If the new Showtime series Inside Comedy looks suspiciously familiar, that may be because you vaguely remember Sit Down Comedy With David Steinberg, which ran for two seasons on TV Land from 2005-07. The two shows are nearly identical in format, as both feature Steinberg conducting one-on-one interviews with top comedians, discussing their influences, methods, and philosophies of comedy. Many of the guests who appeared on the earlier show—including Robin Williams, Larry David, and Garry Shandling—will also drop by the new one. The main difference is that Sit Down Comedy was taped on stage before a live studio audience, whereas Inside Comedy takes place wherever Steinberg can find the room to set up two chairs facing each other.
Another theoretical difference between the two shows is that Inside Comedy is on pay-cable, thus freeing its guests to use the same sort of colorful language many of them employ liberally in their stand-up sets. That distinction doesn’t much come into play in the first episode, with its featured guests Don Rickles and Jerry Seinfeld. The pairing of these old pros is our first indication that Steinberg isn’t necessarily interested in exploring the cutting edge of comedy on this show. In the 1960s, Steinberg was part of a new wave of observational stand-up comedians that included Robert Klein and Bill Cosby, although he’s probably best known today for directing episodes of sitcoms such as Newhart, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. His stand-up may not be as well known today as the work of his contemporaries, but it’s clear that Steinberg retains his enthusiasm for the form, as well as the respect of his fellow comics.
In fact, Steinberg’s enthusiasm can be a bit much at times, as he has a tendency to cheerlead his guests through their answers; a line he utters at least once, “I couldn’t agree with you more,” could serve as an alternate title for the series. Steinberg chats with Rickles and Seinfeld separately; the Rickles interview takes place in what looks like a hotel lounge, while the Seinfeld one is set in what appears to be someone’s back yard. The première episode cross-cuts between the two interviews, using a smattering of still photographs and brief snippets of performance footage as bumper material.
It’s self-evident that your enjoyment of a given episode will hinge largely on your feelings about the particular comics being interviewed. I can’t see myself tuning in later this season to take in the wit and wisdom of Robin Williams or Billy Crystal, but I’ve always had a fondness for Rickles, particularly in a talk-show setting. Aside from the “you hockey puck” brand of insult comedy he’s best known for, Rickles has an inimitable genius for stream-of-consciousness non sequitur; I remember being reduced to helpless laughter during some of his Tonight Show appearances, despite (or, more likely, because of) the fact that very little of what he was saying made any sense at all. Even at age 84, Rickles remains the sharpest wit in the room, easily keeping three steps ahead of Steinberg (who gets things started on a shaky note with the greeting, “So, Don… you’re Mr. Potato Head!”). Reminiscing about his time on the set of Casino, Rickles even unveils a not-bad Robert De Niro impression.
As for Seinfeld, it seems he’s spent more time talking about comedy in the past decade than actually performing it. To his credit, Steinberg does draw a few fresh observations out of Seinfeld, first by discussing Rickles (“a pure, white light of comedic energy”), then by delving into the process of adding new material to an existing act. Again, though, Steinberg’s eagerness to finish Seinfeld’s sentences and punctuate everything his guest is saying with “Yes! Yes! I totally agree!” does get wearying. It’s almost a relief when Seinfeld takes very gentle exception to one of Steinberg’s innocuous observations, and the host actually bristles for a moment.
Is there any compelling reason for Inside Comedy to exist? Not really. We live in an era overflowing with venues for the dissection of comedy, including blogs, podcasts (there’s little chance Inside Comedy is ever going to offer up the sort of in-depth analysis and confrontational psychodrama found on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast), and TV specials like the recent, hilarious HBO summit Talking Funny. But if it’s a bit vanilla in its approach, it’s certainly watchable enough—good for a few laughs and the occasional insight. It’s probably not worth setting a season pass on your TiVo, but there are worse ways to spend half an hour.
- The footage of Rickles performing at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration is priceless. “Is this too fast, Ronnie?”
- Likewise, Seinfeld gets in a few zingers in the presence of Barack Obama during a tribute to Paul McCartney. (“‘She was just 17, you know what I mean.’ I’m not sure I do know what you mean, Sir Paul!”)
- Seinfeld also recalls Rickles introducing him from the stage when he was a younger, less-known comic. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have George Stanberry in the audience!”