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With Living in Your Car, an expat fires up an HBO satire

John Ralston is Steve Unger in HBO Canada's Living in Your Car.

Before the Winnipeg-born comedian David Steinberg agreed to direct HBO Canada's new satirical comedy, Living In Your Car, he made one simple request: He wanted to meet the writers.

Eager to have a director of Steinberg's calibre attached (his directing credits include Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Mad About You, to name a few), HBO's senior execs hastily arranged a meeting in Toronto. Steinberg, who splits his time between New York and Los Angeles, flew in.

After five minutes opposite the writing team - comprised of playwright George F. Walker and his long-time collaborators Dani Romain and Joseph Kay - the Emmy-winning Steinberg says he knew he'd found a group he could click with.

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"I had already read the scripts and knew how good they were," the 67-year-old Second City alumnus explains. "But I needed to make sure they were open to collaborating. Throughout production, we did not have a single, uncomfortable moment. All the writers were very honest about their work, and they immediately knew what was, and wasn't, working. It worked so well because we all play by the same rules."

The star of Living In Your Car is New Brunswick-born actor John Ralston, who plays Steve Unger, a corporate huckster who ends up broke and living in his sole remaining asset, a Rolls-Royce. The show was Walker's idea, one he came up with about eight years ago, right around the collapse of Enron, which at the time, was the largest bankruptcy reorganization in American history.

From the outset, Walker says he wrote the 13-part series, shot in Toronto and Hamilton, with Ralston in mind as his lead. Having worked with the Maritimer in live theatre, the playwright says he knew Ralston would bring a breezy charm to a character who is mostly loathsome but still, somehow, likable. "We didn't want him to be just another A-hole," says Walker.

"After all, a lot of white-collar crooks are extremely charming and seductive. And, of course, totally oblivious to their faults. John is the real deal - a terrific guy in person - so we knew he'd bring the right amount of empathy to Steve Unger - a person we didn't want the audience to instantly despise."

And as for Steinberg's contribution to the making of the show? "David brought his great comic sensibility," says Walker, "and also his years of experience.

"He's been dealing in American TV for a long time. And he's seen it all. What I especially appreciate about him is his ability to deal with the technical stuff quickly so he can focus on working with the actors. It's a trait you don't see often in TV directors, and something to be valued."

In the first episode of Living In Your Car, which premiered last night, viewers get a glimpse of Unger when he still has it all - the gorgeous wife, the 20-room house, the perfect kid. Soon, though, he's caught cooking the books, and his life - as he knew it - falls apart.

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Shunned by everyone, including his ex-wife Lori (London, Ont.-born Ingrid Kavelaars), Unger sets out to rebuild his life - with mixed results.

Steinberg says he liked the comedy's satirical edge, and the fact that it wasn't too mean-spirited. "If it had been too brittle no one would want to watch it," reasons Steinberg over the phone. "This is a crook with charm, which makes him even more mysterious."

Steinberg, who has also directed episodes of Weeds, Friends and Designing Women, sees many similarities between Living In Your Car and his all-time favourite, Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. "Both strike me as totally original," says Steinberg, who initially planned on being a rabbi before happening upon a stand-up show by comedian Lenny Bruce, which changed his life.

" Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of the richest comedies I've worked on. We broke all the rules on that show, even for a network as forgiving as HBO," adds the Manitoba native, who in the heyday of his stand-up career, chalked up 130 appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, second only to Bob Hope.

"There is nothing like Larry's character on television. And I don't think there's anyone out there quite like Steve Unger. He's an entrepreneur who makes money because it's in his blood to do so. And he steals it because he feels he's entitled to. It's this twisting of good and bad, and making the lines grey, that I find interesting."

These days, Steinberg is back in New York -- collaborating once again. This time, he is working with The Office's Steve Carell on a documentary highlighting the top comedians of the past four decades. Steinberg's loving this project, and has met with the likes of Larry David, Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres and Carol Burnett.

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The documentary is clearly the current focus of Steinberg's time, but he adds that if Living In Your Car gets picked up for season two, he, too, will return. "I'm constantly looking for opportunities to come back to Canada, especially Toronto where I still have a lot of friends like Marty [Short] and Catherine [O'Hara]

"I admit I wasn't crazy about getting up at 5:30 and driving to Hamilton every day," he laughs. "But Canada is still home. And I credit my upbringing here to giving me what all Canadian comics seem to have - an outsider's perspective. And that's what gives us our edge."

Living In Your Car airs Friday nights on HBO Canada at 9:30 p.m.

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