I can remember when it first dawned on me that it was important to make people laugh. I had an older brother named Hymie who was killed in the Second World War when he was nineteen. I was around three or four when it happened. Of course, my mother never got back to a normal life after my brother’s death.
When I was in my thirties, I went to a psychiatrist because I’d had sporadic depressions throughout my life. This guy was eighty years old, and during our sessions, he kept saying, “Tell me about your family.”
And I would reply, “Well, my brother Fishy was a shoe salesman. Couldn’t have had a more lovable brother. My brother and my sister, Tammy, were it. And then there were my parents …”
“Well, is that it for your family?”
So I told him, “When I was around three or four years old, I had an older brother whose plane crashed during the Second World War when he was coming back to Winnipeg from Iceland.”
He asked, “What do you remember about your brother?”
And I said, “I don’t remember a lot. There was a picture of him in our house wearing his air force uniform, my brother on one side, my sister on the other, and I’m a baby holding both of his hands. Whenever I looked at that picture, I thought I could feel his hands, even though I really didn’t know him.”
“Isn’t there anything else you remember?”
“I remember the doorbell ringing in our house in Winnipeg. It was Passover, and we were all sitting around the table having a Seder.
I remember my dad saying, ‘Duddy, go get it,’ and I went, and there was a telegram. I remember a lot of laughing had been going on in the house, and I gave my dad the telegram, and then everyone suddenly stopped laughing. We found out that my brother had been killed in the war. Everyone started to cry.”
The psychiatrist let me sit there for the longest time. After another long silence, he asked, “If you were a little kid bringing a message to your family that made them cry, don’t you think that might have initiated your wanting to make people laugh?”
I remember thinking, “God, what an incredible insight. There’s no way I would ever have thought of that on my own.”
Fast-forward to one night when I was doing my one-man show in New York, and I closed with that story about the psychiatrist. It was different from the kind of topical material I usually did, and at the end there was silence. Then the audience just went crazy. The whole show made sense to them. That kind of visceral reaction from an audience might be why I’m so comfortable with comedy. That kind of reaction is all I care about. It’s life-affirming.
By the way, Winnipeg was a great place to grow up.
John Candy was, to his followers, Canada’s Jackie Gleason. He auditioned, along with a lot of other Second City Canadians, for my 1976 Canadian show, creatively called “The David Steinberg Show.” When he walked through the door for the audition, he was visibly shivering. When I asked if he was okay, he said yes and immediately stepped into a Jackie Gleason imitation, saying, “I’m so excited and nervous to be here.”
That was the beginning of a long friendship that continued when John and his family moved into our guesthouse in Los Angeles and parked there for a year. During that time, we improvised a movie called “Going Berserk.” John was supposed to be writing it, but if you knew John, you would know it was like kicking a boulder up a big hill for him. As a result, when the time came to shoot, we had no script. We had to come up with something, which ended up with John and me (the director) going on the Universal lot each morning to find a set not being used that day. We improvised and created scenes right then and there, on the lot. It was exhilarating and scary.
Originally our film was going to be called “Drums over Malta,” which, to us, was a perfect title, since no one would believe that would be a John Candy film. Pierre David, the Canadian producer, wanted to call the film “Numb Nuts” and, unbeknownst to us, gave that title to the press. Upon hearing that title, the next day every comedy actor in the film puked their guts out. We fought back and compromised and did the film our way. The title remained “Going Berserk.”
John Candy, as you know, was portly, but he never played off of his physicality or used it in his comedy as a comedic actor. You would expect a big person to be slapstick, but he was much more subtle, as he had trained with Second City. The audience immediately took to him, since he had an empathy in his performances. When I directed him in “Going Berserk,” he was completely outrageous, but he always had a warmth that enveloped the audience and extended to the crew as well. Everyone loved John. His laugh was contagious, inviting the audience into his humor. He was endearing. The audience always rooted for him.
John was also determined to lose the weight. And that could be what killed him. He claimed that when he would lose weight, people would mistake him for Clark Gable, then the handsomest man on earth — so he was motivated. John had a trainer he wanted to work with, a young guy in good shape, who guaranteed us that John would be in great shape for the film. I did begin to notice that John’s nose was always running, and so was the trainer’s. I assumed they had colds or allergies … I was naive enough to believe we were well on our way. So I just kept working on the film. It opened and, surprisingly, it was a hit, has a cult following to this day, and holds up if you have the patience. We also did a small film in Canada called “My Dinner with Duddy,” which was completely improvised by John and myself (it was a parody of the “artistic” movie of the time, “My Dinner with Andre”). That, too, became a cult comedy, especially in Canada. John loved playing the blowhard in that film. And he killed it.
I always loved being around John and his perfect, honestly sweet family. He was great with people. Always ready to laugh. So funny all the time. I treasure our time together. I miss him. He was forty-four when he died. To say I was shocked, devastated, doesn’t come close. I remained numb forever, and to this day, I can’t believe he is gone.
This is not the case with Mike Myers, a comic actor who excels in film and television. Mike and I share a bond that is unbreakable. It’s not just ours, though. It is being a Canadian. When I received the Order of Canada last year (Mike had also received this honor), I was moved to tears at the ceremony. I did mention Mike as a fellow Canadian comedian. Had I mentioned all of them, I would still be talking. Since we don’t have a time limit, here are Canadian comedians and comic actors who have dotted the entertainment world with huge impact: John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Norm Macdonald, Seth Rogen, Samantha Bee, Tommy Chong, Lorne Michaels, Martin Short, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Ryan Reynolds (maybe not a comedian but a great comic actor), Michael J. Fox, Tom Green, Howie Mandel, Leslie Nielsen, Will Arnett, Caroline Rhea.
Enough of a who’s who?
Mike Myers will like this. He is so proud to be Canadian. And like many of the others, he was on SNL (six years), had great film roles (“Wayne’s World,” “Austin Powers”) that received terrific reviews, was in “Inglourious Basterds” in 2009 and the Oscar-winning “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 2018. And also, like many of us, Mike started at Second City, in the Canadian touring company. He left to work in England, then returned to Toronto and starred in their main theater. But it was the sketches that he and Dana Carvey adapted from their SNL days that became the film “Wayne’s World” (they sang the song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which became iconic). When Mike and I get together, it’s just plain fun. And when we do, we often begin recounting, again and again, our stories about Canada. “I grew up in a very strange house, where my dad (who was British) would do singsongy catchphrases like ‘Michael, you’re not good enough.’ Which is a little sad. Actually, I made that up. He was very supportive, I just wanted to add a little drama.
“I started performing when I was eight years old, in a British commercial for British Columbia Hydro, which is what they call the electric company. And then I did one for Datsun 610. So, as a kid, I was already performing. I thought I might want to be an architect, and my dad said, ‘Why would you want to do that? Why wouldn’t you want to be an actor?’ I’m the only performer I know whose dad was just like, ‘No, just be an actor.’ And then when I became an actor, I was so proud to see so many other Canadian entertainers. I was so proud to see you, David, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. I did love Wayne and Shuster. I was very proud that Lorne Michaels and Dan Aykroyd were from Canada. And I didn’t realize Gilda Radner was from Detroit, because she worked in Canada a lot, so I thought she was Canadian, too.”