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INTERVIEW: A Talk With Comedic Icon Robert Klein

T.J. Clemente

Robert Klein is headlining at Bay Street Theater on Saturday, June 22. (Courtesy Photo)

Chatting with Robert Klein is total entertainment. He has a fluid comedic mind along with a distinct moral compass and a sharp cutting wit surrounded by the heart of an old victorious entertainment lion. He hosted SNL during their first season, he anchored the first-ever HBO cable comedy special presentation (1975), he was a substitute host for Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show, he was nominated for a Tony on Broadway, and he has also starred in motion pictures, TV series and cable TV series. Most of all, he remains the man with the microphone who has you listening to every word.

I asked Klein who were his two major influences and he said, "Lenny Bruce and Jonathan Winters, who later in life I got to know really well and of course Rodney Dangerfield." He went on to explain, "It was Rodney who taught me to really be ready to be on The Tonight Show (with Johnny Carson). Rodney would practice for weeks to be able to knock it out of the park on The Tonight Show!" He also mentioned in the old days Johnny Carson smoked unfiltered cigarettes right on the air and the ashtray on the famous desk was "a disaster area." He guest hosted The Tonight Show and appeared on it an astonishing 94 times. About Carson he said, "Johnny Carson was the greatest."

He explained that the invention and wide use of television is the 1950's-1960's led to the demise of comedy nightclubs. However, he firmly believes when HBO started the comedy specials in 1975, a whole new wave of comedy clubs sprung up and now there are he proudly says, "many, many comedy clubs across the country."

In a wide-ranging conversation, he explained where he was when JFK was shot saying, "I was at home depressed in our family apartment in the Bronx, when my dad called and said, turn on the TV!"

Klein attended Alfred University 1958-62, studying History and Poli Sci. The school was in a dry town so he and "everyone else had to drive 11 miles to the Beacon (a watering hole) to be able to get a drink." He was in dramatic plays and musicals at Alfred and eventually went to study at Yale Drama School.

His dad perhaps wasn't thrilled about this career path at the time, but Klein admitted his dad, "Gave me the $600 to go to Chicago to audition for the Second City Comedy Club, which changed my life."

Later in life Robert Klein had his dad present when he received an award at the White House from President Jimmy Carter, and then along with Lucie Arnaz, who he had starred in They're Playing Our Song with, performed some of the tunes for the President and guests. Klein said his dad looked at him and shyly admitted how proud he was. "That meant a lot," said Klein, obviously still understanding the power of that moment.

Klein, as a boy growing up in the Bronx in the 1950's, of course idolized the New York Yankees' Mickey Mantle whom he eventually met a lot. He verified that later in life Mickey was a drinker, yet still in Klein's Westchester home (Briarcliff Manor) down in his man cave basement, he has a photo of him and Bob Costas in Washington Senators uniforms along with Mickey Mantle wearing a Yankees uniform in a dugout. "I am very proud of that photo," he said and then chuckled like the boy that somehow remains in all of us older men.

About the upcoming Bay Street performance, Klein said jokingly is his unique understated but punchy style, "It will be me with a microphone," then he said with a laugh, "I just won't be standing in front with a mic, but be moving like cheetah in a cage roving back and forth!" He will sing some of his hit tunes from his Broadway musicals, he will tell stories and he will give up his "A" material. As he said, "I am not a big fan of using four letter words to get shock laughter." He instead explains his talent is making folks laugh "without profanity and ridiculing tragedies and horrible events."

Before he had to go, Robert Klein said this, "I am older, but strangely I feel like I'm better at this profession than ever before."

Get to Bay Street Theater on Saturday, June 22 at 8 p.m. and be a witness to the greatness of one American comedic icon, Mr. Robert Klein. Tickets range from $59 to $125.

Bay Street is located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, call 631-725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org.

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