Robert Klein opens the 2012-13 Centenary Stage Company season with a benefit performance on Saturday, September 22. BWW was lucky that Mr. Klein could take some time to speak to us about his forty plus year career.
BWW: Thanks for joining us today. There is so much I want to discuss with you, finding the place to start is difficult. A true New Yorker who (that if I’m to believe what I read) had no designs on entertainment at first. Was comedy in your blood as a child or was it something you pursued as you got older?
Robert Klein: You read correctly. I was going to go into the medical field, though I was always the class clown. It was my father that was the hilarious one. A textile salesman in the garment district, he was truly gifted. Comedy was just a way of life in our house.
I know you worked with the iconic troupe, Second City but what were some of your comic inspirations?
1965 at Second City was the most wonderful thing that could have happened to me and when I feel it “all began”. I had spent a year at the Yale Drama School, but was already pulled towards comedy. Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce. It was Lenny that taught me comedy could be meaningful and be used as a social critic.
I got my first Broadway show doing THE APPLE TREE, but continued to do comedy work on the side and meet Richard Pryor, Bette Midler and so many others during that time. I knew the world was full of funny people, but to decide to make it a profession was a completely different thing.
And for comedy in the 70s, we must not forget Saturday Night Live.
Yes. I was the original customer in the Cheeseburger, no Coke - Pepsi skit. Along with Jane Curtain and Gilda Radner.
What made you decide to record your first comedy album in 1973? (Which for readers to know, you were nominated for two Grammy’s for “Best Comedy Album of the Year”.)
It was the thing to do then. Lily Tomlin, Bill Cosby, George Carlin – they were all doing it. And I had so much material after the first that I continued creating albums.
And then to have the very first HBO stand-up comedy special. What was the unchartered territory like?
HBO came to me to do it. At the time, they only had half a million subscribers (and I take full credit for what they’ve grown into). The NY Times saw the importance of the comedy special when they reviewed it. There was nothing like it at the time. A comedian could have six minutes on The Tonight Show or a small set in a club somewhere, but to have a full special air was a big deal. My first eight shows are all in a box set now on DVD and the first few were only really seen by those few early subscribers to the station.
I listened to you many times, as a favorite audition song of mine was from THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG which you did in 1979 (and was Tony nominated). You worked with one of the absolute finest in the business with the late Marvin Hamlisch. Can you share any stories from that period with us?
Neil Simon was planning on turning his play THE GINGERBREAD LADY into a musical and was working with Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer-Sager when he decided they should just do a musical based on their lives instead. And that’s who I was basically playing in the musical. (Marvin was thrilled that I was playing him, BTW, as I was very good looking.) Marvin was a joyful collaborator. A wonderful man. My co-star from THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG, Lucie Arnaz and I continued to do many concerts with Marvin for years. The last was in Pasadena about four weeks before he passed and he never said a word about how he was feeling.