Those who have never seen Robert Klein perform standup have still felt his influence on comedy.
Jerry Seinfeld calls Klein his hero. Pre Tonight Show, Jay Leno had just one decoration in his apartment, a Robert Klein poster. They and many more famed comics point to him as an inspiration, and they all wore out their copies of Klein’s debut comedy record, 1973’s Child of the 50’s.
“It was a seminal album for a lot of people, and also the one after it, Mind Over Matter,” explains Klein, who is performing at Riverhead’s Suffolk Theater this Saturday, September 12. “Bill Maher, Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart all say those two albums were very influential in making them want to be comedians.”
They all appear in an upcoming documentary on Klein’s life and career, titled Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg. The film gets its name from one of Klein’s most memorable bits, which he performed while hosting Saturday Night Live in 1975. He taps his foot along to the beat and plays harmonica in between singing “I can’t stop my leg” and imploring someone to help. That same year, Klein starred in the very first HBO standup comedy special—he’s done eight more since then.
While standup specials are now commonplace on HBO, Klein says that first one was revolutionary. Then in the ’80s, he hosted Robert Klein Time on USA, one of the first late-night talk shows on cable. “It was a pleasure and I could do anything I wanted,” he says. But USA was an obscure network and unsure of its identity then, and the show didn’t last.
“I was born in 1942,” Klein says. “I remember our first TV in 1951. You know, black-and-white, little 16-inch set. It was the most exciting thing I could ever possibly imagine. Now I have a thing in my hand that can watch television.”
In 2004, Comedy Central included Klein in its list of the 100 Greatest Standups of All Time, a well deserved accolade, but one Klein doesn’t give any weight.
“I discounted their list,” he says. “I thought it was quite ludicrous, really.”
The criteria were unclear, according to Klein, who could not believe Jonathan Winters was ranked number 18 instead of 1 or 2, and Totie Fields did not make the list at all.
“I was [number] 22, and I resented it. It was done by people who were one-third of my age,” Klein says, though he admits his tune might be different if he were ranked higher. “Had I’d been number 1, I’d be praising it to the sky, of course. ‘I’m number 1! You see that on the Comedy Central! Those kids are really incredible—what experts!’”
Klein always knew he wanted to be an entertainer, though he was a few years into his career before he first tried standup.
“I was unemployed in the fall of ‘63,” Klein recalls. “Overschooled. No job. No guts, chutzpah, to knock on doors. I wanted to be in show business.” He found work substitute teaching. Then Jimmy Burrows, his best friend at Yale Drama School—who later co-created Cheers—asked him to take part in a musical revue. There an agent noticed Klein and encouraged him to try out for The Second City, the Chicago-based improv comedy troupe.
Klein was paired with Fred Willard at his audition and they were both hired in 1965. “Second City was the greatest,” he says. “Better than Yale Drama School. Better than any acting school. The best.” It’s where he learned to improvise, which is how he creates his standup routines.
“In order to have a good career, you have to have good luck too,” Klein says. “You have to be in the right place at the right time. If Jimmy had not asked me to do that thing, would I be substitute teaching still? I don’t know.”
He began trying his hand at standup after wrapping up performances of The Apple Tree with Alan Alda and Barbara Harris, his first turn acting in a Broadway show. He’d leave the theater and go down to 44th Street to The Improv. “At the time I went there it was the only club of its kind—there was no such thing as a comedy club,” he says.
“It’s a high calling,” Klein says of comedy. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with laughter unless you’re trying to sneak out of a penitentiary at night and you don’t want to let them know.”
Klein incorporates his Broadway background in his act, and says he considers himself more of a one-man show than a standup comedian. Providing piano accompaniment at Suffolk Theater is Bob Stein, Klein’s collaborator for 31 years, with whom he’s gleaned two Emmy nominations.
Now 73 years old, Klein says, “I’m probably better at it than I ever have been.”
Robert Klein performs Saturday, September 12, at Suffolk Theater, 118 E Main St, Riverhead. For tickets ($39-$50) call 631-727-4343 or visit suffolktheater.com.