By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Of all the faces Robert Klein has shown to the consuming, laughing public over a half-century-plus, who’d expect him to be the anti-Perry Mason?
My son, the make-believe lawyer.
Klein played a “Rick Mason” on an early “Law and Order” episode on NBC in 1993. Sixteen years later, he was billed as defense attorney Dwight Stannich on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
“Carol Burnett was one of my clients. She got four life sentences. And Eric McCormack got life,” Klein said drolly over the long-distance lines from his hideaway over the Hudson River north of New York.
“I lost every case. I was very sleazy.”
The better part of an hour on the phone with master jokester Klein was part stand-up comedy routine, part political commentary and part show-biz nostalgia, all served atop the underpinnings of Bronx-bred Jewishness that Klein mines for biting, self-deprecating humor.
He is a legend in his own time. David Letterman, on whose show Klein appeared some 40 times, said stand-up master Klein is the reason comedy transformed from “silly, vaudevillian” to “hip, observational and current” at the dawn of the Seventies.
Jerry Seinfeld rated Klein the “Beatles of comedy.” Jay Leno and Bill Maher said Klein was an inspiration to them. “All in his generation of comics owe debt” to Klein, Maher added.
Klein made the “Ed Sullivan Show” as a young performer in 1970. A few years later, he was a trailblazer with HBO comedy specials when few viewers were cable-connected and crafting a comedy album with Watergate providing easy grist. He was the ying to Jewish jokester Rodney Dangerfield’s yang in the world of comedy.
What makes Klein such a master comedian will be on display on Aug. 12 at the North Shore Center from the Performing Arts in Skokie.
Klein has fond feelings about Chicago, having learned improv comedy at the famed Second City.
“The greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Klein said. “That’s where my career started.”
Mention Second City and Klein launches into a tour of Chicago nightlife of the Sixties. He recalled playing the famous Mr. Kelly’s, owned by the Jewish brothers Oscar and George Marienthal. “My first money gig, $500 a week for two weeks, at Mr. Kelly’s,” he said, waxing nostalgically. “I opened for Sarah Vaughan. That was a niteclub’s niteclub. A gorgeous, classy place dedicated to the performers.
“The University of Illinois downtown, I got an honorary degree. I was a commencement speaker at Columbia College because one of my mentors, my original director at Second City, Sheldon Patinkin, was head of the drama department. So I have all kinds of ties to Chicago in so many ways.”
Klein teamed up with another Second City alum for a Chicago-themed skit on an early “Saturday Night Live” show he hosted in the fall of 1975. A tape shows him jousting with John Belushi over a “cheezeborger” at the faux Billy Goat’s Tavern grill.
The brash 13-year-old depicted in an old color home movie puffing a stogie and hamming it up at his Feb. 20, 1955 bar mitzvah party, returns to the Chicago audience a full-fledged senior citizen, wizened, wise and still hip.
“I’m on top of my game,” Klein said. “I’m 75. I hate being 75. I can’t open things. The soy sauce took me 15 to 20 minutes. I had to call a construction company. I dare not use my teeth due to the $20,000 restoration from Dr. Hamilton.”
Recently Klein complained about the extra grooming required of a mature man. The more he gets older, the more he has to shave the sprouting, and spreading, hair on the ears and nose. “Meet a woman with good eyesight, you’re in trouble,” he said. What remains of the hair on top of his head is longish and silvery.
“I’m fun to watch in person,” he said. “A long career. I still work. I don’t have the kind of schedule I used to, nor do I want to. I do a movie every year, year and a half. I had a TV gig canceled last year, ‘The Mysteries of Laura,’ with Debra Messing.” Klein played the character of Leo Diamond, Messing’s “grouchy but lovable” father.
The true measure of Klein’s half-century impact on entertainment can be accessed via Marshall Fine’s 90-minute documentary, “Robert Klein: Still Can’t Stop His Leg,” available on demand on the Starz cable channel and app. Klein is amused in how he is talked about as if a minyan has already said kaddish for him.
“I’m like Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “They talk about me in the past tense. What kind of effect did he have on you? Well, Seinfeld said, ‘He was very potent.’ I hear my own eulogy. But I’m still working. In all these years, so many people have not seen me in person.
“I started the (nine) HBO specials when they had half a million subscribers. Now they have 45 million. I can take credit for 42 million.”
Klein received two Emmy nominations for the HBO shows, the last of which was produced in 2010. His versatility has netted honors in other performance stages. He received a Tony Award nomination for best actor, and won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his performance in the hit Neil Simon musical, “They’re Playing Our Song.” In 1993, Klein won an Obie and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Performance by an actor in Wendy Wasserstein’s, “The Sisters Rosensweig.”
To complete his multi-media platform, Klein authored “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue,” an affectionate coming-of-age memoir about growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s before embarking on a show business career. He recounted his journey from an apartment in the Bronx, developing his talent in Chicago and the beginning of his show business stardom. “Publishers Weekly” wrote: “…he unfurls an array of captivating anecdotes, writing with wry wit and honesty.”
Dancing, singing and possessing a harmonica to play at a second’s notice in between jokes, Klein sways with the winds of societal change. Still, his humor is grounded in his own Jewishness, in Jewish daily life and throwing back the anti-Semitism he has experienced. Much of his Skokie audience will know the ground he’ll cover all too well.
From one of his HBO shows:
“You can’t say Jewboy (on the Tonight Show). “You get too many letters from Alabama: why don’t you say Jew bastard?”
From a routine about a restaurant:
“Will the Jew who ordered the kosher meal make himself known? Are you the Jew? May I see the genitals, sir?”
On speedy Jewish burial:
“The essential thing about Jews (is) we bury immediately. A Jew dies, zoomo, into the ground, we don’t fool around. A Jew dies, in one motion (he gestures a zoom into the ground).”
“Glatt is kosher, kosher squared. Kosher times kosher.”
Favorite Jewish occupations:
“Jews are overrepresented in comedy and psychiatry…Underrepresented in the priesthood.”
Jews in sports as he recites the Atlanta Braves’ “tomahawk chop” as a cantorial liturgy:
“C’mon, you Hebes, run that ball…15-yard penalty, first down, uncircumcised.”
Son Allie Klein was a chip off the old block to describe the flavor of the staple lamb chops at his father’s July 4 cookout:
“Very easy to work the grill…Since the party is made up mostly of old Jews, everything is burnt.”
Klein always embraced his Jewishness. He grew up in classical immigrant-turned-American Jewish culture, and that always provided much material.
“I have always been a very high-profile Jewish-American and talked about the experience, to the dismay of my undergraduate college, Alfred University (near Rochester, N.Y.), where I experienced terrible anti-Semitism from 1958 to 1962,” he said.
“The president of the university asked, ‘Robert, why do you do that routine?’ I said because it’s true.”
Klein was able to go lighter, but still raucous, in other Jewish routines. He showed his 8 mm bar mitzvah film on the Letterman Show. “I said, ‘Dave, that’s a herring ferris wheel…schmaltz herring.”
“All cultures laugh, but Jewish culture is replete with humor. The two go hand-in-hand. I’ve often thought that it has something to with oppression, the history of tragedy. The Irish have a fantastic sense of humor. I’ve been to Ireland twice. It struck me how many similarities there are in the way both cultures use and accept and are steeped in humor.
“In my early work, I talked about my family. I never tried to be an Episcopalian. I told my manager, I never wanted to change my name like Woody (Allen) did. Biggest mistake of my life. It’s such a ubiquitous name: Calvin Klein, Richard Klein, Kevin Kline. Whoopi Goldberg had the right idea.”
He has performed for every conceivable Jewish community, big and small, North and South.
“I remember being picked up to perform for Jewish audiences in Houston and Augusta, Ga.,” he said. “They’d say, “Hey, Robert, my name Bubba Bernstein.’”
A natural performer who watched his uncle cut up the rug at family gatherings, Klein began sketching his own blueprint on summer holidays in the Catskills.
“I’ve often been described as a bridge between the hip new comedy and the (old) Borscht Belt humor,” he said. “I first saw live comedy in the Borscht Belt. I was a kid, 9 or 10 years old. My father had a good year so we were able to spend four weeks in some small hotel. Later on, I worked as a busboy and a lifeguard. I saw the great (Jewish) stand-up comedians. They were fabulous and they made people laugh, made people forget their disappointment in their health or their marriage or their family. Just to laugh, it cures nothing, but there’s anecdotal evidence it makes people feel better.”
Later, the riotously funny Jonathan Winters was an inspiration. Klein rated Winters over Johnny Carson, another Klein booster, as a pure-adlibber.
“But he was (still) quick,” Klein said of Carson, with whom he appeared dozens of times on “The Tonight Show,” adding more guest shots with successors Leno and Jimmy Fallon. Klein gives copious credit to Carson for setting him up expertly and furthering his career.
One way Klein likely will diverge from the past is not producing an entire show on the chaotic Donald Trump White House. Klein knows The Donald all too well crossing paths with him in New York. But he professes to feel a state of exhaustion trying to digest the almost-daily nonsensical (real) news from Trump and his retinue of sycophants and supplicants.
“New Yorkers know better. He lives here. He’s a phony. He owes people money. When he had all those debates with the other Republicans, he had a lot of schoolyard banter. It’s so New York: ‘You’re right!!’ He’s not a tough kid; he’s a privileged kid with a silver spoon in his mouth. He’s New York, from Queens.
“The thing is, it’s not funny now. SNL did a great job (satirizing Trump), Samantha Bee did it on TBS. If they were doing what they were doing in Russia, China, Egypt or Turkey, they’d be in jail or dead. But me standing up there making fun of Trump, it’s fatigue already.
“There was a segment who voted for him because they didn’t like Hillary Clinton. There was a 35-year vendetta against this woman. If she was a man, it wouldn’t have been the same. What did she ever do that was so evil? Her husband? A phony, didn’t know how to keep his schmeckel in his pants. A brilliant guy, a Rhodes Scholar from the waist up. From the waist down, he was a high-school equivalency diploma, (but) incomplete.”
Klein said many voters, pro- and anti-Trump, are less apt to laugh now.
“They’re embarrassed,” he said. “They’re afraid there could be a war, and nothing is getting done. But comedians must keep doing (satire). This is unprecedented. A complete incompetent. He got in by people’s worship of celebrity. The only thing that keeps me really encouraged is the system seems to be working. Slowly but surely people are investigating. Slowly but surely, his lies and transfigurations are losing their potency. I read where 49 percent of Republicans feel the Russians are our friend and ally.”
One thing is certain in a thoroughly unstable political environment. A vintage first-string, first-strike by Klein on Trump might freeze up Twitter with a hurricane of hurting responses from the White House. Three-quarters of a way to 100, the comic genius might not want all the extra work crafting responses to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
At this point, Klein can pick and choose his fights and his stage.
So he did not become a doctor, lawyer or accountant. Certainly not a politician or Wall Street numbers manipulator. He probably believes he nailed a better gig than all of them:
“Making people laugh is a high calling. It’s a wonderful profession.”
Robert Klein will appear at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd. Tickets at $32, $40 and $48 can be ordered at http://www.northshorecenter.org/events-tickets/ or 847/679-9501.