Robert Klein Turns 80

Pretty sure he’s high here, yeah?

Today is Burt Mustin’s birthday but the odds are quite good that I’ll never be doing a post on him. The main reason for this is that a number of years ago, someone said to me “How about doing a post on Burt Mustin?” Which revealed such a profound lack of understanding about me and this blog that I had to shut the guy out (I haven’t spoken to the poor soul since), and I find myself unable to shake a lingering prejudice against Mr. Mustin that I fear will never dissipate. If someone suggests something to me, I couldn’t possibly do it. The entire point of the blog is that it is an expression of my own memories, interests, inspirations, and insights. Occasionally, I’ve had other folks write guest posts, in cases where I was interested in a subject but felt someone else may bring more knowledge or passion to it. But on the whole, it’s about what drives me. If you enjoy it, great. But I need to enjoy it first. For me to write an article on commission (for that’s what taking your suggestions would be), it would literally cost you a thousand times more than even what my Patreon supporters give.

Luckily today also happens to be Robert Klein’s birthday (b. 1942), and as it happens Klein has reached the very Burt Mustin age of 80. I once peed next to Robert Klein in a Broadway theatre bathroom during the intermission of a show about 30 years ago. It might have been the ’92 revival of Guys and Dolls, or maybe it was Albee’s Three Tall Women (1994). In retrospect, I realize I was seeing a lot of legit theatre at that time! 30 years ago, Klein was a mere 50 years old, younger than I am now. I didn’t say anything to him (straight men try not to talk or even look at each other at urinals), but it’s the story I usually tell when people ask, “What’s your dumbest or most awkward celebrity sighting?”. At the time, I associated Klein almost entirely with stand-up, but looking back, one realizes how appropriate that the (non)encounter occurred in a Broadway house, for Klein belongs THERE just as much as a concert hall or nightclub.

Klein is unusual in having trained to be an actor prior to, or in concert with, his stand-up career. (Off the top of my head, I can only think of a couple of others, Don Rickles and Robin Williams, among them). The Bronx native attended Yale School of Drama prior to spending a year with Second City. When he was a mere 24 years old. Mike Nichols cast him in the Broadway show The Apple Tree with the unbelievable cast of Alan Alda, Larry Blyden, and Barbara Harris. The show played over a year. He then went into Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1968, followed by Morning Noon and Night (1968-69) an evening of one-acts by Leonard Melfi, Terrence McNally, and Israel Horovitz with Sorrel Booke and Charlotte Rae. 1969 was the year he broke into television, doing stand-up spots on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and The Joey Bishop Show. In 1970 he briefly hosted a summer replacement series called Comedy Tonight and did a spot on This is Tom Jones, as well as the programs of Flip Wilson, David Frost, Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Merv, and others. These are the kinds of places where I likely first saw him. At around this time, he also began appearing in movies. He had a cameo in Hal Ashby’s first film as director The Landlord (1970); as well as supporting roles in The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) with Barbra Streisand and George Segal, and The Pursuit of Happiness (1971); and a co-starring role in Rivals (1972) opposite Joan Hackett.

This is all BEFORE many people will consider that Klein truly made his mark! Because only THEN come the classic comedy albums, Child of the 50s (1973), Mind Over Matter (1974, with its Watergate inspired material), and New Teeth (1975). Klein was sort of the ultimate Baby Boomer comedian, with his satirical takes on America’s political, social and cultural quirks, foibles and injustices, and he seemed very much a part of the same movement that also produced George Carlin, Richard Pryor, David Frye, and Saturday Night Live (which Klein would host twice). In 1975, he starred in HBO’s very first stand-up comedy special; he’s had about ten of them since then, which must be close to the record. His most recent Unfair and Unbalanced (2010) unmistakably refers to a certain TV news network — and that was five years before 45’s escalator ride.

All the while, Klein continued acting. He was nominated for a Tony for his starring role in the 1979 Broadway show They’re Playing Our Song. He was in the films Hooper (1978) with Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, The Bell Jar (1979), and Nobody’s Perfekt (1981) with Gabe Kaplan. He had no fewer than THREE one man shows on Broadway in the ’80s, accompanied by near-omnipresence on television, with guest shots on talk/variety shows as well as sit coms and other shows (Murder She Wrote, Law and Order). In 1993 he was in the original Broadway production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosenzweig with Madeline Kahn and Jane Alexander. He had recurring and regular roles on the TV shows Sisters (1993-96), Bob Patterson (2001), The Stones (2004), The Mysteries of Laura (2014-2016) and the Will and Grace reboot (2018). He’s been in the movies Radioland Murders (1994), Mixed Nuts (1994), One Fine Day (1996), Primary Colors (1998), Suits (1999), The Safety of Objects (2001), Two Weeks Notice (2002), Reign Over Me (2007), The Back Up Plan (2010), Demoted (2011), and most importantly, more than one of the Sharknado films!

Younger stand-up comedians continue to look up to Klein as a sort of God. Naturally he’s done Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee! And he’s repaid the respect in the other direction, with appearances in things like the classic 1982 doc The Marx Brothers: In a Nutshell. Once, Klein was one of those long haired college radicals who got turned on by campus screenings of Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. Now he’s nearly as old as Groucho was when he played Carnegie Hall in 1972. Father Time — he’s a regular Burt Mustin!

For more on variety entertainment, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous