The Arty Semite

How Robert Klein Saved Rodney Dangerfield's Life

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

“When Comedy Went to School,” a new documentary opening in New York and Los Angeles July 31, tries too hard to be both a history of Jewish comedy and the Catskills. It’s a lot of territory to cover, but the producers made at least one right choice: The film’s narrator is Robert Klein, 71, the veteran comedian who’s covered a lot of the same territory himself.

Phil Konstantin/Wikimedia Commons

Klein has starred on TV (he had the first-ever HBO comedy special), on Broadway (he’s a Tony nominee for “They’re Playing Our Song”) and of course at stand-up dates at night clubs, college campuses and JCCs. Oh, yes, he headlined at the Concord and Kutcher’s, too.

Klein spoke to The Arty Semite about his nostalgia for the old Catskills, changes in the comedy universe and how he saved Rodney Dangerfield’s life.

Curt Schleier: “When Comedy Went to School” made me sad. There are generations of young people who don’t know anything about the Catskills — a great era in New York Jewish life.

Robert Klein: There’s nothing there anymore. I had a club date there last summer in Loch Sheldrake [once home to many major hotels] and everything is shuttered up. It’s depressing.

You had your first taste of live comedy there, didn’t you?

I was a bus boy. I was a camp counselor in a hotel. I remember sneaking into the [night club] at the Concorde. That’s where my sister met her husband. It was very exciting. I remember seeing professional comedians like Lou Menshell, Bernie Burns, Harry Deutsch. They would come park their Cadillacs next to the casino, would make an audience hysterical for 34 to 40 minutes, so everybody’s stomach hurt. They’d forget their tears through their laughter and then [the comics] would go on to the next hotel. I thought this was a fabulous mission. I still wanted to be a doctor, but I think this planted the germ of an idea.

Comedy seems to have survived, though.

Comedy is still alive and there are still funny people. Jews are still overrepresented in comedy and psychiatry and under represented in the priesthood. That immigrant Jewish humor is still with us.

But things have changed.

Very much so. For one thing, the use of profanity. Poor Lenny Bruce’s Christ-like sacrifice — can we say that in the Forward? He was truly crucified for his use of profanity, but it was eloquent. Because of his sacrifice, today’s comics can say anything they want. I’m not in favor of censorship, but his sacrifice has been ill-used as a substitute for wit… [I saw] Louis CK [at a Friars event], the hottest comedian in the country, making a fortune, and every second word out of his mouth is profanity.

I’m not against profanity. It’s an important part of the language when used properly. Look at “The Sopranos.” It was used properly. Ever see the [sanitized] version on A&E? “Forget you. Forget your mother.” Comedy has lost its eloquence.

Who inspired you?

Every comedian on television when I was 9 years old. Sid Caesar. Lucille Ball. Fat Jack Leonard, Jack Carter. Jerry Lewis. Martin & Lewis on “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” Jerry Lewis was a genius in those days. I wasn’t crazy about his movies, but I loved him on TV. Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce showed me I could be more than those guys with cuff links and talk about things. Jonathan Winters, who proved you don’t have to be Jewish to be funny, was a one-man show. He didn’t just tell jokes. He did voices and made noises. Richard Pryor was amazing. Lenny Bruce was a social critic and that’s what lit me up. His routines were mind over matter with a lot about Watergate in them. In some articles written about me, writers have said I’m a link between the old and the new, and I think in a certain sense that’s legitimate.

Rodney Dangerfield was your mentor and you once saved his life.

I met him at the Improv in the fall of ’66. I was on Broadway doing Apple Tree and working on stand up. He had a gig on Cape Cod at the Sea Crest Hotel in Buzzard Bay and he asked me to come along. When we get up there, there are 35 mile an hour winds blowing and he says [Klein does a perfect imitation of Dangerfield] “Let’s take out a sail boat.”

I asked what he knew about sailing and he said [again in perfect Dangerfield pitch], “What’s there to know? The [expletive] wind pushes you.” I notice that no one else is out there. The sailing people are in shelters wearing helmets. FEMA is giving out donuts.

So we go down to the boathouse in out bathing suits and the kid says I got to give you a lesson. This is the main sail. This is the fo’c’sle. Rodney says “Never mind that BS. Give me the keys.” So two Jews who don’t know what they’re doing found ourselves in the ocean. In about nine seconds we’re 1,000 yards from shore. Suddenly he shouts, “I’m gonna take a swim” and jumps overboard.

There are two-foot chops and the temperature in the water is 60 degrees. I don’t know how to change the fo’c’sle’ — I’m from the Bronx-sle. The only thing I could do was make a nice tight turn of about six miles. All I could do was visualize what I was going to tell the [N.Y.] Post. All of a sudden this little gray hand came up and I pulled him out.

Watch the trailer for ‘When Comedy Went to School’:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: When Comedy Went to School, Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Klein, Interviews, Film, Comedy, Curt Schleier

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.