When Robert Klein plays the new South Orange Performing Arts Center on Nov. 4, he doesn’t expect it to be anything like the experience he had in Boise, Idaho.
“If I know I’m working for an audience that’s say, 90 percent Jewish, it may not be exactly the show I did in Boise State. It was more like Robert Heinlein’s book, Stranger in a Strange Land,” he told NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview from his home in Westchester, NY.
Of his Boise performance, Klein said,“The people there were trying to be sweet.” They cooked him a dinner, he said, whose recipe came from “the Time-Life Book of Jew Food. The cholent was a prune floating in grease like the Gowanus Canal. The kishke was flour and fat from the intestinal tract of a cow.” Not exactly your bubbe’s Shabbos dinner.
In South Orange, he expects his listeners “to be smart, aside from many of them being Jews. I can use polysyllabic words. As a high-profile American Jew, I’ve certainly done a lot of work throughout the years for Jewish audiences,” said the Bronx-born actor and comedian.
After graduating from Alfred University as a history and political science major, Klein headed for the Yale Drama School where he lasted for a year. Then came summer stock, membership in the Chicago-based Second City improvisational theater company, and a successful career that has spanned nearly every aspect of show business.
Now that he’s 64, Klein said, “I’ve become more Jewish the older I get, but less religious. It’s the cultural-secular side. I ‘oy’ more. It’s a certain way of thinking that’s inbred. My parents were not religious. I had a bar mitzva, because every Jewish boy did. I do not work on Yom Kippur. I did once at Second City and didn’t realize it, and that’s why I got a tremendous pus wart.
“I got religious when my girlfriend in college was late with her period.”
To Klein, “no subject matter is off-limits ever in terms of what you have to say.” Using questionable subjects does raise the quality bar, however. “If you’re risky, if you make jokes about cancer, you better be good.”
That ability to be good and funny, he said, has spanned three generations
“I was always funny the class clown, if you will. My father was, and my son is. It wasn’t the DNA. It was learned completely. My father was a very talented comedian. He was a piece goods salesman.”
Taking the stage
If his dad was one inspiration, working during high school vacations as a lifeguard and a busboy in the Catskills was another.
“I’d see the comedians come on Saturday night. They’d leave the people after 35 minutes with their stomachs hurting. I thought, ‘This is a great way to make a living. These guys probably do two or three shows at a hotel or a bungalow colony on a Saturday night. They’re not in an office like my family. What a great thing.’”
By the time he hit Yale Drama School, Klein said, he had encountered a new kind of comedian. When he was exposed to the humor of Lenny Bruce, his own comedy took on a new focus.
“I was political,” he said. “I mean, those guys in the mountains were OK, with their cufflinks. But I wanted to go beyond that beyond cufflinks, beyond quick jokes to be socially significant. Not only was Lenny very funny, he was ahead of his time and he was socially significant,” said Klein, citing one of Bruce’s signature routines, “How to Entertain Colored Folks at a Party.”
With the precision of a stiletto, Bruce skewered white people’s discomfort when socializing with African-Americans, said Klein. “He was so hip for the 1950s. Lenny was an inspiration because I still feel it is important to be making a point and having a point in comedy.” Which doesn’t mean he rejects humor of a less cerebral kind. “I love pratfalls, too,” Klein said. “I love physical comedy. But making a point in a way that makes people laugh is a great niche for a comedian. It’s a nice background.”
The love of physical comedy was nurtured by another major influence on Klein Jonathan Winters a comedian who “wasn’t socially significant but he was virtuosic, with all the noises and his 15 characters. I loved that, too. I didn’t like sitting on a stool or just standing in front of a mike. I like being physical and taking the stage.”
Taking the stage earned him a Tony Award in 1979 for his performance as the male lead in the Neil Simon-Marvin Hamlisch-Carol Bayer Sager musical They’re Playing Our Song.
He has made dozens of films and television appearances, and has performed on stage before three presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.
“I disliked the Reagans very much,” he said. “I disliked him as a politician, and I disliked her all around but they were laughing so hard. They were old show biz, and they knew a good act when they saw it.”
Most of Klein’s current efforts are directed toward his HBO comedy specials and his new autobiography, The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue.
He said a lot of his material today is “about facing age and aging.”
“After 41 years of doing this I’m mellowing. I’m in my undershirt, a 64-year-old man sitting, eating ice cream, looking at a Brad Pitt movie. What am I going to say: ‘I should have had that role? Who is this Pitt?’
“I’m playing fathers of movie stars now: Sandra Bullock’s father in Two Week’s Notice, Kyra Sedgwick’s father in Labor Pains, Jennifer Tilly’s father in a forgettable film called Goosed.”
While playing the dad, he hasn’t always managed to stay in character. In Labor Pains, he said, “there’s a wedding scene, and I faint. Jennifer Tilly jumps on top of me and is lying on top of my body pounding my chest screaming ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy’ and it felt so good.”
Sometimes, when things don’t feel so good, other comedians turn painful moments of performance into funny routines. Klein said he has never needed to do that.
“I’ve never had a bad house per se. I have enough technique and I can improvise and I have enough good material over the years to pull out of any tailspin.”
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