BWW Interviews: Robert Klein One Night Only Centenary Stage Company 9/22
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”.)
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.
You took your stand-up to Broadway in the 80s where you could play “yourself”. When creating that show, did you approach it differently because it was on Broadway?
I love live theater, but I also hate the thought of doing the same thing over and over. And two of my Broadway shows I stayed with for a year each.
Your Obie and the Outer Critics Circle Award winning performance in Wendy Wasserstein's, THE SISTERS ROSENWEIG…
Yes. But with my own shows I get the joy of live theater and can still change it up nightly. You can’t change Neil Simon’s lines when doing a play. So for my own Broadway show, that’s what I did. I was doing that show at Circle in the Square on the set of the play COASTAL DISTURBANCES so I would make jokes about the beach and my surroundings. It sold out. They wanted to run longer, but another show was coming in the space and I already had other jobs lined up as well.
Now I will do a staged reading of something like THE EXONERATED which I did with the wonderful Lynn Redgrave and Montel Williams or other live experiences that do not require more than two weeks. (Plus many are for good causes.)
You have done so many films throughout your career from The Owl and the Pussycat to Primary Colors to Two Weeks Notice. As well as numerous television shows. For those young actors reading this just starting in the business, what advice would you give?
I’ve done over 40 feature films and they are really fun and interesting, but completely different techniques. Lee Grant told me on one of my first films, “You’re not on stage. The camera does all the work.” I was told to calm down and relax. For advice I would say if you are crazy about your profession, find the right niche for you. I was spoiled that by 23 years old my career took off and I could keep doing it. Pursue until proven otherwise. For theater: be in New York. For film and TV, go to LA. But if you start at 20 and you are 45 and noticing no one is hiring you, it might be time to stop.
When I first moved to New York City in the late 80s, you had your nighttime talk show Robert Klein Time. Do you see a major difference in the landscape of television over the past 20 years since that show aired?
So much has changed through the years. Comedy is now a complete industry unlike when I started. Lenny Bruce was charged for violating obscenity laws which comics do not have to think about today. I believe foul language is beneficial if used aptly: not as a substitute for wit.
With the talk show, the USA Network was a new cable channel and we only did one a week. We could make each one shine because we weren’t trying to do something nightly. I was a cable pioneer. Even interviewed Bill Maher and Janeane Garofalo on the E! Network when it started out. But so much has changed where now networks have large corporations behind them that can even finance feature films. A different world.
As an author, I’d be remise if I didn’t mention your book from 2005 The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back. Was that completely cathartic for you to sit down and write?
One of my proudest achievements. It was wonderful to write. A series of stories, so different from my stand-up material. I’ve gone on to write for other magazines, but at some point I’d like to find the time to write another book.
So lastly, what can audiences expect at the event in the Sitnik Theater at Centenary Stage Company?
People think it’s just a comedy routine, but I do music and other surprises. (Can you believe I’ve been asked to perform with symphonies? That will shock some people.) For those that haven’t ever seen me live, they should come out and see it. They are in for an experience!
We thank you for joining us to talk about your vast career. I could have gone on and on. But audiences can come and catch you on stage to learn more.
CSC has a multi-tiered ticket packages that start with a reception, the show, and a post performance meet & greet with Mr. Klein for this special gala event. Please see their website for full details on tickets, times and information.