Veteran standup comedian Robert Klein is coming back to Bay Street Theater on August 18, and he’s looking forward to it.
“It’s my wheelhouse,” Klein says of the Sag Harbor venue. The Hamptons audience “grew up with me, and they bring their kids and grandkids. It’s just fantastic.” Klein has appeared at Bay Street many times over the years, and calls it a “wonderful institution.”
Klein is speaking from a café on Upper Broadway, and he interrupts our conversation to wave at some fans on a passing tour bus—“They all have grey hair,” he laughs, “so they know me.”
After his close to 50 years in comedy, there are a lot of people who know Klein. He’s a semi-reluctant “eminence gris”—his own phrasing—having done nine HBO comedy specials, more than any other single performer. In fact, Klein did the very first HBO comedy special in 1975, when the cable programmer was barely in its infancy. Now, the Weinstein Company, an independent film producer, is following him around making a documentary.
“They’re thinking of calling it Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg,” Klein says, a title that alludes to one of Klein’s signature routines featuring a bluesman with a spastic leg. “I’ve done some version of that routine in every one of my HBO specials.” Klein mentions that the documentary film crew might come out to Sag Harbor to film Klein in one of his favorite places.
The Weinstein Company’s interest in Klein, besides his greatness, might stem from the fact that he’s rather an endangered species. Many of the other legendary standup comics of his generation, people like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, didn’t live long enough to make it to the eminence gris stage of their careers.
“They lived hard lives,” Klein observes, “and I luckily managed to control myself.” Like many who continue to do physically demanding work into their 70s, Klein just considers himself lucky to not to be falling apart.
In a reminder of how long Klein has been doing what he does, the Weinstein Company recently filmed a California visit between Klein and fellow comedian Fred Willard (the improv-comedy master who starred in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, among others). It was a reunion of sorts, as Klein and Willard have known each other for a very long time.
“Fred and I were hired at Second City in Chicago on the same day in April, 1965,” Klein points out. Klein considers the date the official beginning of his comedy career. In later years, Second City would become known as a training camp for future members of Saturday Night Live casts, but in the ’60s, prior to the birth of SNL, former Second City players made their way more haphazardly onto standup stages and TV variety shows.
“There wasn’t any real infrastructure at the time,” Klein says, before noting the contrast to today, when many colleges now have established standup comedy student groups. “We were just filming up in Binghamton, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out about that.”
Of course, some people might not exactly jump for joy at the prospect of their college-educated child going into such a dicey profession as comedy—Klein has had his share of parents approach him with serious anxieties. But he’s pretty upbeat about it.
“I encourage people to go into it,” he says, while he’s always careful to point out the two essential factors for success in the field: “tenacity and luck.”
Not to mention that you have to be funny. After 50 years, Klein certainly does a lot more bits about aging than he used to—with a special focus on how many bathroom trips he makes during the night—but he’s as funny as ever. We welcome his eminence.
Robert Klein performs at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor (1 Bay Street) on Monday, August 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $69.50 at baystreet.org.