Robert Klein opens his latest HBO special, Robert Klein: Unfair & Unbalanced (premiering Saturday night at 10 ET), with a very funny song, backed by a full orchestra. By contrast, he opened our interview with a joke about TV WORTH WATCHING: "It's a small website, I take it..."
He immediately rescinded his comment, saying that wasn't true any more. That, while he didn't watch much prime-time broadcast television, he was a big fan of such esoteric fare as the History Channel, the films on Turner Classic Movies, news channels from all sources, and so on.
"David, I am a television addict. I have to admit this," Klein said in a phone conversation Friday. "We got one in 1951 when I was nine years old, and my father hooked it up with my uncle, and Sid Caesar was on, on Saturday night -- Your Show of Shows. And the set has been on ever since."
In the annals of TV history, Robert Klein plays a not insubstantial part. In 1975, he starred in what was cable television's first-ever entertainment special -- An Evening with Robert Klein, the first of his nine solo comedy concerts for HBO. That was 35 years ago, when cable TV barely existed, and when HBO's usual daily schedule was two movies a night, with blank space and a countdown clock in between.
"They showed movies," Klein recalled, "and these movies were in the theater just a few months before. So it was a novelty -- you could see a movie at home, with cursing, unedited, uninterrupted!" Klein, a popular young comic on the college circuit, was approached to have his act captured by HBO's TV crew, and offered to its 500,000 or so subscribers, who were isolated, he recalls, in Eastern Pennsylvania, parts of Long Island, and only the borough of Manhattan proper.
"It was an hour," Klein explained, "instead of the eight or nine minutes I got on the Carson show, or Merv Griffin." And when his full act was televised, New York Times TV critic John O'Connor reviewed it -- garnering HBO's first press notice for programming.
"No one could say he went crazy," Klein admitted, "but he realized the potential of this idea."
Klein has been running with "this idea" ever since. His first special, he jokes in this ninth special, included some profanity because it could ("I said, 'Shit, shit, I can curse! That was my wit'"), but Klein always has been more about substance than shock. Or, when he gets playful and loose with language, it's to make a point -- as with his opening song, in Unfair & Unbalanced, urging President Obama to "keep your pecker in your pants."
The special, taped at the Amaturo Theater at Fort Lauderdale's Broward Center for the Performing Arts, includes several musical numbers, including a closing reprise of Klein's classic "I Can't Stop My Leg," all arranged by long-time musical director Bob Stein.
"I do comedy and music in every show I've ever done," Klein said proudly. "I'm really a good singer -- for a comedian."
But the monologues are strong, too, as when Klein launches into what he himself calls "a corker of a routine" about Sen. Larry Craig, he of the infamous "wide stance" men's bathroom scandal. At times, on the special and in conversation, Klein seems downright irritated -- and with good reason.
"I love this country," Klein told me. "I was born here, my parents were born here, and it's the greatest country in the world. But our pre-eminence is by no means guaranteed. I see a dumber America, a more vicious America, a more selfish America. When Sarah Palin makes fun of Joe Biden for saying that paying taxes is patriotic, I find that appalling. It is our DUTY to pay taxes."
[Robert Klein: Unfair & Unbalanced premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO, and is repeated Sunday at 9:30 p.m. ET on HBO2.]