Robert Klein at The Friars Club for the Documentary "The Business of Comedy"
I get involved in so many interesting projects. Sometimes things just seem to come out of nowhere because life is magical like that. So I find myself as an Associate Producer on a wonderful documentary film slated for PBS called “The Business of Comedy” working with two great Exec. Producers Gary Licker and Scott Sobel.
They made a name for themselves with a successful documentary called “Selling Cars in America”, about the history of the American car dealership and a look at the players who set the tone in the modern day, 21st century showroom. Scott produced it and Gary Licker directed.
“The Business of Comedy” examines just what it says, the business of comedy. So they’re not only interviewing comedians, but they’re speaking to club owners, managers, agents and anybody who makes the comedy world tick. That’s where I came in. First they interviewed me in my home, in what I call my “comedy museum” packed with photos and nostalgia going back to the late 70’s and early 80’s, when I was writing for Rodney Dangerfield and many Friars Club Roasts at the behest of Friars producer Bob Saks, and my original sponsor in The Friars Club, Milton Berle.
We had so much fun on that interview and we all got along so well that we decided to progress together with me being an Associate Producer. Now as a co-producer I brought the project to Richie Tienken at The Comic Strip where we not only interviewed Richie on his vast experience as the owner and founder of The Strip, but also interviewed a bunch of comics both established and new who shared their feelings on the business of comedy.
Then we spoke to Chris Mazzilli at the Gotham Comedy Club, who offered his unique perspective and who I refer to as “the classiest man in comedy”, and Gabe Waldman owner of Stand-Up New York, who we also filmed performing on stage. Very soon we will be speaking on camera with my old friend comedy legend/icon Rick Newman who opened the legendary Catch A Rising Star at the end of 1972, which was the admitted inspiration for The Comic Strip.
But this week was something special for all of us. We got to interview Robert Klein at The Friars Club. Both Gary and Scott made no secret of the fact that they were both incredibly excited at the opportunity to speak to Robert who is himself an icon of comedy, and one of the enduring bright stars of his generation. Not only has he established himself onstage but he’s appeared in over 40 feature films.
I think it was Gary who said that he’s interviewed many celebs but that the excitement of knowing he was going to interview Robert Klein kept him up the night before the interview! We had intended to do the interview in the beautifully appointed Milton Berle Room but as were were setting up we ran into Peter Rosegarten, Robert’s manager from The Conversation Company who facilitated us moving to the gorgeous dining room to do our interview. It’s actually Peter’s brother Rory who works directly with Robert and has done so for the past maybe 30 years ever since Robert left Rollins and Joffe.
That story is in my new book with Chris Rock called “Make ‘Em Laugh” in a great interview that Rory gave me. Rory and I go back many years and he represented me when I was writing for Joan Rivers.
Gary and Scott started out by playing a little audio recording of Budd Friedman founder of The Improv, which he opened in 1963, saying some very complimentary things about Robert Klein who was a regular there. Robert was very gracious and humbled by Budd’s statement, and said that as years go on, the more those kind of things mean to him. That kind of set the tone for what turned out to be a fantastic interview.
Robert was so generous with his sharing of stories and his energy. I loved how he easily remembered the date of his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I believe he said it was Jan. 9th, 1968. He remembered Johnny also as being “generous” with his laughter and support.
In 1970 Robert had his own summer replacement comedy/variety show called “Comedy Tonight”, which he hosted along with frequent guests Peter Boyle and Madeline Kahn. He has since done nine HBO comedy specials, and is still very active performing around the country at different venues.
His original manager Jack Rollins who helped me greatly in my own career and who originally introduced me to his other clients at the time Billy Crystal and Robin Williams figured greatly in Robert’s early career. I was still a Cosmetic Dentist in those early days and Jack thought that Billy Crystal would be perfect to play me in a sit-com about a dentist who wanted to be in show biz. That’s why when I interviewed Billy for my book “Make ‘Em Laugh” in one of the photos we took he was pointing to his teeth!
Robert was inspired by Jonathan Winters, and Lenny Bruce who was persecuted, blacklisted and ultimately ruined for performing material that was considered obscene in those days, but would be considered tame by today’s standards, where literally anything goes. Robert spoke of comedy as a “craft” that used to have a certain “dignity”. I saw it that way as well.
I was also very glad to hear that Robert and I share the same sensitivity as to what is commonly referred to as “bathroom humor” and I can’t really grasp the fascination that many young comics seem to have with bodily functions that to me have no place in a show where men are taking women out for an evening of entertainment.
Neither Robert nor I are prudes in any sense of the word. I wrote filthy jokes for Friars Roasts for many years, but that wasn’t the material I chose to do when I went on stage, and neither did he. We just share the same dislike for unnecessary grossness which is all too common these days.
Robert literally gave us “gold” for the documentary with his honest evaluation of the comedy scene then and now, and he kept me on my toes by throwing questions at me, when certain names in comedy history didn’t quite come to him right away, like Dane Cook and Rosie O’Donnell! He also remembered many years ago when I approached him about writing some material for him. It’s amazing what sticks out in people’s minds that you would think they would never remember!
I was so happy I was able to give him a copy of “Make ‘Em Laugh” because it’s about everyone he knows!
His spirit was youthful and engaging and I hope to see him again soon and maybe even work with him on something fun and meaningful.
Btw, in case you’re interested this is the very cool trailer for the documentary “The Business of Comedy!”