A chat with Robert Klein, Robert Klein interview, Unfair & Unbalanced
Robert Klein

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Robert Klein holds the honor of having starred in the very first comedy special ever done for HBO, way back in 1975, and he’s been a regular staple of the network ever since. His latest stand-up effort, “Unfair & Unbalanced,” premieres on June 12, and in the midst of a flurry of press to promote the show, Klein was able to take the time to chat with Bullz-Eye, discussing the part music has played in his performances over the years, the bad advice he gave Lorne Michaels in the mid-1970s, and the reason why he keeps getting cast as an old Jew.

Robert Klein: Will…?

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Robert, good to talk to you!

RK: Where are you?

BE: I’m in Norfolk, Virginia.

RK: (With unabashed amusement) Norfolk!

BE: Yes! (Laughs) I laughed a lot when you mentioned it in the special.

RK: Isn’t that great? The summer before last, I did a really wonderful date, actually, and became very nostalgic. I… (Pauses) Oh, geez, my phone is going off. Hold on one second…

(Klein answers his phone, and as soon as he returns, he addresses what I could tell was the primary thrust of his brief conversation: the fact that he’s been bumped as a guest from tonight’s Keith Olbermann show.)

RK: Apparently, the Blanche Lincoln race is more important than Robert Klein. That’s a travesty!

BE: There is no justice.

"In the past, I’ve had these big sets for these one-man shows, and this one has just a beautiful background which HBO quality controlled…and you can bet that, with the big money going down there, it looks good. Really good. But, you know, I did the very first HBO comedy special, and I did it at a college. And one time, Rosie O’Donnell did one, and she took the money and did it in a little club. HBO was so pissed at her! They want to see production values!"

RK: I’m bumped ‘til tomorrow. (Sighs) But, yeah, anyway, there’s this comedy festival that they have every year…or, at least, they’ve had it the past few years…in Johnny Carson’s hometown, and it’s spelled the same way, but they called it “Nor-Fork.” They’re too shy, apparently, to call it what it really is. But I went to this little county museum, and there’s a section devoted to Johnny, and his sister had sent a picture of him and Dick, who was his brother, who directed “The Tonight Show” for years. And I saw a picture of Johnny taken two weeks before he died. It really got me into a nostalgic mood, and in order to get out of this place in Nebraska, you have to go through Minneapolis, where I saw the actual toilet that Larry Craig, uh, immortalized. (Laughs) And I get home, and early the next morning, the phone is ringing off the hook…and George Carlin had died. Here I was in this big nostalgic thing for Johnny, whose show I did 82 times as a guest and a couple of dozen times as a guest host, and then George died. (Long pause) So, yeah, anyway, Norfolk. So you’re…I’m not really familiar with your magazine, ‘cause I’m kind of a bohemian. (Laughs)

BE: (Laughs) I guess you could say that we cater to a predominantly male demographic.

RK: Oh, so you like all kinds of nice things, right?

BE: Absolutely.

RK: Kind of on the level of the Robb Report, with all those things rich people can afford?

BE: Well, maybe not quite that nice. (Laughs) Well, I enjoyed the new special. I watched it this morning, in fact.

RK: Thank you, thank you…

BE: So the song that kicks off the proceedings, is that called “Obama (Keep It In Your Pants)”?

RK: It’s called “Hymn for America.”

BE: Even better.

Robert KleinRK: But I do these symphony gigs, and…see, HBO bought into that. I do these symphonies around the country, a pops series, and I’m maybe the only comedian they feel they can trust to do a show for the patrons of a symphony matinee who’ll do stand-up and then do music. (Laughs) But we couldn’t afford to hire a Philharmonic, so we went after a music academy, and they were great. It was the University of Miami, and the Henry Mancini estate bankrolled this lovely music school, and it was great to have these fresh-looking young players. I love this show. I think it’s edgier than shows I’ve done for the past few years…maybe counterintuitively, to the fact that I’m more of a geezer than I was five years ago for the last show. (Laughs)

BE: Are there more songs in this special than usual? Because it felt that way…and not in a bad way.

RK: Well, I always use music, and there’s this DVD box set in which all previous eight HBO specials…it used to be just a piano, then it became a rhythm section and stuff. It’s possible that there’s more. There’s dancing! We did “I Can’t Stop My Leg” in Spanish last time… (Sings) “No puedo parar mi pierna!” We did it with these Cuban dancers, and it was…well, not Cuban, but from Miami. The thing is the symphony, the richness of the sound. I wouldn’t say it’s more necessarily. I think it gives the impression of it because it’s such a big ensemble there. I just love how big the sound is. I told them that I’m not going to tell them my jokes, so they’re free to laugh…and I hope they will…while they’re out there, because they’re all listening behind me. They were adorable. The whole thing was a wonderful experience. And that Broward Performing Arts Center was just perfect. The lighting design made it look special. In the past, I’ve had these big sets for these one-man shows, and this one has just a beautiful background which HBO quality controlled…and you can bet that, with the big money going down there, it looks good. Really good. But, you know, I did the very first HBO comedy special, and I did it at a college. And one time, Rosie O’Donnell did one, and she took the money and did it in a little club. (Laughs) HBO was so pissed at her! They want to see production values!

BE: You know, talking about feeling nostalgic, that’s how I felt when you broke out “I Can’t Stop My Leg.”

RK: Yes! I’ve done that in all the shows. We did a hip-hop version, a Broadway version…it began as an improvisation at an improv club in 1966 or 1967. Ray Johnson was the pianist, and I was just wailing on the harmonica and stomping my foot, and it was a real Second City moment. My improvisational training…after literally two minutes of wailing on the harmonica and stomping my foot, the first thing that comes out of my mouth, “I can’t stop my leg!” (Laughs) And the audience caved, so I knew I had a great punch line there. And then I worked on it outwards from there. We did it on Broadway in 1986… (Sings) “I can’t stop my leg…on Broadway!” And there would be these beautiful dancers. So, anyway, music has always been a part of what I do, but there is an important proviso in Robert Klein music and comedy, and that is that the music be good. Whether it’s doo-wop, in which I had the ego-maniacal dream trip of recording the entire group myself…I did it on record, in Child of the ‘50s, and I did it in one of the shows, and it sounds like a real Harlem group circa 1960. Whether it’s that or blues or hip-hop…anything we do, the music has to be good and not just a throwaway. I think comedy and music is, to my way of thinking, all the better if the music is good.

BE: I’d agree. In fact, after listening to “Medical Marijuana” from the new special, which I’m ready to add to my iPod, I went to YouTube and listened “Let’s Not Make Love.” I’d forgotten just how great a song that was. It could fit into any light-FM playlist even now.

"I was never a big promoter. I didn’t have a lot of promo people. I always ran my career rather modesty, in the sense that I let the talent speak for itself, and I’ve done well, so I mustn’t be greedy. I’ve made many decisions...not to do some big sitcoms, not to move to California...but I don’t regret them, to be honest."

RK: Now, see, I…well, first of all, thank you, because I thought “Let’s Not Make Love” was a beautiful song that Bob and I wrote, and it was a lovely… (Heistates) Now, wait, you said you listened to it, but have you seen the actual video?

BE: No, I never have.

RK: I think that’s on YouTube, too. VH-1 played it a few times, but then they just sort of dropped it. I thought it was well done, and…I was never a big promoter. I didn’t have a lot of promo people. I always ran my career rather modesty, in the sense that I let the talent speak for itself, and I’ve done well, so I mustn’t be greedy. I’ve made many decisions not to do some big sitcoms, not to move to California, but I don’t regret them, to be honest. When I got divorced 20 years ago, there was no way I was going to leave my son behind. He’s 26 now, and we’re very, very close. There were other considerations. But, anyway, it’s a good song, and…I thought that would take off like crazy! (Laughs)

BE: Well, being based in New York, I guess it was pretty easy for you to host “Saturday Night Live” back in the ‘70s.

RK: Well, you know, I was too big already in 1975 to be one of the kids… (Laughs) …so I had to be content with the hosting gig. I remember all these discussions between Lorne Michaels and my manager, Jack Rollins, so I hosted the fifth show, and I knew the “kids.” They were former Second City people who came through Second City four or five years after me. I played the O’Keefe Center, this big theater in Toronto, and they all came to see me…Aykroyd and Gilda Radner, Belushi, Marty Short…and I spent a drunken night with them at this after-hours bar near where Aykroyd lived. It was wonderful. Belushi was a pussycat, a sweet kid, and he just fell…there were an awful amount of drugs around back then, during both times I hosted “SNL.” I would’ve hosted it four or five times, but movies and other things always seemed to get in the way. Most people survived, grew up, and that was it, but some people fell through the cracks, and Belushi was hopeless. Laraine Newman was saved somehow. A lovely woman, intelligent, talented. The drugs were just bad. They were just lying around. But the shows were funny. That can’t be denied.

BE: Plus, you had ABBA as the musical guest on one of your episodes.

RK: Is that true? I can’t even remember anymore.

BE: Oh, yeah, you were the captain of the Titanic, and they were playing as the ship went down. (Laughs)

RK: I don’t even have a copy of the episode. I could never figure ABBA out, anyway. You know, I was wrong: I told Lorne, “I think you shouldn’t do it live. Everyone’s nervous, and you can’t do your best performance.” And I was wrong.

BE: You mentioned your background in improvisation, and on Wikipedia, there’s a reference to how your audition for Second City was with Fred Willard. Is that actually true?

RK: Yeah, that’s right.

BE: Wow.

Robert KleinRK: That is true. You sound surprised that anything at Wikipedia is true, but that actually is. I’m not that familiar with Wikipedia, but I understand nothing on there has to be verified. But, yes, there were about 30 people, as I recall, in a William Morris Agency conference room. I had been submitted by an agent, and they asked us to do improvisation for Sheldon Patinkin and Bernie Sahlins, who were the director and owner of Second City, respectively, and your fellow actors, trying to get the job, handed out the suggestions for improvisation…and they were ballbusters, because they wanted the job! But, yeah, it’s true: I was a club owner and he was a folk singer who was trying to get hired, and then we reversed roles. Then a few months later, maybe six to eight weeks later, we were told to report to work in March of 1965. Fred and I and some friends were in a wonderful movie a few years ago called “Ira & Abby,” which I very much recommend. I don’t know why it didn’t just do everything, but it was great, with Jason Alexander, Judith Light, and a lot of good people. But, anyway, he’s great, he’s hilarious and hot, and we saw each other at the 50th anniversary of Second City, which happened about three months ago.

BE: I was looking over your IMDb listing, and I was wondering why you think you’re cast as a doctor so often. Do you think it’s a Jewish thing?

RK: Probably. (Laughs) What I’m trying to figure out is why I keep getting cast as an old Jew. I don’t understand that. Is it because I am an old Jew, do you think? But I am playing a priest on Starz. Did you know that?

BE: I did! It’s in “Gravity,” correct?

RK: It is! It’s in “Gravity.” Yeah, I did it as a favor for a friend. I used to make a joke all the time, “I’ve never played a priest! I’ve never been cast as an Episcopal minister!” And now here I am… (Trails off) What was that you said? IDMF? What is it?

BE: IMDb. The Internet Movie Database.

RK: Oh! Well, yeah, there have been a lot of doctors and a lot of lawyers. I have a semi-running part…by which I mean twice… (Laughs) …on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” as a lawyer. You know, they go very much by type. I’ll always admire Wes Craven and whoever else cast me in that “Twilight Zone” episode. And I was in “Hooper,” and…there are a number of instances where I’m not particularly Jewish. On “Gravity,” though, I was the most Jewish priest you’ve seen, I must say. “What have you got for me?” What priest says that? (Laughs) I laughed out loud, it was so funny. And I don’t think I meant to do that, but I did it. What I want to play is a cowboy. I’m a good rider, and I want to do a Western before I die.

BE: I’ll keep my ears open for you.

RK: Please.

BE: Well, I’m sure “Ira & Abby” will be on your list of answers for this question, but…what are some of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought they deserved?

RK: “The Bell Jar.” Yes, “Ira & Abby.” There’s one I did with Adam Sandler…

BE: “Reign Over Me”?

Robert KleinRK: Yeah, “Reign Over Me.” I thought he did a wonderful job, but he makes more money as an idiot. I thought he was wonderful, though. He was terrific in that. He plays an understated dentist, and it was well conceived by the director, Mike Binder. It was a great project. And I’ve had some pilots. I did a pilot for CBS in 1976, where Peter Boyle and Madeline Kahn were my guest stars, and my son laughed out loud looking at this goddamned thing and all the people. He thought it was ahead of its time. It was kind of Monty Python-ish. This was ’76. I kept saying, “Yeah, but look at ‘Saturday Night Live’!” They were, like, “Ah, that’s nothing, that’s late night, that’ll never last.” Now they’re open to so many more imaginative projects, crazy ones like “Gravity,” which may not be that good, but they allow them latitude. It’s more dynamic now…although, in a sense, it’s turned on its head, because people are looking at computers, young people are not watching television as much as they did, and stuff that makes people stop and think is definitely not at a premium at the moment. That’s not a good sign. It’s probably the lead-based painted toys that the Chinese are sending us. That’s how they’re going to get us silently: as our children grow up, sucking on these toys, as they’re intellectually retarded, they’ll take over in every technical field. There’s a novel there…

HBO Publicist: We have time for one more.

RK: Okay, go ahead. He’s like a quiz master, this guy. “We’ve got time for one more.” Okay, take it!

BE: (Laughs) Any idea when we’ll see more of your albums turn up on iTunes? And by “more,” I mean “any,” because there are none at all.

RK: What can I do to get them onto iTunes? I have no objections to them being up there.

BE: I guess it just depends on what labels own the rights to them.

RK: Oh. I own the rights to them, with Bob Stein. We wrote them. There’s no problem with those songs. We’ll get them out there. Yeah, I’ve been asked a lot of times about doing an album, about putting out the Robert Klein music. I don’t know who’d buy it. But “The Colonoscopy Song,” which was nominated for a prime-time Emmy award, that’s pretty good comedy and music. That’s, like, Victor Borge quality. It’s top notch, and some of that stuff over the years…it’s good music, too. Let it seep through the system! It’ll certainly be on the iPods soon. And tell your constituency to keep sucking on that brandy and those cigars and buying speedboats and all of those things they’re spending money on. Is that true of your web magazine?

BE: Sure. We’re also big on sports scores and bikini girls.

RK: (Laughs) That’s great!

BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, Robert. Thanks a lot.

RK: You, too, Will. Thank you!

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