By day, Toronto’s indefatigable Barry Avrich is a successful adman. By late night and early morning, he dons a variety of other hats, among them documentary producer and director. He’s made more than 20 films, usually focusing on celebrity name brands, including Hollywood heavyweights Harvey Weinstein and Lew Wasserman, music mogul Michael Cohl, and embattled theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky. All worthy subjects, beyond doubt.
The central problem is that while Avrich manages to compartmentalize his busy life, he doesn’t seem able to compartmentalize the skills needed to be good at both jobs.
If art requires an audience to suspend disbelief, ad campaigns persuade us to suspend critical judgment.
That, alas, is what Avrich’s films also do. They are less like movies than extended commercials for their subjects. His latest work, a portrait of Canadian comic David Steinberg, is a perfect case in point.
Steinberg, the film tells us (again and again), is something of a comic genius. He practically emerged from his mother’s womb in north Winnipeg doing shtick and by his early 20s was a star at Chicago’s Second City, the gold standard in improv comedy. Brilliant, irreverent, fearless, charming and a chick magnet to boot – the adulation gushes forth from talking head after talking head.
There is David Steinberg the go-to comic: he registered more invites to trade repartee with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show than anyone except Bob Hope. There is Steinberg the innovator: Long before Jon Stewart and Lewis Black, he was skewering politicians in his stand-up act and, long before Richard Dawkins, was roasting God Himself.
There is Steinberg the provocateur: according to the film, Steinberg’s notorious “sermon” about Job (he of the Old Testament) led CBS to cancel The Smothers Bro thers Comedy Hour in 1969, then among television’s most popular shows. In fact, the cancellation was the culmination of many factors, particularly the Brothers’ vocal opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam.
There is Steinberg, the cutting-edge director of TV sitcoms, from Golden Girls to Seinfeld, from Mad About You to Curb Your Enthusiasm .
And there is Steinberg the heartthrob: Carly Simon’s classic You’re So Vain is said to be about him – not, as has been popularly thought, actor Warren Beatty.
That throwaway factoid is as close as Avrich comes to even a murmur of negativity.
Although Steinberg is toasted (and envied) as a comic Lothario, we meet none of his former lovers. We hear nothing about his first wife, Judy Marcione, to whom he was married for more than 20 years, nothing about his two (now adult) daughters from that marriage, and virtually nothing from his current wife, Robyn Todd (she appears in one brief, gratuitous scene).
Nor, among the tiresome parade of verbal plaudits and archival clips, is there really much comedic analysis – what it is that made Steinberg so successful.
Quality Balls has surface quality, but none of Steinberg’s alleged balls. It’s closer to ad copy than documentary – sweetness and light, all down the line. But the line doesn’t go very far.