When comedian Robert Klein first started doing standup, Lyndon Johnson was the president, the Vietnam War was raging, and gas was just 36 cents per gallon. But while the times have changed, Klein's ability to poke fun at them has not. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
Robert Klein has been making people laugh for more than 40 years. His success bridges several generations of New York comedians. He was at home with the borscht belt comedians he watched in his youth, like Milton Berle and Henny Youngman. He and his contemporaries George Carlin and Richard Pryor are known for their groundbreaking observational humor. And Klein is cited as a major influence by the generation that followed, including Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano.
"I improvise it initially, I don't write it down. I might write an idea down, but I don't write a script. And I begin to hone these things by listening to a recording of them," says Klein. "I'd always wondered, 'Do I still have it?' 'Can I still think of funny things?' Basically that's my job, and the answer is always yes. I don't question it."
Klein hosted HBO’s first-ever comedy special in 1975. He was also an early host on Saturday Night Live. Now his television and movie roles often involve two lines of work he shunned as a young man.
"I've played many doctors. Pacino's doctor, J Lo's doctor. George Clooney's doctor. I played a shrink on 'One Fine Day,'" recalls Klein. "I'm also a bad lawyer, on 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.' Both of my clients -- Carol Burnett and Eric McCormack -- got multiple life sentences."
Klein has also graced the stage and won an Obie for his performance in the 1993 show "The Sisters Rosenzweig."
He was nominated for a Tony Award for the 1979 Neil Simon show "They're Playing Our Song."
"I'll never forget that moment -- 'Winner for Best Actor In a Musical - not Klein!'" jokes Klein.
But his admirers know him best for 40 years of standup comedy -- old routines that still kill and newer routines that have become classics.
"It is a television camera in the human body. A little technicality because I am a Screen Actors' Guild member, hair and makeup had to go in there too, and that was very uncomfortable. Those little 'Roll it! Quiet please!'" says Klein.
Of course, remembering every bit over 40 years isn't so easy.
Klein says that when he does happen upon an old bit that's frozen in time on an album or DVD, there's a feeling of imperfection, that he could do it better now.
"It's like...I don't want to compare it to the great master. The painter who was caught in the Louvre -- 'It's not finished!' He was putting paint on some, his own painting. 'But it's not finished!'" says Klein.
Whether preparing for an HBO special, or a night at a club, it is his job to make people laugh, even when the hours off stage aren't so funny.
"I was going through a bad divorce 20 years ago, and it took me nine years, that show. I just didn't feel that funny, but I had to go to work, keep being funny, and everyone has troubles. But I don't lose it," says Klein.
Robert Klein divides his time between an apartment in the city and a home up in Westchester. Despite the occasional beckoning from California, he has always lived here.
"New York is in my blood. My ancestors came over on the Mayflower. They had the buckled shoe concession onboard," jokes Klein.
He grew up in the Norwood section of the Bronx and went to Dewitt Clinton High School. Those early years provided some material for his first album "Child of the Fifties," and a lot of material for his 2005 book, "The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue." And yes, his family was funny.
"My sister and I slept in a small dinette made into a room, and then when she became a teenage girl she needed her own privacy," recalls Klein. "I slept on a Castro convertible in the living room. And a small one at that, an ottoman size. My sister once said, 'Get on your room.' Good line, very funny."
Klein remembers the neighborhood fondly. But he desired more space and a loss of anonymity.
"There was that golden thing about celebrity. I bumped into one every once in a while, or a ballplayer or something. And people looking at you when you walked into a restaurant. And I think I did want that. But it was just unimaginable," says Klein.
Klein performed as a kid, and even had a singing group called The Teen Tones. But when he went off to Alfred University in upstate New York, he was going to be a doctor.
"A few things got in my way: calculus, physics, zoology, organic chemistry, reading, spelling comprehension, behavior, attitude, aptitude, attendance, and talent," recalls Klein.
Two professors eventually recommended Klein to the Yale Graduate School of Drama.
"My father was skeptical. 'Yale? To be an actor? Did Eddie Cantor go to Yale?' He had a point," says Klein. "At Yale they taught me how to speak, and how to direct, and how to emote, but not how to get a job."
After one year, he came back to New York, did some substitute teaching, and then joined Chicago's famed comedy troupe Second City.
"It's still like the best thing that ever happened to me, Second City, and doing this instead of somnambulating into law school like a sheep," says Klein.
He made his Broadway debut in 1966, then appeared with his friend Madeline Kahn in New Faces of 1968. After the show he would hit the stage at the old comedy club The Improv.
"I killed 'em, from the first, and a guy came up to me, 'I'll tell ya, man, you were brilliant,'" recalls Klein.
Rodney Dangerfield became a fan of Klein, as did Johnny Carson.
There were numerous Tonight Show appearances, other television spots, comedy albums, a Grammy nomination, and a sold out show at Carnegie Hall.
"Cheering 2,500 people, and someone said to my mother, 'I bet you're very proud of him.' And she said, 'Oh yes, but if this doesn't work out, he can always go back to teaching,'" says Klein.
Through the years, he's starred in a few sitcoms. He says he rejected other series because they would have taken him out of New York and away from his son Alexander, who is now in his 20s. But on stage, there's always been topical, political humor -- not that everyone appreciates it.
"Occasionally anti-semitic hatemail. Ya know, 'Hey, Jewboy! Why don't you get a gig Jewboy!' And I said, "Look at this Alabama, Mississippi -- Massapequa, Long Island!' Gee, how can anyone in Long Island be bigoted?" says Klein.
Klein says he used to think of standup comedy as an adversarial pursuit, comparing it to bullfighting. No more.
"Now there's affection over the footlights," says Klein. "People have seen me, and there's so many -- 'Thank you for all the laughs over the years' -- that kinda thing. Or just a big smile, affection. And so, it's just almost easier than ever before."