A comedy master class on Showtime

Inside Comedy, David Steinberg’s revelatory Showtime series that starts a second season tonight, is one of those very worthy cable shows that flies under the radar of most viewers. In many respects, it’s a throwback to chat shows of yesteryear, in which hosts and guests sat down to exchange banter and points of view that weren’t obviously tied to shilling for someone’s latest project.
Most half-hour episodes of Steinberg’s series cut back and forth between his interviews with two major comedy figures, some of them writers and producers (Judd Apatow, who has penned and produced a bevy of raunchy comedies), some of them performers (Carol Burnett), others multi-hyphenates (Keenen Ivory Wayans).
Sometimes there’s an obvious link. One of this season’s episodes is split between Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, who shared a body in the movie comedy All of Me. Others, however, have a less obvious connection (Will Ferrell and Betty White?).
Tonight’s premiere falls into the latter category, with two high-profile Emmy winners: Louis CK, from the critically acclaimed FX series Louis, and comedy veteran Bob Newhart. The two men come from very different backgrounds and have a distinctly different tone to their acts, but both aim their comedy at intelligent audiences.
Louis CK shares his perspectives with the air of a survivor who has reached several “career thresholds” that ultimately didn’t mean diddly in terms of his clout, and he says his current fame may bring him wild roars of approval when he steps onto a stage, but all it takes is one disappointing joke to lose a crowd – which is exactly how he likes it, because if the audience is just cheering because they like him as a star, he’s not getting any worthwhile feedback about what jokes are really good and which ones need to be trashed. He also admits he’s backing away from some overtly in-your-face sexual jokes he once was noted for simply because they seem tired and obvious to him now.
Newhart, by contrast, never was noted for edgy or “blue” material, but he always came to a gig assuming a certain level of smarts in the crowd. The 83-year-old comic, who still does occasional appearances, shares a funny anecdote about one appearance in which, early in his act, he told a joke that hinged entirely on the audience comprehending the meaning of the word “denigrate.” They didn’t, so Newhart was forced to spend the rest of his set frantically self-editing his jokes to eliminate any “big words.”
Surprisingly, while Newhart is widely perceived to be completely laid-back, he confesses that he still paces relentlessly in the hours leading up to a performance, and references the Russian roulette scenes in The Deer Hunter to explain why he keeps performing: With potential disaster looming at every turn during a comedy set, he relishes the moment when he hears that “click” and thinks, “Hey, the bullet wasn’t in the chamber after all. Let’s have a drink.”
Other upcoming guests for this season include Tina Fey, Drew Carey, Martin Mull, Ben Stiller, Mike Meyers and Bill Maher.

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