Saturday, 6 July 2013

Two Fascinating Men

David Steinberg with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show
On the plane from Hong Kong to Vancouver, I watched two documentaries on two inspiring people.
The first was David Steinberg, who is best known as the director of such comedy series as Mad About You, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
 
What I didn't know is that Steinberg is actually from Winnipeg, Manitoba. His Romanian Orthodox parents along with his three older siblings moved there and then David came along – quite by accident. When he was born, his brothers and sisters were much older than him and that quickly influenced his personality because his parents had finished parenting so to speak and with David they practically left him to his own devices.
 
According to his older sister he was very popular in school, always kidding around and at home because his father was a rabbi, there was the culture of storytelling around the dinner table. 
 
When he grew up, Steinberg was expected to follow his father's footsteps and become a rabbi too and went to Chicago to further his studies. However, as Steinberg recalls, he was more interested in the beautiful women on campus and saw a group of them go into a theatre building and followed them.
 
It turns out there was an audition for Candide and the then theatre professor asked him what he was doing there. Steinberg, having no idea what Candide was, said that he was interested in joining other "Candidians". The professor immediately saw Steinberg's sense of humour and acting ability and got him doing minor parts, like playing different pieces of furniture.
 
But then Steinberg started seeing comedy shows and quickly realized this was something that he wanted to do and abandoned his religious studies. He did acts in a small bar but then there were fewer and fewer people watching him and he knew the bar owner would tell him to move on.
However, it turned out a theatre critic from The New York Times had watched him and pronounced him as the one to watch. From then onwards he was able to join Second City where he really began to flourish.
 
Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David with David Steinberg
With improv, the comedians had to work together, reading each other to know what the next line would be. Not only that, it's all about timing and the beat to get the most laughs. One of his best acts was The Sermon. Since he practically knew the Old Testament by heart, Steinberg would deliver "a sermon" that poked fun at The Bible. "As God said in his redundant way…" he would say, and point out contradicting things in the stories or how they made no sense, this particular act gained a lot of attention for Steinberg.
 
He would go on to do this for The Smothers Brothers, that would get them off the air because the TV stations thought Steinberg's act was too controversial at the time. 
 
While Steinberg's star was rising, there was an opportunity for him to do Broadway plays in New York and he thought he'd reached the big time. However, each successive one flopped and he retreated with his tail between his legs. So he stuck to improv and standup.
 
Perhaps Steinberg's best endorser was Johnny Carson. It took five tries for him to get on the show because it seemed every guest before him would talk longer so there was never enough time for him to go on. But when he finally did, he and Carson immediately clicked, particularly when conversing on the couch. One could see Carson listening to the young Steinberg talking and seeing how they could play off each other, which they did brilliantly.
 
Carson enjoyed having Steinberg on so much that he became a regular guest and even guest hosted. Did I also mention he was very dashing in his youth? He seemed to have a carefree, easy-going manner that made him even more appealing.
 
After he got married and had children, Steinberg knew that he couldn't keep doing improv nor travel around doing standup forever. So he switched to directing – and in television. For many comedians this is a strange career turn, as one would think they'd want to continue to be the star of the show. Also television was considered the last resort for washed up actors. 
 
But in Steinberg's case it was a brilliant move because he had stage experience and had the comedy background. He directed Friends, Designing Women, Mad About You and then of course the hit run of Seinfeld and then Curb Your Enthusiasm.
 
 The other documentary I watched is called Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet. I had listened to the CBC radio interview with the director along with Jason Becker and his father and was riveting.
 
Becker was on the cusp of stardom at the age of 20 when he was hired to be the guitarist for David Lee Roth. But on the eve of the tour, Becker was diagnosed with ALS and his dream of showing the world his guitar virtuosity crashed.
 
Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet chronicles the life of Becker from when he was a child and how he learned guitar at a young age. His father taught him but soon the young Becker was so attached to the instrument, constantly playing it everywhere – even sleeping with it – that his father admitted his son was now the teacher. 
 
He quickly gravitated to the electric guitar along with the long locks, but he was hardly a rebel and loved his family very much. Early videos of him playing guitar at high school talent shows already demonstrate his brilliance. 
 
The young Jason Becker
Not only did Becker play metal music, but also Bach fugues too. He learned from a jazz musician who taught him the fundamentals not only in technique but also counterpoint as well which would set Becker apart from the rest.
 
His father sent cassette demos around and it caught the ear of a record producer. He invited Becker to play with Marty Friedman who was much older.
 
At first Friedman was reticent about meeting this young teen and was skeptical about how good Becker was. When the two of them met, Friedman got Becker to copy what he did, and he not only executed better, but even added flourishes Friedman hadn't even thought of before. They became fast friends.
 
Word spread about Becker and he soon caught the attention of David Lee Roth's band who were looking for a guitarist to replace Steve Vai who went on to join Whitesnake. They invited Becker to play and were thoroughly impressed. They started recording in Vancouver and it was basically Becker's first time away from home. He was such a good boy that he bought flowers for the woman who cleaned his room every day in the hotel.
 
Soon they were preparing to tour, but then Becker's leg would go soft and he couldn't walk as much or he had trouble carrying his stuff and would attribute it to having the heavy loads. His parents implored him to get checked out, and it took him a while to do that.
 
And when he did, he found out he had ALS and only had three years to live. He had no clue what it was or what was going to happen to him, so he didn't tell the band what had happened to him, hoping the cocktail of pills would help him keep the muscle-wasting disease under control.
 
But it was inevitable Becker would have to tell them and it was perhaps the hardest thing he had to do – walk away from what could have been his chance at stardom. His parents were very disappointed too, not only seeing their son slowly degenerate into someone who walked with canes and then was confined to a wheelchair and had to have a feeding tube, but also this was a huge financial strain on them.
 
Jason Becker today continues actively to compose music
Eventually it got too hard for Becker to talk and his father created a board with letter on it so that Becker could look at each letter and the reader could spell out the word and figure out what he wanted to communicate. The family has the board memorized so they now just look at him and can tell which letters he is thinking of. 
 
Not only that but there are computer programs now to help Becker compose music, albeit in a very slow process, but bit by bit he has managed to compose pieces. Every year there is a day to celebrate Becker's life and everyone comes out to see him, including Friedman, who went on to play with Megadeath. 
 
It is Becker's parents who have been the most supportive of Becker, along with a team of dieticians and medical staff who feed him organic vegetables and seeds that are ground up into a smoothie and then injected into a feeding tube. Doctors are amazed when they see him because his skin colour looks good for someone in his condition – in fact no one expected him to live as long as he has now, hence the name of the documentary.
 
It's so sad to see Becker, but at the same time his determination to contribute to society and make his life as fulfilling as possible. One wonders how he will do once his parents cannot physically look after him or are gone; his parents worry, but it seems it is a bridge they will cross when they get there.

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