A couple of weeks ago I lumped in the reviews of two really great Canadian documentaries (Slaughter Nick for President and Skull World) into one post because of how good they were. This week, the review for the inside show business documentary Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story probably should have gone in the same post as the music doc Bruce Cockburn – Pacing the Cage, but not because either of them are particularly great or all that insightful or engaging to watch. In fact, the only reason these two films aren’t paired in a single review is because the two titles wouldn’t fit in a single preview box on the main page. While Quality Balls from director Barry Avrich is a better made film overall, it’s still nothing more than a TV level biography of an admittedly talented man that still has no real point in getting a theatrical release.
Winnipeg born stand-up, actor, and director David Steinberg is one of the most beloved and well respected names in comedy. A consummate showman, Steinberg left the Yeshiva to pursue performance at Second City in Chicago at 22. After a failed career on Broadway, Steinberg came up around the same time as George Carlin and Richard Pryor, and his stylings – once referred to by the New York Times as a cross between Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen – were no less controversial. His special style of ethnic based sermonizing led him to getting The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour – the top rated show in 1969 – booted from the air. His open criticism and contempt for the Nixon administration led to death threats. Despite it all, Steinberg remains an inspiration to both Jews and Canadians alike, showing up on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show more times than anyone next to Bob Hope. Today, Steinberg is now one of the most sought after directors for television, working on such shows as Mad About You, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Avrich, who previously profiled Garth Drabinsky, Lew Wasserman, and (quite controversially) Harvey Weinsten, goes as soft as humanly possible here never raising the tone even slightly above that of a hagiography. According to Avrich and everyone being interviewed (including heavy hitters like Larry David, Larry Charles, Bob Einstein, Norm MacDonald, and Dave Foley), there’s not a single thing to criticize about the guy and his life was never overly dark or depressing at any point. As charming as Steinberg is to watch on his own and listen to as he speaks about his own life, it’s maddening that there’s nothing to offset the wealth of accolades coming down on him here. It’s so one-sided that if you were to turn what you see on screen 180-degrees it would disappear entirely.
As a result, if you read the brief description above about Steinberg’s life, you know almost the entire film without having seen it. Aside from all the praise and talk of him as an invaluable influence getting tossed about, there’s nothing else here whatsoever. And yes, much like with the Bruce Cockburn documentary, Steinberg really is a vital Canadian pop culture icon worthy of the praise being shown, but this isn’t anything that should be screened to a paying audience who can get the exact same information for free by reading a book. This is simply something akin to an even less thorough A&E Biography episode.
Having these kinds of documentaries get theatrical releases are kind of egotistical cons drummed up to try and raise the profile of the subject even higher. It’s kind of a bummer that both Cockburn and Steinberg are the subjects because, again, they are important figures. These movies are cheats. They’re certainly documentaries by definition, but nothing worthy of people paying for tickets and time out of their lives. These kinds of releases really need to stop, especially in a city like Toronto where thanks to having one of the world’s only all documentary cinemas, there’s more of a market for them. Just go check out the subjects on their own mertis and then watch these on television if you really feel the need to figure out basic facts you couldn’t have looked up on your own. You’ll be glad you found Steinberg if you hadn’t already, but you’ll also be rightfully coming to his work on your own terms.