Robert Klein at 92Y Lexington Ave
By Adam Ullian
On Thursday evening, the funny version of Kol Nidre rolled into the 92Y @ Lexington Avenue courtesy of Robert Klein. There was no praying, but it was the gathering of people you’d expect to hear a nearing-70 Jewish comedian on the Upper East Side.
Robert Klein is known for, among other things, having 8 HBO specials, including the very first one in 1975. I don’t know if he’s considered a comedy god in the same way that Seinfeld, Carlin, and Pryor are, but he is certainly a comedy legend, and has the stories to prove it.
The evening was hosted by New York Times film critic Jeffrey Lyons, an encyclopedia of film and humor knowledge himself. Mr. Lyon’s first question was if Klein felt that the term ‘observational comedian’ rang true with him. Klein didn’t really have an answer, and having been in a position to ask comedians to define what type they are, there tends not be an answer. There are certainly categories, like political comedian versus fart joke artist, but at the end of the day, all comedians are observing something, that’s what they do.
Klein began with a discussion of how he should have changed his name many years ago when he started out. There were just too many Robert Klein’s out there, and he would get fan mail addressed to Calvin Klein. Among other things, he noted that Whoopi Goldberg is a genius, her given name being Caryn Johnson. I had known that, but by the sound of gasps in the audience, it would appear as though many in attendance had not. He also made a brief ‘I wanna talk about art’ quip, referring to Steve Martin’s widely critiqued discussion last year when he wasn’t funny enough for a select number of attendees.
As an elder statesman of stand-up comedy, Robert Klein has a library of stories about famous entertainers. He told the audience about when he first met Richard Pryor, and how he saw him smack his girlfriend in the parking lot of a Comedy Club and told him he couldn’t hang out with him if he did that. Pryor went away for a year, and then came back as the profane man that made him legendary. There is the story of opening for Chuck Berry, with Berry never showing, until after Klein has made fun of him, and proceeds to charge the stage. Then there is the story of Rodney Dangerfield demanding to sail off of Buzzards Bay in a major storm, then swimming, and then almost drowning, before Klein saved his life.
Klein delved into his feelings on some more recent comedians, included Chris Rock, who he said he enjoys except when he panders to certain audiences and uses foul language. Profanity used properly is great, but used for attention is not. He also commented that Andy Kauffman’s trademark ‘inefficient’ comedy was not something that he had ever enjoyed.
Klein discussed the meaning of Johnny Carson and The Tonight show in terms of its importance to comedians. As Klein put it, Carson was the biggest thing in Hollywood, and while he wouldn’t have wanted to be married to him, Carson certainly did what he could to help emerging comics. It’s interesting to hear about a talk show host with such command in Hollywood, given the current wide assortment of late night entertainers. It’s hard to believe there was once all that power concentrated into one performer. As a younger member of the audience, I wanted to hear Kleins’ take on the recent Conan versus Jay controversy, but seeing as most of the audience probably was unfamiliar with both of those names, it was just as well.
Robert Klein’s new book, ‘The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue’ is on sale now.