Robert Klein: Forever funny

By Nate Billy

Robert Klein’s Unfair And Unbalanced premieres tonight, June 12, on HBO, at 10 pm EST.

What can you say about Robert Klein? He’s a comic legend, that’s what.

Klein has managed to entertain audiences for well over 40 years, and is credited with being one of the first truly observational comics. Throughout his spanning career he’s been a part of the improvisational group Second City, was one of the first hosts of Saturday Night Live, and has been nominated for a Tony and an Emmy.

Klein also paved the way for all comedians by being the first to ever have an HBO stand-up special; that happened in 1975.

I caught up with him before the airing of his 9th special for HBO, Unfair And Unbalanced, premiering tonight at 10 pm EST, to chat about comedy, politics, and the blues.

What can we expect from your new HBO special?
I think it’s the edgiest stuff I’ve done in awhile. There’s a lot of politics. I’m always careful with my HBO specials, this is my ninth one, you know? I’m careful not to do anything too ephemeral that’ll be forgotten in two weeks. So, the political stuff is kind of historical and will stay for a while. Like the wonderful Senator Craig from Idaho was caught trying to have sex in the airport’s men’s room, a guy who’s voted against every gay marriage initiative.One of these values guys. A story like that will last a long time. This special is just a little more pokey.

How have things changed from your first special to now?
You know, I did the first HBO special in 1975 at Haverford College and it was a great idea. They only had about 400,000 subscribers in eastern Pennsylvania, Manhattan and Long Island. They have 43 million now, and it’s entirely my doing. Well, no, but seriously it was a wonderful idea. And it was not referred to as HBO in those days it was called Home Box Office and they emphasized that. Mostly they had started with movies. Big movies that were in the theatres just a few months before and you’d see them at home, and you’d get cursing and everything.

So this guy got this idea for the show and I was doing a lot of college concerts. Now you see these concerts, there was no such thing when I started. The only exposure comedians got on television was extremely sanitized appearances on the Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, and Mike Douglas…and Letterman who came a little later…but only for a few minutes at a time. It’s not that these were worthless; I mean funny people were funny on them, but this was a chance to really show your stuff. So through the years it’s been a two-way street. They’ve been accommodating with respect to artistic preferences, and you know, not second guessing material. Stuff like that. What can I say? It’s been a great thing and the Home Box Office thing is a real crown jewel of Time Warner.

The special is called Unfair and Unbalanced, and you’ve stated that it’s certainly more political, so is the title a shot at Fox News?
I BEG YOUR PARDON! I have to call my lawyer on that one, and get back to you. Well, gee…I guess. They’re very litigious these people at Fox. Originally we had one logo that was so dead on to theirs that the lawyers at Time Warner got very, very nervous. It’s not that they wouldn’t win the case, they’re just uninterested in having any case.

I’ve always admired Roger Ailes [president of Fox news channel] genius though. Years ago when he worked for President Nixon I referred to him on the Tonight Show – or some show – as an evil genius, and I got a call from Ailes. He started, on camera, a kind of new career at MSNBC in the early days, and he asked me to substitute for him for a week. But you know the Fox network isn’t legitimate news, it goes way beyond. The coverage is slanted, and it’s badly obvious; so to say fair and balanced is to me satire. You know?

Unfair and unbalanced is kind of the obvious opposite. It’s not that I don’t watch it, because it’s important to watch what everyone’s saying, but when you think of the painstaking droning, and plotting of the New York Times to get it right – and they do, and they try – then you think of this crap where they say anything they want. And it’s not confined to Fox. I was just on Keith Olbermannn the other night, and I like him very much, our politics are similar, but I think sometimes he’s too shrill and should tone it down.

But then there’s Glenn Beck, who’s a perfect example of a demigod. He’s fantastic. I can only watch him a few minutes at a time, because it becomes too painful. He’s too good. There’s a movie, write it down. You know a vintage place you can rent old movies?

I have Netflix, so I can get it.
There you go. It’s called A Face In The Crowd. It’s an Elia Kazan movie made in the 1950’s. Andy Griffith plays a down-and-out-no-good country drunk from the south that plays guitar who becomes a demigod-ic icon on television. Beautiful story, and a great parable for our times. You know when people go on television they can really influence you. Father Coughlin was one, an anti-Semitic raver of the radio in the 30’s. There have been others; Rush Limbaugh is a perfect example.

And I want a complete report on this movie from you! I have three Doctoral degrees – all honorary it’s true…

Well, you did attend Yale too.
Yeah, but the drama school doesn’t count as the real Yale.

So how do you prepare for a special like this? It’s your ninth one; you must have it down to a science by now.
Well, It was tough. You know it has to be all new, and of the eight I’ve done previously, which are available in a box set now, two of them were 90 minutes long. So that’s nine hours of material and this one makes it to 10 hours of material. You know what, I get a rhythm going. I do a lot of clubs. I go to these small venues. We went everywhere, from Richard Pryor’s hometown of Peoria, Illinois, to LA, to Texas, Boston, Washington, Indiana, and I just kept on recording the shows. I playback what I said and say “Let’s refine it.” Unlike the writing process I used for my book The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue – which was written conventionally with a word processor where you’re writing and looking at a screen. This is improvisation, remembering or recording what was said, finding something different that would make it better, eliminating something that doesn’t get a laugh two or three times in a row – maybe more – unless I really believe in it.

There’s a certain instinct. And lo and behold a beautiful show appears. Much of the creative process I believe is more in kin to Jazz then it is to literature in many ways. It kind of erupts in my head, almost word for word.

So you start off with a basis, then kind of riff on it, and refine it over time?
Well, it begins as something. An idea. It flies out of my head. Like years ago I did a whole thing about being bitten by a squirrel and I said “A squirrel is a rat with good public relations,” and I never thought twice about it. It just happens. An idea flies into your head, sometimes it’s unrefined and must be honed, and other times its complete; it’s there. You know there is a certain way of saying something. It’s a process, and I don’t know how it works, but it’s glorious, because I’m 68 and the shit can fly out of my head as quick as ever. I’m really much better at my profession then I ever was.

I mean I’m less agile physically, I’m geezer-ized, and have got a bit of a belly, but I’m in pretty good shape because my head is still thinking of this stuff. It’s amazing, the process is still there for thinking funny. I don’t know how it works, and I don’t think it jinxes it to find out, but I couldn’t tell you more then that. It just happens. You have to be in the mood. I mean sometimes there are off-nights and it’s just not happening. Sometimes I’ll think of an idea at home and I’ll write it down, and I’ll say, “I’m going to do this on stage,” and also sometimes an old bit will suddenly explode into a whole new bit. One thing leads to another.

I mean I’ve been preoccupied with colonoscopies for a while, I did this colonoscopy song and it got nominated for a prime time Emmy award. Now I have new stuff about colonoscopies that I do with the old.

About the colonoscopy song, when did you start incorporating music into your act?
From the start I used music. From the very first HBO special in 1975, and on my album Child Of The 50’s from 1973. But the music has to be good. My idea of comedy and music is that the music has to be impeccable. If it’s Blues, it’s got to be good Blues. If it’s Doo-wop, it’s got to be good Doo-wop, and hip-hop and whatever else.

I know you have a fascination with the harmonica; when did that start?
I had friends when I was a teenager; we all loved folk singing and jug bands, and I took up the harmonica. Then the real break came when I worked with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Sonny was the greatest harmonica player I ever knew, and I worked with him twice at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. He’s got these big lips, these big hands, and he’s blind. He had this fishing vest with all his harmonicas in it. And Brownie was lame, I mean he had a high shoe and he played acoustic guitar – not very well – Sonny was the real virtuoso.

Brownie was very cranky and between shows they’re drinking scotch and milk, which I’ve never seen before in my life, and they keep on calling each other “River.” “What chu want River?” “I don’t know River! What chu want River?” “You want to change the set for the next show?” “Yeah River I wanna…” And I went “Hold on a minute Brownie. I notice you keep calling each other River. Why do you call each other River?” He said, “Because it goes on and on.”

Robert Klein’s Unfair And Unbalanced premieres Saturday, June 12, on HBO, at 10 pm EST.

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