January 23, 2019

Smashing Idols in Tinseltown and Beyond

According to the familiar Midrashic legend, Abraham’s father, Terah, was a craftsman and salesman of idols. But Abram (Abraham’s original name) scoffs at the adults who worship idols. Having watched his father make the sausages, so to speak, he can’t worship them.

While Terah is away, Abram smashes all of the idols except the largest one, placing an ax in its hand. When Terah returns, he’s furious. Abram explains that the idols had brawled until one idol emerged victorious. Terah is incredulous: “Idols don’t destroy idols,” he says, “people do.” Abram smiles. “Exactly,” he says. “So, why worship them?” Terah hauls Abram to the royal court of Nimrod, where he is sentenced to death by fire. According to the legend, God saves Abram from the crucible.

Idol smashers are courageous and strong. Many Abrams have emerged from the current cultural crucible. These heroes break false cultural idols. They slay producers like Harvey Weinstein, directors like Brett Ratner and actors like Kevin Spacey. As we overturn boulders, the hideous creatures hiding beneath are scurrying blindly into the sunlight. We’re experiencing a massive cultural revolution — listening to victims of alleged abuse and believing them.

Today’s idol smashers are shaking Hollywood, and its edifice is wobbling. To some, Hollywood is a cesspool of vice run by vile, abusive men. As Hollywood idols are smashed, only debris remains. And the scornful public’s instinct is to discard Hollywood’s art, once beautiful and inspirational.

But there’s a more optimistic view.

Hollywood isn’t monolithic. It’s comprised of more victims of alleged abuse than reputed abusers. For every Hollywood villain, there are many heroes, people who succeed without harming others.

Hollywood also has its superheroes, people trying to change the world.

Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman in the DC Extended Universe. In real life, she stood up to Ratner, who has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct. Gadot made it known that she wouldn’t work on a “Wonder Woman” sequel if Ratner were involved as a producer. Warner Bros. responded by dropping Ratner from the film.

Today’s idol smashers are shaking Hollywood, and its edifice is wobbling.

When Jimmy Fallon returned to the “Tonight Show” a week after his mother’s death, he told viewers that his mom “… would squeeze my hand three times, and say, ‘I love you.’ Last week, I was in the hospital, and I grabbed her hand and squeezed. ‘I love you.’”

During the same broadcast, Taylor Swift debuted her song “New Year’s Day,” which happened to include the lyrics, “You squeeze my hand three times in the back of a taxi. … ”

Swift wasn’t a scheduled guest. Producers had invited her to add a special touch to Fallon’s return show, and she agreed without hesitation. When she serendipitously sang “squeeze my hand three times,” there were tears all around. Afterward, the two stars embraced, overwhelmed with emotion. Swift’s brilliant performance and unbridled support for Fallon were heroic.

Drake may be the biggest superhero of all. Performing on Nov. 15 in Sydney, the artist was mid-song when he stopped to chastise a man for reportedly groping women in the audience. Drake’s righteous indignation and public calling-out is the stuff of superheroes.

If you need further reassurance that Hollywood is not a cesspool, see the feature film “Wonder,” a remarkable 100-minute sermon on kindness, acceptance, love and magnanimity. “Wonder” grabs you by the soul and, in the words of Henry Ward Beecher — used beautifully in the film — “carries up the most hearts.” It’s a reminder that no one does inspirational and powerful storytelling better than Hollywood.

One by one, false idols are falling. Morality pundits at Fox News, hypocritical politicians (left and right), Silicon Valley misogynists and Hollywood Neanderthals have been exposed and destroyed.

After Abram smashed the idols, he discovered God, the Creator. Not made of stone, wood or clay, Abram’s God was the maker of stone, wood and clay. Abram partnered with the Creator to teach morality and kindness, and together they changed the world.

We should celebrate the destruction of Hollywood’s false idols, but we should not discard Hollywood and all of its culture. Instead, let’s replace those idols with the Hollywood stars who light up our world with love and kindness.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Mel Brooks shares his sweetest memories of Gene Wilder

Mel Brooks and the late Gene Wilder — who collaborated in films such as “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” — had a famously close, decades-long friendship.

When Wilder passed away on Monday, Brooks was one of the first celebrities to offer a Twitter eulogy, calling him “one of the truly great talents of our time.”

Brooks got more specific on “The Tonight Show” Tuesday night, dishing to Jimmy Fallon about everything from how he met the fellow Jewish comedy legend to how Wilder cried when he saw the script for “The Producers.”

Brooks, who is 90 but still oozes energy and a manic sense of humor — he interrupted the interview at one point to stand up and mock Hitler’s mustache using a hair comb — recalled how he told Wilder about the idea for “The Producers” before he had the financial backing to follow through with it.

“He said…‘You’re doing a play about two Jews who are producing a flop instead of a hit, knowing they can make more money with a flop, and the big number in it is “Springtime for Hitler.” Yeah, you’re going to get the money,’” Brooks said, noting Wilder’s sarcasm.

When Brooks finally did secure the money for the movie, he surprised Wilder in his dressing room, where he was preparing to act in a play, with a copy of the script. Instead of laughing this time, Wilder broke down in tears of joy.

Watch the full clip, which includes more touching Brooks and Wilder stories, above.

Watch: Idina Menzel sings ‘Let it Go’ with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots

If you liked Idina Menzel (Travoltified name: Adele Mazeen) at the Oscars, you’ll love love love her on “The Tonight Show.”

The “Frozen” star squeezed in next to host Jimmy Fallon and his resident band The Roots Monday night for what is definitely our all-time favorite version of the film’s hit song “Let it Go.”

Toy instruments + a very relaxed and natural Menzel + The Roots (!) = a perfect and delightful breath of fresh air for parents everywhere who have just about reached their “Frozen” soundtrack threshold. Trust us–after listening to the thing during every single car ride ever, this rendition is like a whole new world. We’re talking of course about the experience–not the “Aladdin” song.

Get ready to smile.

Joan Rivers, banned from ‘Tonight Show,’ returns for Jimmy Fallon’s debut

Monday Night marked Jimmy Fallon’s debut as host of “The Tonight Show.” It was also the first time Joan Rivers, among the parade of stars who took the stage to settle a $100 debt, appeared on the show in over 25 years. Even more monumental: It was the 49th anniversary of her first-ever “Tonight Show” appearance, on Feb. 17 1965.

“It’s about time!” Rivers said in a statement of her return, per The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve been sitting in a taxi outside NBC with the meter running since 1987.”

Rivers was banned from the show by Johnny Carson after leaving her gig as his permanent guest host to helm Fox’s “The Late Show With Joan Rivers,” a competitor.

“Being in the studio brought back the most wonderful, wonderful memories of the night that jump-started my career,” she said. “So when people ask me, ‘Why was last night different from all other nights?’ I’ll tell them that it certainly beats Passover!”

See Rivers’ big comeback (plus Seth Rogen, Tina Fey, Lady Gaga, Lindsay Lohan, and many more) right here.

Steinberg’s ‘Quality Balls’

“I would have been a lousy rabbi,” confided David Steinberg, candidly reflecting on what would have happened if he’d continued his yeshiva studies and followed in his father’s footsteps. The rabbinate’s loss is comedy’s gain, and Steinberg has 50 years of memories to show for it — as a performer, personality and in-demand director. 

For the past two years, he’s turned the spotlight on other comedians with his Showtime series “Inside Comedy,” which returns for its third season Feb. 3 at 11 p.m. But the focus of the program leading into it is entirely personal — the biographical documentary “Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story” premieres at 9:30 that evening. The film follows his life and career from the Jewish community in Canada’s Winnipeg,  to Chicago’s Second City troupe, to New York and Hollywood, including archival clips and testimonies from his comedy peers. The title, “Quality Balls,” comes from a comment made by his good friend Jerry Seinfeld.

When a Canadian company pitched the documentary to Steinberg, now 71, more than a year ago, he wasn’t interested. 

“It struck me — and it still does strike me — as a little on the self-indulgent side.” 

But his wife, Robyn, insisted he do it, “and I reluctantly agreed.” Busy with directing projects and the five months a year he spends on “Inside Comedy,” Steinberg hadn’t done stand-up for a few years, so he booked the La Jolla Playhouse to work out new material last summer. Not only did it provide fodder for the film, it rekindled his interest in doing stand-up, leading to subsequent solo bookings and a 20-city tour with Robin Williams last year. 

Quality Balls” also covers Steinberg’s appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson — 140, including guest hosting — his controversial-for-the-time political humor and his Jewish roots, which indelibly impacted his comedy. 

“It’s certainly part of my comedy DNA and my DNA in general. It’s important to me as anything. It’s who I am,” said Steinberg, who is known as Dudy to his friends and family. 

Although he was pressed to do so, “I never changed my name because nothing about that made sense to me,” he said. “Why would you want to get known as anything other than who you are?” Steinberg said he was determined to prove to an English teacher who didn’t think he would amount to anything that he could make a name for himself — as himself.

Steinberg grew up in an Orthodox home, the youngest of four children born to Russian immigrant parents; his father owned a grocery store and ran a shul. He was exposed to live comedy and radio shows early on because “television came late to Winnipeg,” and comics like Jack Benny and the duo Wayne and Shuster sparked his imagination. 

“When you’re listening, you’re creating pictures in your head. But I never thought of it as a profession. I just laughed and loved them,” he said. “I had no plan to be in show business.”  

That is, until he discovered and fell in love with theater at the University of Chicago. Still, he can’t pinpoint the moment he realized he was funny. 

“It’s like saying, ‘When did you realize you were breathing?’ It’s just something that you do. It is who you are,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg, whose “Inside Comedy” returns for its third season Feb. 3. Photo by Kent Smith/Showtime

As for what attracts him to the stand-up medium?

“It makes you think about what’s going on around you all the time,” Steinberg said. “You have to have an opinion, even if it’s unpopular. It’s an incredible platform to express your point of view.” 

He equally enjoyed the improvisational aspects of his “Tonight Show” appearances with Carson. “My fondest memories are just how much he allowed me to do what I do,” he said.

Observing that stand-up comedy is a more prestigious career option than it used to be, Steinberg quipped, You can’t swing your arms and not hit a Jew in Beverly Hills who doesn’t have a son that wants to be a comedian.” His own stand-up plans include a likely Northeast run this summer, but he noted that controversial topics in his act are  a thing of the past.

“I’ve lost my edge. I don’t deal with politics anymore,” he said.

Steinberg hopes to return to directing and to continue to produce “Inside Comedy,” which he called “one of my favorite things I’ve done.” This season’s lineup of interviews includes Jimmy Fallon and Zach Galifianakis in the first episode, and Jonah Hill and Alan Arkin in the second. Bette Midler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Dick Van Dyke, Andrew Dice Clay, and Key and Peele will appear in subsequent episodes. 

Over the years, he has also directed episodes of “Newhart,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Designing Women” and “Seinfeld,” among other programs.

In his personal life, Steinberg said he’s proud of his longtime friendships with Seinfeld, Williams, Larry David and Mel Brooks, as well as his marriage and family — two daughters and one grandchild. He’s been with Robyn for 18 years, and says it works because “Robyn laughs at everything that I say,” adding, “She has a great sense of humor.” 

Reflecting on his success, Steinberg attributes a lot of it to being in the right place at the right time. “The most important ingredient is luck, and that’s what I’ve had all the way through, and then being able to cash in on it.”

As for the notion raised in “Quality Balls” that he was the subject of Carly Simon’s hit song “You’re So Vain,” Steinberg demurs. 

“You’d have to ask Carly about that. She’s a close friend of mine, and I am vain,” he said. “But I can’t confirm or deny.”

Jimmy Fallon’s amazing Charlie Sheen impression – WINNING!