05 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: Television Pt. 3

The David Steinberg Show
(1976-1977) (Koch Vision Entertainment, 4 discs)

Although this collection was released by Koch Vision Entertainment in 2005, I hummed-and-hawed on purchasing it (once upon a time, I swore on oath not to collect television series on DVD) and eventually received it as a gift in early 2006 (but it’s okay if other people buy ‘em for me). “What’s the allure of a largely-forgotten, short-lived Canadian variety series?” you ask (assuming you’ve even heard of it)? Well, no mere nostalgic fool am I: The David Steinberg Show is significant for two reasons: 1) it anticipated the “show-within-a-show” postmodernism as perfected a good decade-plus later by Garry Shandling (before deteriorating into what Salman Rushdie has termed the "gibberish with attitude" that passes for deconstruction in today's irony-saturated landscape) and 2) offered viewers a preview of the ensemble that would make up a good part of the classic comedy series Second City Television.

Well, three (3) reasons. It’s actually pretty funny if you’re in the mood for some lite-laughs.

The David Steinberg Show debuted on Canada’s CTV network in September 1976 and ran for a full season of 21 episodes to the spring of 1977 (there were five episodes of an earlier incarnation produced in 1972 as a summer replacement series) is certainly nowhere near as caustic in tone or indicting of the egos and backstage machinations of show business as Shandling’s fauxtobiographies It's Gary Shandling's Show or The Larry Saunders Show , nor does it aspire to be—it’s very much in the breezy spirit of most of the Bicentennial-era programming of the time (back when there were really only three major networks), embracing the glitzy conventions of the then-modern American variety show while at the same time only gently mocking them (and trying to do it on-the-cheap at Toronto’s Glenn-Warren studios, home of The Starlost).

Each week finds our hapless host struggling to fine tune his material for his latest broadcast, only to be keelhauled into one of Vinnie’s business schemes hatched from his “Hello Deli” restaurant across the street, endure yet another of Johnny Del Bravo’s indefatigable attempts to turn the show into his own gaudy vehicle, avoid an inadvertent scrape with top brass “Mr. Bijou” (its seems that Steinberg’s show is always on the verge of cancellation), or coddle a difficult guest (most of whom were of the Match Game echelon of celebrity, with the odd surprise). A sampler: Ruth Buzzi takes offense at Steinberg’s meeting with Vinnie’s sexist “Muskrat” lodge, Jon Voight will appear on the condition he gets to discuss environmental issues, James Coco struggles to maintain his diet, Ed McMahon demands to perform his W. C. Fields act…you get the idea...

Steinberg’s monologues are dated by the issues of the time, but they’ll elicit a chuckle or two: observations on California-based spiritual fads, Canada’s ego-sensitivity, the scandal over Last Tango In Paris, his early days in New York Theatre, the concept of a Beverly Hills “blues band” (what do they have to be “blue” about?), to name but a few.

I don’t think it’s much of a reach to suggest that Steinberg was the proto-“Seinfeld”: a lanky, pleasant-looking-but-not-too-handsome Jewish conduit of urbane detachment who opened his show with an observational monologue and was content to play straight man to a colourful gang of misfits and hangers-on. Unlike Jerry, Steinberg occasionally attempted character bits with dubious results: ever wonder where his catch phrase “booga booga” comes from? It’s from his insane “existential psychiatrist” who bounded around his office in a sombrero and oversized clown shoes like a live-action “Duck Amuck”. Just as Seinfeld concluded that he “couldn’t act”, so eventually did Steinberg, who more or less retired from stand-up (he was a popular guest on The Tonight Show and The Smothers Brothers) to pursue a directing career than has since bestowed him with several awards for series television (including Seinfeld), and commercials.

Bill Saluga (here's his official site), who began in comedy as part of the Acme Theatre Company with Fred Willard, assays the “Kramer” role (more or less) and his Vinnie DiMilo is likeable foil, constantly scheming to bilk his diner’s customers for more money, conniving ways to expand his buddy David’s public profile, or revealing some unlikely association with the week’s high-profile star. Always pulling double duty, Saluga manages to work in his trademark character, the zoot-suited pest Raymond J. Johnson, Jr., into each episode. Whether he’s wandered onstage by accident and/or interrupts Steinberg’s monologue to question a misheard statement, either scenario prompts Steinberg to address him as “Mr. Johnson” and invite Saluga’s “you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay…” routine (you can listen to it here).

Martin Short, who wouldn’t join SCTV until its fourth season (after it had moved to NBC to become “Network 90”), revels in the prissy flamboyance of Johnny Del Bravo—Steinberg’s “cousin” on the show—an overreaching hambone who served as a seedling for Short’s later, and considerably more grotesque, Fosse-era androgyne Jackie Rogers, Jr. (and depending on who you talk to, his current Broadway show).

Future fellow Melonvillers Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, round out the rest of the backstage antics. Some of their characters anticipate their SCTV staples, too, like Thomas’ irritable Scottish security guard McGregor (shades of Scottish bluesman "Angus Crock"), Martin’s Julie Liverfoot, a hippie activist (anyone from her repertoire of militant oddballs, like "Libby Wolfson") and Candy’s Spider Reichmann (“Dr. Psychedelic”) As the season progressed, these cursory characterizations became more consistent and some characters even developed their own “arcs” (with “guest star” time shorn to extended cameos, like Joseph Campanella’s barely-there appearance), like Flaherty’s Kirk Dirkwood, who begins as a backstage hand and eventually realizes his dream of performing on Steinberg’s show.

(And let’s not forget that SCTV’s Juul Haalmeyer, of “The Juul Haalmeyer Dancers”, was the costume designer for TDSS)

Trudy Young, who also starred in the popular CBC sitcom The Trouble With Tracy and on Canada’s Dark Shadows rip-off Strange Paradise, plays the dual roles of starlet Bambi Markowitz and Vinnie’s put-upon waitress Margie (suitably with the period’s Betty Frieden-inspired feistiness).

Another stage bound, videotaped effort ala my other CanCon noms SCTV and Kreskin, The David Steinberg Show won’t win any awards for presentation (frankly, I’m amazed these episodes exist at all), and the package offers up serviceable video quality (soft, smeary) and audio (yer standard Dolby 2.0), with the lone extra being a good one: a 30-minute interview with Steinberg taped exclusively for the collection. Too bad the folks at Koch couldn’t have tracked down those earlier summer replacement episodes, or caught up with the rest of the cast to reminisce (Short does a wicked Steinberg impression, evidenced in the delirious “Peter Pan Live At The Melonville War Memorial” sketch on SCTV, with Short’s Steinberg as Captain Hook and Candy’s Divine as Peter Pan). Saluga continues to perform today--you might have seen him as Richard Lewis’ cousin Louis on Season 5 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, or as the miffed usher in the Seinfeld Pagliacci-themed episode “The Opera”, and still gets mileage out of the shtick: Wouldn’t it have been great to see a clip from Raymond J. Johnson Jr.’s The Simpsons appearance, or Saluga’s disco-era novelty single “Dancin’ Johnson” as an Easter Egg?

A single-disc “Best Of” collection is also offered, but if you’re interested in this thing at all, why wouldn’t you cough up the extra few bucks and spring for the whole set?