I should actually recuse myself from reviewing Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg, the Starz documentary debuting March 31, 10:00pm ET/PT, because I’m in it, though I don’t have a speaking part. Let me explain: I saw Robert (I feel I’ve known him long enough to call him by his first name) a few years ago in Dix Hills, N.Y. at one of the many performance clips featured in this documentary. There I am with three of my oldest friends, laughing and laughing and laughing and laughing. I haven’t laughed that loud, for that long, since.
So the other reason I should probably recuse myself is that I am deeply prejudiced in Robert Klein’s favor — and I have been since the 1970s, when I first discovered his amazing comedy album Child of the 50s. I wore down the grooves in that record until I could do not only the routines themselves but the pauses in the routines. It’s kind of nice to discover that many professional comedians exhibited the same obsessive fascination with Robert’s unique brand of hip, edgy humor.
If you’re unfortunate enough to not know who Robert Klein is, or to only know him from his usually less-than-memorable recent acting jobs, then this documentary will be a revelation. Klein is a standup comedian with a rare combination of smarts, sublime silliness, flawless technique, and a brutal honesty. I seriously believe he should be the next recipient of the Mark Twain humor prize. He’s also a Broadway performer (They’re Playing Our Song, The Sisters Rosensweig) as well as a movie and TV actor (he’s particularly good in the George Segal/Barbra Streisand The Owl and the Pussycat).
The documentary, directed by Marshall Fine, features lots of performance clips, including Klein’s many appearances on Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and various other talk shows, as well as his numerous HBO specials. There are also appreciations and reminiscences from other comedians and actors (Billy Crystal, Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, David Steinberg, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Song co-star Lucie Arnaz) attesting to Klein’s fearlessness and his lasting influence. There’s some personal stuff too: Klein, now in his 70s but still performing, at home in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., shopping at the local supermarket, hanging with his poker buddies and his now-grown son Alexander, and visiting the Bronx neighborhood where he grew up.
It’s a loving, affectionate portrait that meanders just a bit too often. At about 90 minutes, it’s about 20 minutes too long, though I’m sure it became a matter of “how can I cut that? It’s funny!” There’s an interesting detour when Klein visits Binghamton University to give aspiring comedians advice about what it’s like to thrive, and just survive, in the profession. There are some touching moments too, when Klein talks about the pain of his divorce from opera singer Brenda Boozer, and notes that through all of that pain he still had to go out and make people laugh. Through it all, Klein doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he does acknowledge that making people laugh is a noble calling. The beauty of his humor is that he also makes you think.
Oh, about that title: one of Robert’s signature bits is that he will whip out a harmonica and start playing a bluesy riff, stomping one leg up and down with the beat, only to wail out “I can’t stop my leg!” as his lower extremity continues to move. It sounds stupid but trust me, it’s funny. I won’t even try to do any more of his jokes or stories — so much depends on his delivery that it’s impossible to re-create. See for yourself. If Robert doesn’t make you laugh at least once, you are clinically dead.