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Plant High grad on Oxygen channel's '<i>Funny Girls'</i>

Family provides fodder for Ester Steinberg, the daughter of a Democratic and a Republican.
Family provides fodder for Ester Steinberg, the daughter of a Democratic and a Republican.
Published Apr. 2, 2015

TAMPA — When the band playing in the courtyard took a break that day, Ester Steinberg seized the moment.

It was lunch time, senior year, at Plant High. She climbed on top of a picnic table and riffed on her life, zinging her parents, the yearbook, Facebook. The straight-A cheerleader worked the crowd like an Improv pro, the laughter energizing a budding comic.

Flash forward seven years and you find the Oxygen channel tapping Steinberg, 25, and five other female comedians for a new docu-series, Funny Girls, which premiers Tuesday at 9 p.m. During eight hourlong episodes, cameras document, reality-show style, their everyday lives in the standup comedy culture as they perform all over Los Angeles. Several big-name comics mentor the ambitious young women, in Steinberg's case, Margaret Cho and Bill Burr.

Viewers will see an entrepreneurial Steinberg, producing and performing a monthly Kibitz Room Comedy show at Canter's Deli with her sister Jacklyn, 29. She also films an audition tape for Saturday Night Live and works on her web series, "Becoming LA."

"They'll see how hard it is, an uphill battle," Steinberg said. "It's (comedy) a rough business … a 50-to-1 male to female. One woman in a show, if you're lucky. There's no HR, just men telling dirty jokes. Every minute is battling being sexualized."

Steinberg knew a couple of the Funny Girls, the others have become allies in the male-dominated industry. "These women have helped me be a stronger person and demand respect as a woman," she said.

Steinberg's style: grandparent-approved.

"I do characters … impressions of my mother, my grandma, guys who hit on me," she said. "I try to be witty and smart … lots of accents and voices. My No. 1 thing is to make it highbrow."

Four-letter words keep you off late-night TV, Steinberg said.

"The cleaner you are, the more likely to get a spot. It's easy to make people laugh if you are always cursing and being dirty."

Still, her monologues can be raunchy.

"Sometimes I just have to talk about sex. That's all 25-year-olds talk about."

Family always provides fodder for the daughter of Tampa attorney Michael Steinberg, former head of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, and recent state house District 64 candidate Miriam Steinberg, a lifelong Republican. Dueling politics offers plenty of material, she said, as does her grandfather, 13th Judicial Circuit senior Judge Ralph Steinberg, known for his courthouse gags and magic tricks, like a fake gavel.

A young Michael Steinberg once moved to Los Angles to attempt a standup career or to practice entertainment law. He had crafted "a pretty good five-minute routine" he said, but returned home to raise a family.

"My dad taught us sarcasm before we knew not to be sarcastic," Steinberg said. "Like he'd call the Friendship Playground the Enemy Playground. All we did in the car was tell jokes."

By 15, she was writing her own jokes; at 16 she took an adult standup class at the Patel Conservatory. Next came a job in the box office at Side Splitters Comedy Club in north Tampa where she performed on open mic nights and negotiated for frequent guest spots.

Appearing in Plant theatrical productions won her a Florida Thespian Festival scholarship.

"It changed my life," she said.

The funds covered her rent and allowed her to stay in the city after her freshman year at New York University to work at Carolines on Broadway, one of the nation's most famous standup comedy clubs. That summer, she made the cut to appear on the New Talent showcase.

"I killed," she said. "I performed one night and Louis C.K. the next night."

Armed with her NYU theater degree, Steinberg bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles in 2012. Her family asked only that she take funny business seriously.

She's done that and now aims squarely at some huge goals.

"I want to tour, do TV shows, SNL, movies," Steinberg said. "I'm always reaching."

Contact Amy Scherzer at ascherzer@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3332.