Comedian Robert Klein Makes Us Say ‘Uncle’

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This week, fans of comedic legend Robert Klein are getting an especially potent dose of hilarity as HBO releases a box set containing all eight of the hour-long specials he’s done for them over the years. Klein chatted about what he’s been up to and the state of modern comedy, and threw in more than a few words that would make Lenny Bruce proud.

So you grew up in the Bronx, right?
Of course. I was brought up at 3525 Decatur Avenue, in the north Bronx right next to Woodlawn Cemetery. I wrote an early memoir, on ages 9 to 25, called The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue. They began a Bronx walk of fame ten years ago, and I was inducted in the first group, along with Regis Philbin. They had a little parade on the Grand Concourse, three blocks long, and there were Dominicans in folding chairs, completely enthusiastic, drinking orangeade. It used to be a very Jewish neighborhood.

And what have you been up to lately?
Well, Ira & Abby opened last week to pretty good reviews. It is a quintessential New York movie. Fred Willard is in it, Jason Alexander, Frances Conroy — Judith Light plays my wife. I play Ira’s father. I always play fathers now. I used to play leading men! [Laughs.]

Tell us about your HBO box set.
I did the first HBO special ever in 1975 at Haverford College. Cable was new then: HBO was a Time-Life entity, with maybe 400,000 or 500,000 subscribers and maybe 50 employees. And then they got the idea to tape me and instead of giving me the eight minutes I got on the Johnny Carson show, they showed me in my natural habitat, which was doing stand-up in college theaters. I could say what I want. If you could imagine all the years on the Tonight Show, which I did 82 times with Johnny Carson — arguing over words: poo-poo and boo-boo and body parts, forget it! Now it’s fuck, shit, prick, cunt, every second word!

Have you seen any good comedies lately?
I have no interest in any of the movies around. I saw Molière, I thought it was absolutely terrific. I saw The Seven Samurai the other day, all three and a half hours, though it was made in 1950. Ira & Abby is fantastic. I loved The Queen, saw it twice. There hasn’t been a lot of funny stuff lately.

Do you ever find that when you make an entire life out of being funny, you stop finding humor in everyday life?
Oh, no, the two are not mutually exclusive. Laughter is at an incredibly important premium at good times and bad times. There is a cliché that probably has some anecdotal evidence on the side that comedians are very depressed people, but that’s because no one is ever going to seem as funny in a normal conversation as compared to when they’re up there onstage in the spotlight making a huge audience keel over with laughter. Jerry Seinfeld is completely balanced. He strikes me as a totally pacific guy.

And along with Ray Romano, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams, Seinfeld cites you as something of a patriarch for contemporary stand-up.
I guess I’m pleased and proud of the respect of my peers, and that when I disappear from the scene or from this earth, I will have left a mark. They’ll say, “He did it well.” I like being funny, it opens people up. It worked on you, didn’t it? You kind of wish I was your uncle, don’t you? —Annsley Chapman