The Showtime network kicked off Season Three of its talk program Inside Comedy on Monday, February 3, 2014, accompanied by a biographical homage to the series host, comedy legend David Steinberg. Entitled Quality Balls: the David Steinberg Story, and directed by Barry Avrich, the documentary reasserts Steinberg's stature as one of the giants of modern comedy - one who lit the torch later carried by such successors as Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld and others. A reminder of Steinberg's pioneering role began to feel both necessary and apt in 2014, given the fact that the comic - such a steady participant on the The Smothers Brothers Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and other series during the '60s and '70s - subsequently took a backseat role for several decades, with directing gigs on feature films such as Paternity and sitcoms including Seinfeld, Mad about You and Curb Your Enthusiasm. His public role began to increase once again coincident with this production, not only via Inside Comedy but courtesy of a series of on-stage appearances at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Avrich's method in Quality Balls is not impressionistic, but systematic. In quick, efficient fashion, he first lays out Steinberg's origins- we learn that David emerged from a petri dish of comedy giants that also included Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Alan Arkin, Robert Klein and others - and then moves into a extended reflection on the numerous ways in which Steinberg honed and shaped the modern comedic method. Yet, to the credit of Avrich and his producers, the film rarely goes so far as to explicitly cite the individuals or programs Steinberg has influenced; the connections are there, lingering gently just beneath the surface, but it is up to us to make the necessary deductions. The picture, for instance, limns Steinberg's m.o. as a raconteur - and we can infer his impact on similar anecdotists as Larry David and Norm MacDonald , but that is never stated outright. We get an extended look at Steinberg's skewering of the Old Testament on The Smothers Brothers, and can read into its impact on the Larry Charles movie Religulous - but Charles (as an interviewee) never explicitly states this. And we can see, in the documentary's brief discussion of The David Steinberg Show (1972), that Steinberg anticipated HBO's Larry Sanders by nearly two decades with a talk show-within-a-show conceit, but again - Avrich never tells us this. The message is there, between the lines, and the film's investment in the intelligence of its audience somehow makes the documentary twice as persuasive.
The picture is also abetted throughout by Steinberg's gentle self-effacement; he's not only a charmer but a down-to-earth presence - though unquestionably brilliant, with a mind like a steel trap, he's somehow a relatable guy who still seems a little stunned and flattered by all of the attention lavished onto him, even after several decades at the top of the heap. This is not a performer who takes success for granted; he spends most of the film grinning from ear to ear, and his joy is infectious. He's also, as ever, remarkably clever and witty, a quality underscored by the well-chosen clips; of the many funny moments seen in Steinberg's long history, the best (and most characteristic of Steinberg's humor) may be one at the outset, when the comedian, seated on the couch vis-a-vis Carson, asks, "If Jews run Hollywood, how is it possible that Mickey Rourke can get paid to make endless love to Kim Basinger [in a film], and I'm cast as the cranky rabbi who gets whacked by George Kennedy in Airport '88?"
The picture has another asset - an unusual one. Recent biographical documentaries, particularly ones profiling entertainers, have seriously skimped on archival footage. Consider, for example, Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya's awful When Comedy Went to School, in 2013. The same can't be said of Quality Balls, which turns footage excavation into a guiding principle; it includes not only ample Tonight Show extracts, but vintage clips of Steinberg doing his mock yeshiva sermons in the late '60s, a wealth of rare still photographs, and even curiosities such as a decades-old bit of Steinberg driving his convertible through his hometown of Winnipeg and pointing out locales of significance to his family. The only noteworthy omissions here are scenes from the Steinberg-directed features Paternity and Going Berserk, though that isn't a serious lapse; in the case of Berserk it may even be a plus given the less favorable reception of that movie.
Indeed, per this decision, Quality Balls foregoes criticism of Steinberg altogether, but he's so warm, amiable and droll that we don't mind. At its best (read: most of the time), the picture comes off not as souped-up hagiography but as a soft reverent kiss - a welcome valentine to the comedian, his origins, his method and his broad influences, and a reminder of why he continues to be such a treasure.