Second City veteran Robert Klein was one of the most popular comics in the ’70s, thanks to his brazen take on the Watergate scandal. Now the grandfather of observational comedy is premièring his ninth (!) politically charged HBO comedy special, Unfair And Unbalanced, on Saturday, June 12, at 9 p.m. EST. And after such a fruitful career—including HBO’s first-ever comedy special, in 1975—Klein has his stand-up act down pat. There’s some music, some singing, and a whole lot of heartfelt political humor. (Also, as always, he ends the set with a show-stopping “I can’t stop my leg” routine.) Weighted down by the world, Klein is more downtrodden than ever, lamenting Americans’ stupidity and politicians’ hypocrisy, but his razor satire still cuts deep. The A.V. Club recently called the self-proclaimed “Child of the ’50s” to discuss Rush Limbaugh and how comedians can make a difference.
The A.V. Club: You danced at the end of your last special. This time, no dancing. What gives?
Robert Klein: I have what we call a symphony act. I’m the only comedian, I think, in the country that does it. It was a bitch to convince them that I wouldn’t go, “Hey fuck you, you motherfuck” to the matinee ladies, that I have dignity, that I’m intelligent, blah blah blah. Anyway, HBO loved the idea of doing [this one] with a symphony, but I used up all the material. The only way to do it viably would be to go to a music academy—you can’t just go to a community orchestra. The Henry Mancini Institute at the University Of Miami has an excellent music program. The show is a little edgier; I get so pissed at these hypocritical guys in Washington. They pray in the morning, then they fuck everyone else’s wife at night.
AVC: Has that kind of stuff bothered you more with each special?
RK: You know what? My 1974 album Mind Over Matter was a detailed thing about Watergate. I always had some righteous indignation. The idea is that these HBO specials will show forever, literally, and to have anything that will be stale in a few weeks is not what I want. So when I did politics, both praising and condemning President Clinton—“The man is a Rhodes Scholar, he’s brilliant, a Rhodes Scholar from the waist up; from the waist down, he’s a high-school equivalency diploma, incomplete.” That was a great line, and that should always be able to get a laugh when they show vintage stuff 15, 20 years from now.
This time around, gay marriage interested me a lot. When I saw [gay-marriage activist lawyers] Ted Olson and David Boies on Charlie Rose, I said, “That’s what America really is.” This conservative guy, Ted Olson, happened to lose his wife on 9/11—she was on one of the airliners—and Boies is liberal, this guy worked for Reagan. The point is, one of them said it, and it hit home: This is civil rights. Black evangelical ministers and everything are so against gay marriage, and they resent that it’s called civil rights, but it is. It’s their superstition. This is the only case of people being discriminated against for what they are and who they are. With this myth that it’s some choice of a lifestyle, “Let’s see, gay or straight? I’ll be a better dresser and gay, or I’ll be a better ballplayer.” You know, people are what they are. To prevent them, would you rather have the 1980s and the promiscuity? Do you know how many fucking musicians were launched from this neighborhood in the ’80s that were gloryholing down at the Ramrod? The whole thing is so hypocritical. I’ve known people for many years who are together—there’s as much chance of a gay marriage working as a straight marriage. Anyway, ask me a question. Favorite color? Blue.
AVC: Do you think a comedian can make a difference? People on The Daily Show seem to dismiss that idea—
RK: They’re full of shit, they know it makes a difference. A comedian? Maybe not. The Daily Show? Yes. Although you see that this everyday hammering of logical and mostly liberal philosophy doesn’t have a revolutionary influence. I’m afraid I don’t like [The Daily Show] as a source of news. They do have influence, but it’s limited, because this country is so stratified, which in its defense is a good thing. When you see Glenn Beck and how good he is, and how crafty he is, and how evil he is, you realize that there’s a small percentage of people that follow him and Rush Limbaugh. I mean a lot of people in terms of sponsors and making money, but in terms of political influence, let me just explain it this way: [Limbaugh] is a powerful man and he wanted to own a NFL franchise, and they said there’s no way they’d let him into that family. For the first time, his ambition has been stymied. He can’t buy and influence his way into something. “We don’t want you because you made racist, insensitive statements, and you’re an entertainer on the fringe that we don’t want to be associated with.” That’s the comeuppance. His hypocrisy about drug addiction, being a drug addict himself and decrying drug addicts—well, I don’t want to be like Rosemary’s Baby and wish a stroke on him.
AVC: Do you fear you might be preaching to the choir?
RK: Yeah, it’s not a fear, it’s a fact. I realized that you can’t change the minds of some people, but humor is a wonderful weapon. I was on Joy Behar’s show last night, and we were talking about these comments from that White House Correspondent [Helen Thomas] who said, “Send the Jews back to Poland and Germany.” So she came to me and asked what I thought about it. And I said, [Adopts stereotypical Jewish accent.] “Well, personally, I have no dog in this fight, but to quote my friend Mel Gibson…” Anyway, I know I’m not a crusader, there’s just a lot of rhetoric on. I’m gonna be on Keith Olbermann’s show. I like him, but I think he should tone it down too, but he’s not in the same category. I really do believe that Glenn Beck—I know I’m more on the spectrum of the left, but I’m not kneejerk—goes way beyond the pale. Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Beck. Beck is insidious, because he’s the finest actor of them, he’s cute and he’s sweet to those that believe in him. There’s a lot of shit happening. He’s an appalling demigod.
AVC: After eight previous specials, what was the process like of putting this one together?
RK: I did it the same way I did at Second City. I used the Second City technique, just without another actor. I improvise and we record the shows; I say the darnedest things. Shit comes out of my head. I wrote my book The Amorous Busboy Of Decatur Avenue completely like a writer does, writing it down, re-writing everything. But in my stand-up, I improvise initially, never questioning it too closely. The biggest delay between HBO specials was nine years—I’d gone through a terrible divorce, and I just didn’t feel that funny, blah blah blah. But it comes back, like a riding a bike.