Robert Klein had a funny recollection of his first professional performing gig in Boston four decades ago. He performs in Newton Saturday and Sunday.
"I’m still a well-kept secret, performing in person," Klein said. "I mean, I’m not a big tour guy. I do a lot of work as a stand-up comedian…but now I do much more corporate stuff." Tell me something we don’t know. "I took a lot of time off this summer. A little time visiting Richard Belzer in France…pretty much taking it easy." His memoirs, covering his early years from 9 to 25, are now in paperback. "I got to take part in the sexual revolution, which was a lot more fun than either the French or the Bolshevik revolutions. No one was shooting at you. And number two, no AIDS."
As for his comedy writing, Klein said: "98 percent of it comes from improvisation. Initally, ideas come out of my head onstage. I record them to tape. I listen to them afterward and think about them, make suggestions." He said with a guy like George Carlin, all of the stage hands know exactly what to expect from one show to another. "I have this Second City bug in me, ’65, ’66, that’s where my career started. I can’t do the same show twice, ever. There’s a lot of set pieces, I wouldn’t change a punchline…but there’s certain things you can do."
Don’t bother asking him what he thinks about the current state of stand-up. "I’m not the biggest judge of that. I love show business. God bless it. Forty-one years. I wouldn’t know what else to do…but when the meter is off, it’s nice to get away from it. I’m not rushing out to see the latest comedian." He did, however, once host a cable comedy show called "New Joke City" that featured up-and-comers. "I did present something like several dozen comedians. I felt a lot of them were funny."
"I think America has dumbed down a lot since I started. A part of it is they don’t read anymore. I became an author just when people stopped reading. People have the attention spans of, you know, tick mice at this point. Computers are fantastic things. I wrote a book on one, but I can’t fathom anything else about them. I’m afraid that young people to come won’t know the heft of a book, holding one, the process of reading and finding proper light…Everything has to be in your face. Lacking subtletly. I did a special I was part of…for Rodney Dangerfield. The cutting was so distracting to me, but they know their audience, Comedy Central."
Lewis Black has said that scandals and outrages are happening so frequently it’s hard for him as a comedian to keep up. Klein said: "I don’t chase too much what’s happening today, unless I’m on Bill Maher. That will get so old so quickly by the time HBO comes out. And the box set (which will include all of his HBO specials, dating back to 1975, would make the material even more outdated)."
What about that tape recording he listens to of his new material, does Klein learn much? "The audience has told me already." So if a joke doesn’t work, "you don’t just give up, though. You might be able to do it better the next time." About comedians and politics, Klein said that Lewis Black was the best thing about Man of the Year. "I confess that (The Daily Show), which I don’t see that often, is very good. Bill Maher is getting touted now. It’s good that people can speak their minds. Americans around the age of their 20s and 30s, it’s said they get their political information from these shows. That’s bad. Because it’s very funny, but it’s all about how it’s bad, it’s all bulls–t, so why vote?" But Klein said humor is the best way to get your points across, and maintain that within humor, political cartoons are even better. Those images get ingrained in your mind, Klein said, whether it’s Bush being dumb or Gore being boring. "But nobody would take Clinton for a fool. He was a Rhodes Scholar, at least from the waist up. From the waist down, he’s a high school equivalency. But nobody would call him a fool."