Comedian Robert Klein will offer his perspective on life, Jews, and anything else that comes to mind when he appears Thursday, April 15, in a benefit for the Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick.
The Tony- and Grammy-nominated entertainer will bring his shtick to the State Theatre in New Brunswick five days after filming his ninth HBO special, set to air in July.
“There’s some material that’s on my mind,” said Klein in a phone interview with NJJN from his Westchester County home. “I may do a little more Jewish-oriented stuff.”
For that, Klein will go back to his Bronx childhood, where his father indulged in the “Jewish rumor” game. Klein launched into the kind of improvisational shpiel that helped make him famous: “Harry Truman — probably Jewish. Bernie Madoff — not Jewish — I hear he’s really Episcopalian. Jack Abramoff, not Jewish. Sully Sullenberger is Jewish. I know his family, from Boston. They’re herring merchants. Mother Teresa, Jewish — but she couldn’t tell people.”
The 68-year-old Klein, whose book, The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back, is a memoir of his life from age nine to 25 in the 1960s, a period of “dramatic social change, like going from the 19th to the 20th century.”
“It was a series of little episodes” that shaped the post-Holocaust world he grew up in, he said.
One incident, at the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, stands out. When an early broadcasting assignment had him speaking to people at the fair’s international pavilions, Klein struck up a friendship with a German woman.
He told his parents he wanted to bring her over and that they should make her feel at home.
His mother offered to make sauerbraten, but his father’s reaction was less welcoming: “I’ll make her feel at home,” his father said. “I’ll show her pictures of Auschwitz.”
Klein recalled that there were numerous Holocaust survivors in his Bronx neighborhood. And at one of the Catskills hotels he worked in, the head waiter, Moshe, a survivor who had lost his whole family, held “a mystique and power.”
Klein honed his improvisational skills in the 1960s as a member of the famed Second City troupe in Chicago. He was twice nominated for a Grammy for best comedy album of the year for Child of the Fifties (1973) and Mind Over Matter (1974) and received a Tony Award nomination and won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for his performance in Neil Simon’s They’re Playing our Song in 1979. In 1993 he won an Obie and Outer Critics Circle Award for his turn in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig.
Klein said he has never been very observant but he often does benefits for Jewish causes. As he gets older, he said, he finds himself becoming more Jewish in certain ways. He has little tolerance for those who harbor prejudice against others and is particularly troubled by anti-Semitism.
“I also seem to be adding more ‘oys’ when I get up,” he said