Comedian David Steinberg says his career spans a very interesting period in the history of Jewish family aspirations.

“When I started out as a stand-up (in the 1960s), you didn’t make much money at it and it wasn’t the kind of thing your family would want you to be,” said Steinberg, 71, the son of a rabbi. “But now, since Jerry Seinfeld, comedy has gone corporate and it’s very desirable. It seems like every Jew I know in Los Angeles is trying to get their son to be a writer for “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” In the old days they would have been lobbying to have them be doctors.”

Steinberg’s own journey has taken him from politically edgy comedian and “Tonight Show” fixture in the 1970s to directing TV shows like “Seinfeld,” “Mad About You,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Inside Comedy.”

His life has been chronicled in a documentary film called “Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story,” which will have its New England premiere Sunday as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival.

(The film’s title comes from something Seinfeld once said about Steinberg’s, uh, determination, as a comedian.)

The festival this year features about 30 films, as well as discussions and question and answer sessions with filmmakers. The films and events will be held Saturday through March 29 at venues in Portland, Waterville, Brunswick, Rockland, Bangor and Augusta. The festival is in its 17th year.

The common thread of the films is that they explore the Jewish experience. But they range in tenor and topic from biographies and documentaries to a comic thriller and a romantic comedy.

“Sleeping With the Fishes” for instance is a romantic comedy about a woman overcoming the trauma of a cheating husband while dealing with her own Jewish-Latin family roots.

“The Wonders” is a comic thriller in Hebrew, with English subtitles, about a slacker embroiled in the “weird criminal-religious underbelly” of Jerusalem.

“Ahead of Time” is a documentary about Ruth Gruber, who reported from the Palestine-bound ship Exodus in 1947, and escorted Holocaust refugees on a secret mission during World War II.

(For a full schedule of films, descriptions and times, go to mjff.org.)

The film about Steinberg might be the most mainstream, pop-culture entry in the festival, since Steinberg has worked as a comedian and director in TV for some 40 years. Raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Steinberg was leaning toward religious studies before going into comedy.

Steinberg was a trend-setter and a boundary breaker during his comedy career. He caused a firestorm of controversy with jokes about God using a burning bush to give Moses a hot foot, and he landed on Richard Nixon’s famous enemies list for making jokes during the Watergate scandal.

When Nixon was making headlines for the infamous tape recordings of his White House conversations, Steinberg was on TV making jokes about it.

“I was on ‘The Tonight Show’ talking about Nixon’s tapes like they were one of those greatest hits records from K-Tel,” said Steinberg. “Then I sat down and one of the guests was Charles Bronson, who said he didn’t like my point of view.”

Steinberg said his edgy style probably came from his training with the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago.

“I was on every night for four years, and the thing you learn with Second City is to work from the top of your intelligence and don’t be afraid of your own point of view,” said Steinberg.

Steinberg was on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” some 130 times, and guest-hosted many times.

By the late 1980s Steinberg had moved from the stage to behind the camera, working mostly as a TV director since then.

His latest project is directing and hosting the current Showtime series “Inside Comedy,” which features comedians discussing their craft.

“Comedy has a value, it’s important to people,” Steinberg said. “That’s why I finally agreed to do this documentary, because it helps look at the history of comedy.”

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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