If you think you've been doing comedy for a long time, then what does that make Robert Klein, who filmed HBO's first comedy special 35 years ago and returns to the Home Box Office this Saturday with his ninth, dubbed "Unfair and Unbalanced." Care to guess his politics?
Well, you don't have to guess. Though he'd rather see John McCain get the 3 a.m. phone calls, Klein takes on Sarah Palin, Nancy Grace and Greta Van Susteren, reminds us that he was a horrible defense lawyer on Law & Order: SVU, had a love scene with Joan Rivers, gives props to Jonathan Winters, sings about medical marijuana and marriage, and closes, as is his wont, with a tribute to his long-running gag, "I can't stop my leg." Here's the buzz:
In our chat earlier this week, Klein talked about how comedy has changed and how it hasn't since his first HBO special in 1975. And he's certainly not on Twitter: "I'm a bit of a geezer when it comes to this shit. I'm not a Twitter. I've known a few twits. I don't know if they Twittered. I've known a few twats. I don't know if they Twattered."
Most stand-ups who use music either are musical comedians or save it 'til the end. Not you, sir, putting your politics into song. Who do you think you are, Mark Russell? "Mark Russell? He's amusing. But he plays the piano and he can't sing. The only guy who could pull that off was Tom Lehrer. My thing is that music, comedy in music, the comedy in music must be impeccable. When I did 'Child of the '50s' on my '73 album. I did all five voices of a doo-wop group." On this special, filmed in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he's backed by the 47-piece Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.
How is the comedy scene different now from you started? "I always think of show business as one of the great meritocracies. It's such a great myth of who you fuck, or who you're uncle is. But it doesn't matter who you are. Dane Cook is the only one who I've seen who isn't an honest broker. I've seen a number of comics, Def Comedy Jam, where there's some vulgar material, but there's some funny stuff. Cook, he may be a hunk for the movies, but he engineered this stuff online. I don't go and see who's the latest stand-up who's going through the roof. Chris Rock is clever, and he has some wonderful ideas…but he disappointed me when he pandered at the Apollo."
You did have nice words to say about Jonathan Winters in your special, though. "When I saw these young twits, at Comedy Central, reading off the comedians of the 20th Century, Jonathan Winters is not in the top 10, not to mention they had me at 22. 22! Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce, they were the two great influences…I saw the Borscht Belt when I was a bus boy and a lifeguard, and these guys had a mastery of the room. I still think it's a high calling, making people laugh."
How much did leaving NYC to do Second City help you when you returned? "They taught me how to act, how to emote. They didn't teach me how to get a job, so I lived with my parents for a few years. Improvising with Fred Willard, I reported for work in march of 1965, never did anything else for a living. You can't ask more of that for a life, not to mention the noble mission of making people laugh."
Was it a struggle once you came back to NYC to launch a career? "No, I was absolutely blessed. Second City was essential. It was brutal as hell but it was essential. I did open mics, mostly folk singers, hootenannies. I had Second City as my basis, doing straight lines, and improv, come to new york, I did my first show on Broadway that I auditioned for, at the Shubart between Eighth and Ninth. At the Improv, and Rodney Dangerfield saw me and said, 'Fucking brilliant. Fucking cocksucker.'"…It happened quickly, but television exposure was extremely important. You think there's more of a career path laid out for people now, they've seen people do it. One of the paths, obviously, is getting a sitcom. And purists harrmuphed. I've seen very little profound in the stand-ups I've seen. I've seen an awful lot of virtuosity. I love the English language. And I don't like to see this fuck, motherfuck, every other word. It dissipates the strength of these important words. I defy anyone to call me a prude. It seems like Lenny Bruce's sacrifice has been turned on its head."
Robert Klein: Unfair & Unbalanced, debuts at 10 p.m. Saturday, June 12, on HBO.