Robert Klein makes me laugh. The sound of his voice makes me smile; his jokes frequently put me at risk of asphyxiation. I think he’s the funniest comedian going, although I don’t think he has much competition in that department either. When I saw him live for the first time, six or seven years ago at a fundraiser in Minneapolis, even his Bush I jokes made me laugh, and his Clinton jokes were terrific as well. The friends I dragged along with me to that event spent more time watching me laugh than watching Klein, so I know he isn’t for everybody.
Today’s New York Times Book Review demonstrates that Klein is funny even when he’s paraphrased. Jane and Michael Stern review Klein’s autobiographical account of his childhood and start in show business, The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back (first chapter here). The Sterns’ review is “Shtick figure.”
Even the Sterns’ description of the book’s endpaper is funny:
The book’s front endpaper is a map titled “My World as a Child,” showing the Bronx between the Botanical Garden and Van Cortlandt Park, including such landmarks as “Cemetery wall — stickball boxes” and “Where I was jumped by Ace McVay.”
That has me thinking back to my childhood in Moorhead, Minnesota, but I don’t think I could match this:
McVay leads a gang of kids armed with switchblade knives and zip guns who set upon Klein on his way to rehearsal with his doo-wop group, the TeenTones. Klein, 14 at the time, describes McVay as “6 foot 4, skinny as a rail, with a hideous complexion that looked like a relief map of the Himalayas.” What does a nice Jewish boy do when so confronted? He pretends to faint, and it works. But McVay’s bullying haunts him, and he fantasizes revenge. One day at DeWitt Clinton High School, McVay picks on another peaceable student, but a tough kid, the son of Holocaust survivors, beats him to a pulp. Klein relishes watching the beating, but like a true mensch, winds up feeling bad for McVay: “I thought of his mother.”
The Sterns set up Klein’s recollection of a revelatory moment digging in his dad’s drawer:
Klein’s 1950’s and 60’s are no disingenuous “Happy Days”; nor are they G-rated. He reminds us just how sexually charged things were in a culture that had so much invested in its veneer of wholesomeness. While he is no more preoccupied than any teenage boy, his carnal yearnings are seen through an endearing scrim of self-deprecating humor. At 13 he pokes through his father’s sock drawer and finds a deck of playing cards from the 1930’s with pictures of people having sex — a moment he describes as being “like a paleoanthropologist discovering the missing link.”
And the Sterns bring us Klein’s recollection of taking his first love home to meet his parents:
Romance blooms with a German girl he meets at the 1964 World’s Fair. Klein turns his wry eye even on this heartfelt affair: “We were so happy, we must have looked like a fashion ad in the Sunday Times.” They get serious enough that Klein decides to take the blond, blue-eyed Elizabeth to see his parents at their apartment house in the Bronx. Klein’s father, Benny, cannot resist bringing up the Germans’ complicity. “What did they think was happening to all those families who were being loaded onto trucks and taken away? Where were they going, a Ping-Pong match?” Elizabeth, who was 3 years old at the end of the war, speaks of the Germans’ collective guilt, even among the innocent, and finally, in Klein’s words, “something happened that I still can’t figure out to this day. Benny put his head down and began to sob.” Klein defuses the excruciating moment by declaring, “Let the world war be over and let the eating war begin.” And they come together over stuffed cabbage and pot roast with Hungarian potatoes.
I’m pretty sure I’ve never defused an excruciating moment in my life, although I think I could stuff my memoirs with several I’ve created. Next time around, I’ll be trying to emulate my comedic hero.