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Still kidding after all this time

You won't find profanity or mean-spirited humor on Robert Klein's HBO specials. But he's just as funny as decades ago.

September 28, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Robert Klein certainly knows how to entertain an audience, even if it is only an audience of one.

As he walks onto the small rooftop area of a boutique Burbank hotel for lunch, he surveys the tight quarters and declares: "This isn't the Four Seasons! It's the Two Seasons!"


The veteran New York-based comic and actor, who is in the current indie romantic comedy "Ira & Abby," was in town to talk about "Robert Klein: The HBO Specials 1975-2005," a four-disc DVD set of his eight HBO comedy concerts. It was released Tuesday by Kultur Films.

Inspired by stand-up legends Lenny Bruce and Rodney Dangerfield, Klein's comedy has always been observational -- bright, sophisticated, never mean-spirited. On the DVDs, viewers can watch him go from a 32-year-old preppy talking about his life as a middle-class kid growing up in the Bronx to a gray-haired 63-year-old wearing glasses and singing his own compositions about the joys of "Viagra" and the necessity of a "Colonoscopy."

These days, he does symphony dates on his own and with Lucie Arnaz, with whom he appeared on Broadway in the musical "They're Playing Our Song" in 1979. Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the music to that hit, conducts the pops orchestras at these gigs.

"She was a brat back then," Klein, 65, says of Arnaz. "But she's a fabulous woman now. She's such a mensch."

Though Klein was one of the first comics to tour colleges, he prefers to do corporate gigs these days.

"After doing every college, practically, I said to myself, 'I'm doing my best work in gyms. I want to break out of it. . . .' Occasionally I will do a parents' weekend or a homecoming," he says, "but the corporate dates are great -- from a rich person's birthday in Palm Beach to 2,500 gastroenterologists in Atlanta who demanded I sing the colonoscopy song."

He's also returning to clubs to prepare for his next HBO special, which he hopes to tape either late next year or in early 2009. Klein has to start preparations early because he has to develop a whole new repertoire of jokes and stories; he can't use material from the earlier shows.

Klein, who honed his comedic chops at Chicago's famed Second City, started his stand-up career in the mid-1960s, performing nightly at the Improvisation comedy club in New York. He tried to come up with something new for his set every night "because a lot of the same clientele was there every night. So I wrote a lot of material."

Klein recalls that he got an offer to do stand-up on the old "Merv Griffin Show." "But my manager at the time, Jack Rollins, said, 'I want you to do "The Tonight Show" first, but I don't want you to go until you have [enough material for] five spots.' A lot of comics went on with everything they had. . . . I've seen people who have the same 37 minutes for 20 years."

Klein had enough material to appear with Johnny Carson on the late-night show in January 1968. Nearly 40 years later, Klein did "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" the night before this interview.

Klein, who has influenced such comics as Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano, has always refrained from doing profanity-laden routines. "I had a long talk with Leno yesterday," he says. "He came to my dressing room and we talked for 45 minutes. He said he always respected me for that. I always want to say, 'I'm not a prude; profanity is an important part of the language when used properly.' "

For a long time, Klein says, he's lamented that "profanity passes for wit." That's why he regretted that toward the end of his career, his mentor Dangerfield fell into that trap.

"I found the stuff -- much of it was beneath him. That's because I know the stuff at the beginning."

Breaking into a flawless Dangerfield, Klein bellows: "I tell you, the streets aren't safe, our parks aren't safe, our schools aren't safe, but under our arms we have complete protection!"

"That," Klein enthuses, "is Art Buchwald worthy!"


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