If you watched TV in the 1960s and '70s, you knew David Steinberg as one of the most impish standups of his day.
Sometimes he'd portray a crazy psychiatrist, jumping around the stage like Martin Short's Ed Grimley and shouting, "M.D. - Me Doctor!" Other times, he'd stand perfectly still and deliver razor-sharp monologues, like the religious sermonettes that helped get The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour kicked off the air.
In recent years, he's been busy behind the scenes - directing episodes of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld, Bob Newhart's Newhart and Paul Reiser's Mad About You.
Beginning tonight at 10 on TV Land, though, he returns to the front of the camera, starring in a talk show spotlighting famous comedians.
Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg is modeled, at least in production design, after James Lipton's Inside the Actors Studio. Steinberg sits in one chair while his guest sits in another, and they talk about the guest's life and work while adoring students (in this case, from UCLA) look on.
But Steinberg is no James Lipton. In fact, early in tonight's conversation with Saturday Night Live alumnus and Austin Powers star Mike Myers, Steinberg says precisely that, stating: "James Lipton overprepares."
"Well," Myers replies dryly, "knowing where I'm from, I don't think, is overpreparing, but whatever."
Steinberg, in terms of research, is closer to Larry King than James Lipton. But what makes King look lazy works for Steinberg as a comically conversational style.
Myers makes fun of Steinberg's lack of preparation, but he's clearly enjoying himself.
More to the point, he's being himself - as, in coming weeks, are David and Newhart. This is what you imagine actual, lengthy, sometimes-rambling luncheon conversations with fellow comics sound like.
And yet, listening to this amiable back-and-forth banter, you learn a lot about Steinberg's guests, especially when it comes to how they craft comedy. Myers talks about creating characters through musical inspiration.
Newhart mostly settles for telling old stories, but they're good ones - like the time when, as a young Vegas headliner, he introduced his wife to an up-and-coming comic named Don Rickles. Newhart's wife was very impressed, and, despite his warning to the contrary, thought Rickles was one of the sweetest men she'd ever met - until Newhart took her to Rickles' nightclub act.
"The stammering idiot from Chicago is in the audience," Rickles told the crowd, pointing at Newhart, "with his hooker wife from Bayonne, N.J."
The rest of Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg is just as funny - and no less watchable. The only thing that could be disappointing about it is if TV Land doesn't immediately commit to make more.
David Bianculli writes for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.