...well, they wouldn't listen to you.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

Mr. STEINBERG: They'd be nice, but they will hear me because you trust other
comedians, and that trust that you need in another comedian, I think, was the
reason I just kept on working.

BIANCULLI: So, as a director, you say that the strength of these people is
their writing.

Mr. STEINBERG: Correct.

BIANCULLI: Evaluate them very quickly as actors in terms of their particular
strengths and quirks. Like, how good an actor is Jerry Seinfeld?

Mr. STEINBERG: Not a great actor, but he's good at being Jerry Seinfeld.
Paul Reiser, a great actor. Paul Reiser has major acting chops. Larry David,
no acting chops at all. But when he got "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which none of
us expected to last more than a year...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...and it's a community of people that now have been working
together for quite a while on "Curb," he wanted to try improvising--just
improvising the dialogue. And he did the first show, and it didn't work. But
so Larry called me, and we looked at the first show and it was all improvised
overlapping dialogue you couldn't understand. It was like bad Cassavetes and
about as funny as Cassavetes.

And I said to him, `What did you do? I mean, what did you tell the actors?'
He said, `I don't tell the actors anything.' I said, `What do you mean you
don't tell the actors anything?' `Well, you know, I like it when the actors
don't know what I'm going to say. But the reason that I'm improvising is that
I won't be able to repeat anything. I'm not an actor, so if you ask me to do
something twice, I won't be able to do it.' So this whole improv community
that has grown out of "Curb" comes from Larry's just wanting to not have to
repeat it like actors do, which is their technique...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. STEINBERG: ...and then I said, you know, `What you have to do when
you're talking to another actor is, you have to give them the beats of the
scene. They have to know the beginning and the middle and the end.' And he
said, `OK, well, you know, all right. Well, let's do that. But you know, I
like it when they laugh at what I'm saying.' And I said, `Well, you know what?
I don't like it when they laugh at what you're saying because that doesn't
quite work,' and we sort of argued our way through this and worked it out.
And now I have to say, just in case someone asks Larry to tune in, he is a
great actor now.

BIANCULLI: Well, it's a great program at any rate. And he gets a lot of
credit for that, as do you.

Mr. STEINBERG: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Well, David Steinberg, thank you very, very much for being on
FRESH AIR.

Mr. STEINBERG: Oh, thank you, Dave. I enjoyed this.

BIANCULLI: David Steinberg. His new memoir is called "The Book of David,"
and a new season of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," on which he serves as one of
the directors, returns next month.

Coming up, saxophonist Harry Allen and jazz singer and guitarist Eddie
Erickson, featured on a new jazz recording of "Guys and Dolls." This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Eddie Erickson and Harry Allen on their "Guys and
Dolls" jazz recording album
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

There's a new jazz recording featuring songs from the classic Broadway musical
"Guys and Dolls." It's by the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet. Allen is a tenor
saxophonist, Cohn plays guitar.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EDDIE ERICKSON: (Singing) When you see a guy reach for stars in the sky
You can bet that he's doing it for some doll
When you spot a John waiting out in the rain
Chances are he's insane, as only a John can be for a Jane

When you meet...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Some of the tracks are instrumentals, but the album also features
two guest vocalists. One of them, Rebecca Kilgore, may be a familiar name and
voice to regular FRESH AIR listeners. She's performed on our show many times
over the years. The other guest singer, Eddie Erickson, performs regularly
with Becky as part of the group Bed. Terry spoke with Eddie and saxophonist
Harry Allen about their new collaboration. Both of them first heard Frank
Loesser's music from "Guys and Dolls" when they saw the movie version, which
starred Frank Sinatra.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Lesser wrote a song for Sinatra in the movie that wasn't in the show, and the
song is called "Adelaide," and you do that song on your recording of "Guys and
Dolls." Would you tell us why you decided to choose that? Because, for a lot
of people, that would be an unpopular choice because it's not in the original
show.

Mr. HARRY ALLEN: Well, one of the interesting things about "Guys and Dolls"
is the show had some different songs that were left out of the movie, and the
movie had some songs that were specially written. And it made sense to me
that "Adelaide" was written specifically for Sinatra, because I don't think
any of the other cast of either the show or the movie would have been able to
sing it. It's not that easy of a song, which is why we have Eddie do it
because he's such a great singer.

GROSS: Eddie, what's hard about the song?

Mr. ERICKSON: Oh, gosh, wow. Well, just the intervals, you know. (Sings)
Da-da-da-da da-da-da-da. You know, sometimes, if you're a little flat or a
little sharp, which I am often, it jumps around quite a bit. And when you
first hear it, like I say, in the movie when Sinatra was doing it, he makes it
sound so easy, and then you look at the music and there are little half-steps
instead of whole steps that you think, `Oh, that's a whole step.' Well, no,
actually, it's just a half-step. It's a little tricky to sing; just the
intervals are tricky. Once you get it down, it's easier, obviously. But that
was one of my favorite songs of the movie.

GROSS: This is a song that I think doesn't work unless it swings, which is
one of the reasons why it makes sense that Lesser wrote it for Sinatra. And
Eddie Erickson, you sound great on it. And so...

Mr. ERICKSON: Oh, you're so kind. Thank you.

GROSS: ..and Harry Allen, so do you.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you.

GROSS: So why don't we hear "Adelaide" from the new Harry Allen-Joe Cohn
Quartet recording of "Guys and Dolls," featuring my guest, Eddie Erickson.

(Soundbite of "Adelaide")

Mr. ERICKSON: (Singing) Unaccustomed as I am to getting married
I am taking this occasion here to say
That me and Adelaide are finally naming the day

Though she knows deep in her heart
I'm a phony and I'm a fake
She wants five children to start
Five's a difficult point to make

But Adelaide, Adelaide, ever-lovin' Adelaide
Is taking a chance on me
Taking a chance I'll be respectable and nice
Give up the cards and dice
And go for shoes and rice

So, gentlemen, deal me out
Do not try to feel me out
I got no more evenings free
Since Adelaide, Adelaide, ever-lovin' Adelaide's
Taking a chance
Talk about your long shot
Taking a chance on me.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet with singer Eddie Erickson
from the new album that they did of music from "Guys and Dolls."

Now, Harry Allen, you're a tenor saxophonist who has obviously been inspired
by--name some of the people who inspired you.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I would say that my two biggest influences are Ben Webster
and Stan Getz. Originally I was very influenced by Scott Hamilton coming up.

GROSS: Who was also influenced by Ben Webster.

Mr. ALLEN: Yeah. From there it goes to a lot of other people--Coleman
Hawkins, Lester Young...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ALLEN: Zoot Sims, Al Cohn.

GROSS: So, how did you get introduced to jazz? Because I think fewer and
fewer people hear jazz when they're growing up now.

Mr. ALLEN: My sister was a year ahead of me in school and there was a time
when she had to go to school an hour before I did, and my father would sit at
home with me during that hour and play recordings: Benny Goodman recordings
and Duke Ellington recordings and Count Basie. So I listened to an hour of
great music every morning, and I'm sure that's where I got my love of it from.

GROSS: Let's hear an instrumental track from your "Guys and Dolls" CD, and
this is "I'll Know," beautiful ballad. Do you want to say a few words about
it before we hear it?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, it's just a stunningly pretty song. I started playing this
long before I decided to do a "Guys and Dolls" CD, so we've been playing this
for quite a while with the quartet. And I think it's just one of the most
beautiful songs I know.

GROSS: OK. So this is the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet from their new CD
"Guys and Dolls."

(Soundbite of "I'll Know")

BIANCULLI: That's the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quarter performing "I'll Know"
from their new "Guys and Dolls" jazz CD. More with Harry Allen and Eddie
Erickson after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with saxophonist Harry Allen and
featured vocalist Eddie Erickson. They collaborated on "Guys and Dolls," a
new jazz CD by the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet, also featuring vocalist
Rebecca Kilgore. Eddie Erickson told Terry he started playing music long
before he began singing.

Mr. ERICKSON: I started on ukelele when I was seven and then I looked at a
banjo when I was 13 and actually got one for Christmas, because I thought it
was a pretty instrument hanging in the music store in the window, and I
started on tenor banjo. And at 19, I started on plectrum banjo, which is
four-string tuned more like a five-string than a tenor banjo. And then I got
interested in guitar, listening to George Van Eps and Howard Roberts and later
on, of course, Howard Alden, who I became good friends with when he was just
about 15 years old, and he was playing only banjo at that time. So, yeah,
definitely I started playing way before I took my singing seriously.

GROSS: Well, I really love your singing voice. What made you start singing?

Mr. ERICKSON: Years ago I started out right here on the Monterey Peninsula,
at a place called the Wherehouse and I was 20 years old, I was one year
younger than I should have been because they served liquor, and it was kind of
a free-for-all. We had a gal who would come up and sing everything from Janis
Joplin songs to Billie Holiday, and she would make me weep, her renditions and
her feeling and her energy. And that made me stop and think, wow, this is
neat. Not only the song's great and just you know, notes and chords, but wow,
the lyrics are so beautiful. And if you sing them in a special way, they can
really bring you to tears.

But I would continue kind of doing the ham and bologna singing, you know,
sing-a-long. `Everybody sing along!' And we'd play these songs at 300 miles
an hour. And then we'd rip it after that. It wasn't till--I think I really
started taking singing seriously when I met Rebecca Kilgore.

GROSS: When you say "ham and bologna," I should mention that you used to
perform at Disneyland and Disney World.

Mr. ERICKSON: Yeah, there's the birth of ham and bologna right there.

GROSS: And you led the Riverboat Rascals on the...

Mr. ERICKSON: I did, yeah, for...

GROSS: ... the Disney Empress Lily showboat.

Mr. ERICKSON: Yes.

GROSS: What kind of material did you do?

Mr. ERICKSON: Well, it was the same kind of stuff we did at the Wherehouse.
We'd have continuous entertainment with the trio, the Riverboat Rascals would
play, and then we'd bring up a comedian/guitarist/singer and then he would
take over, and it would just kind of rotate throughout the night like that.
And it was just a big laugh fest and a lot of fun, and occasionally I would
sing a serious song.

GROSS: Harry, can you talk about playing behind a singer, which is not...

Mr. ALLEN: Oh, I love...

GROSS: ...something that you typically do on your records?

Mr. ALLEN: I love playing behind great singers. I was very fortunate to
have worked with Maxine Sullivan, Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett. And I
love backing up great singers. With a great singer they leave space, and it's
the horn player's job to fill in that space in an appropriate way, just make
little comments here and there. Very often a bad singer will not leave any
space, and you sit there twiddling your thumbs.

GROSS: Would "I've Never Been in Love Before" be a good example of what
you're talking about?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: Why don't we close with that?

Mr. ALLEN: All right.

GROSS: Eddie Erickson, Harry Allen, thank you both so much for talking with
us.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, thank you, Terry.

Mr. ERICKSON: Thank you so--thank you. It's an honor.

DAVIES: Harry Allen and Eddie Erickson, speaking with Terry Gross. Erickson
is a guest vocalist on the new jazz recording of music from "Guys and Dolls,"
featuring the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet. This track features Erickson as
well as the album's other guest singer, Rebecca Kilgore.

(Soundbite of "I've Never Been in Love Before")

Mr. EDDIE ERICKSON: (Singing) I've never been in love before
Now all at once it's you
It's you forever more
I've never been in love before
I thought my heart was safe
I thought I knew the score

But this is wine
That's all too strange and strong
I'm full of foolish song
And out my song must pour

Mr. ERICKSON and Ms. REBECCA KILGORE: (Singing)
So please forgive this helpless haze I'm in
I've really never been
In love before--or-or-or-or-or--or-or-or-or-or

(End of soundbite)

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: I'm David Bianculli. Terry Gross returns tomorrow.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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