Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Robert Klein on his influences and playing Fenway

Robert Klein gets the Boston
Comedy Festival's Lifetime
Achievement Award
Robert Klein has played a lot of gigs in Boston. His history in the city stretches back to 1966 when he came to Boston as an actor in the company of The Apple Tree, with Mike Nichols directing. In his book The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comics, Phil Berger wrote that Klein wrote his first stand-up here in his off time at the Avery Hotel, and performed the material once he got back to New York.

Not every gig has been at a club or a theater. When I spoke with Klein, who will receive the Boston Comedy Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award Saturday at the Wilbur Theatre, for the Boston Globe in 2007, he talked about a gig at Fenway Park. Klein’s a baseball fan, Fenway is a historic park.

“Remember the dismal end of last season, when the Yankees won those four in a row, I think?” he remembered. “Just awful. Some rich guy bought out Fenway Park, the Sox were on the road, a party for his mother, a birthday party for 200 people. And my dressing room was one of the boxes with lots of pictures of Johnny Pesky. And it was incredible. And one of the pavilions out near right field, they had the beautiful hors dourves set up, and I think Jim Rice came out to sign a few autographs, and I performed. Can you imagine? A completely empty Fenway Park. What an interesting gig. Her name was on the scoreboard, ‘Happy birthday, Mertle,’ whatever her name was.”

That interview was for an appearance at the Comedy Connection around the time Klein had released a collection of his HBO specials, which then numbered eight (he added his ninth last year, putting him behind only George Carlin). I wrote about Klein’s legacy and influence, which I believe is sometimes overlooked.

Klein said he wasn’t a terribly promotional guy – the prospect made him tired. And he didn’t want to dwell on the idea that he gets somewhat overlooked when people mention influential comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin, even though Klein is responsible for inspiring probably as many comedians as either of those two giants in the 70s and 80s. Nor did he sell himself short as a comedian – he knows how good he is, and knew he was doing something original.

“I thought what I did was different,” he said. “I knew it was. I mean, not so revolutionary that I wasn’t influenced by things that went before me, but I’ll be articulate. What if Lenny Bruce had gone to college and wasn’t so jazzy? What if Jonathan Winters was Jewish? A lot of images in my mind. I idolized both of them. Because they theatricalized – I made up a word – everything. They weren’t sitting on a stool, they weren’t just holding a mic – they made theater.”

He also wrote a great autobiography, called The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue, which I reviewed for the Globe in 2005. It covers Klein’s youth, stopping before he started to become famous, bucking the trend of the name-dropping, tell-all book. It’s definitely worth picking up for comedy fans, or Klein fans in general.

1 comment:

susan said...

Thanks - I have always admired his work, his originality.