Bob Einstein was one original character.
That character was “Super” Dave Osborne, a parody of ’70s daredevil Evel Knievel. The real life stunt artist nearly killed himself leaping across school buses and the Snake River Canyon. The fake daredevil made an equally impossible leap — from Los Angeles to Toronto, where he spun Super Dave into an industry.
Before that, Einstein — who passed away at 76 in Los Angeles Wednesday — got his show business start at 24 as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He’d been in advertising and did a local stunt on an LA show where he posed as the guy who puts the names on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Tom Smothers happened to catch the bit, called Einstein and quickly offered him a job writing on the landmark CBS comedy/variety hour.
Einstein thus cut his teeth as a writer in the late ’60s on one of the youngest and likely most radical staffs in network television. His desk mate (and room mate for a time) was another young kid trying to make a name for himself — Steve Martin. Both won Emmy awards for their work on the series.
Winnipeg-born Allan Blye, who’d worked on Juliette at CBC in the ’60s and was a writer-producer on Smothers Brothers, hailed Einstein as having, “one of the funniest minds I’ve ever met.”
Einstein kept writing, often as part of a staff put together by Blye. They both contributed to variety shows hosted by Sonny & Cher, The Hudson Brothers, Dick Van Dyke and also to a short-lived series fronted by comedian/impressionist John Byner.
When Byner later came up to Canada to star in the outrageous comedy sketch series Bizarre in the late ’70s he took Blye and Einstein with him. The series was shot in Toronto, before a live audience, at the Glen Warren Studios at CFTO in Agincourt. It aired on Global in Canada and a cheeky, uncensored version ran on the US premium cable service Showtime.
Einstein not only wrote and produced but appeared on the series as Byner’s deadpan — and usually cranky — producer. He also brought along a red, white and black-and-blue character he premiered on Byner’s earlier series. The character, Super Dave Osborne.
Created by Blye and Einstein, Super Dave was spun off into a series and ran for five seasons. Not bad for what was more or less a one-joke premise: every week, Osborne tries a new stunt and it goes horribly wrong, usually resulting in an accident that would normally kill a human being. The bigger the smack down at the end, the bigger the laughs.
That series had a very Canadian feel to it, and not just because Osborne’s seat belts were supposedly made out of Saskatchewan sealskin bindings. It was produced in Toronto and taped just north of the city before a live audience at the Markham Theatre. Several Canadians appeared in the supporting cast, including Tom Harvey and Don Lake.
I was working at TV Guide Canada in Toronto at the time and attended a few tapings. There was always a guest star, and I remember seeing Kim Carnes lip synch through her one hit “Bette Davis Eyes.” Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Rogers, Einstein’s mentors The Smothers Brothers and a young Celine Dion were other notable guests.
At TV Guide, me and fellow writer Andy Ryan pulled together a photo feature on the series that had shots of friends and neighbours running around as if caught up in Super Dave stunts. Einstein later asked why the hell we didn’t come to him for the shtick. He had a point! The comedian had every reason to be miffed but it didn’t stop him from being very generous with the Super Dave hats and T-shirts.
Einstein knew from funny long before his TV career took off. It was apparently in his blood: his brother is Albert Brooks (real name: Albert Einstein!) and his dad was well-known radio comedian Harry Einstein, known by his showbiz pseudonym “Parkyakarkas.”
Einstein senior is at the centre of a heartbreaking Hollywood story. The comedian, who had a history of heart trouble, died in 1958 immediately after performing a laugh-filled routine at a Hollywood roast paying tribute to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He literally finished his set, sat down at the head table and slumped into Milton Berle’s arms. Bob Einstein, who was 14 at the time, talked about the tragic incident on one of his two appearances on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Einstein admitted that the way his father died turned him off showbusiness for several years. When he stumbled back into it, however, he never turned back.
The comedian also never fully abandoned his stunt daredevil character, resurrecting him for movies, specials and guest star turns on late night talk shows. In his later years, he remained a welcome and very funny addition to some of TV’s greatest comedies, including Arrested Development (as Larry Middlemen) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (as Larry’s peeved pal Marty Funkhowser).
Einstein had an original and unpredictable wit and was fearless when it came to reaching high or low for a punchline or a situation. This made him a terrific and spontaneous storyteller, on The Tonight Show, Letterman, Conan, Kimmel or even in several video extras as part of DVD box sets. (Listen to him tell tales from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour Third Season boxed set.) Just reading a list of his TV credits can put a smile on your face. He knew where the funny was and went where others would fear to tread.
In short, he did with comedy what Super Dave tried to do with his stunts — he always went for it. Condolences to his family, friends and many fans.