Friday, June 24, 2005 | return to: arts


Robert Klein chases skirts, washes tables

by joe eskenazi, staff writer

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OK, how many of you made time to watch "The Stones"? Anyone? You, in the back? Anyone at all?

Judging by how many of you tuned into comedian Robert Klein's most recent television endeavor, readers probably won't be clawing over each other's backs at Barnes & Noble to pick up his new autobiography, "The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue." In fact, the existence of this book answers the pressing question, "What the hell has Robert Klein been up to lately?"

Well, thankfully, it was time well spent.

Klein's memoir highlights the years between his ninth and 25th birthdays, starting with him wetting his pants after being shouted at by a sadistic teacher and ending with a trio of lead-witted network suits axing him off "The Dean Martin Show" because "This kid's not funny."

This book, however, is funny, especially when Klein lays off the shmaltzy shtick that bogs down the book's introduction. His best material familiarizes us with the genuinely entertaining people, places and things he's seen, done and, frequently, bedded.

Klein's memoir appeals to both kinds of people — New Yorkers and everyone else.

For the latter, his upbringing in the prototypical 1950s Bronx Jewish milieu has that authentic feel — like a Barry Levinson film about, say, Baltimore. Klein slept on the fold-out ottoman in the living room of his family's flat in a huge apartment building full of hard-working, left-leaning Jews. He played ball on the street, and all the other street games exterminated by the ascent of Pac-Man; he sang in a teen doo-wop group and went to schools with a number instead of a name.

For those hailing from the five boroughs — and old enough to remember the Ipana toothpaste jingle — the exploits of Klein's formative years will induce a tsunami of nostalgia, which just might culminate in singing your old public school song or telling a favorite anecdote involving Pinky Lee.

Public school songs aside (and Klein does remember his), this is not a book for the bashful. Because either Robert Klein had a whole lot of sex, or he chose to write about every encounter he ever had. And — to shamelessly steal the joke of another Jewish comedian, Garry Shandling — Klein remembers the first time he had sex, because he kept the receipt. That said, his reminiscences aren't so much boastful or dirty, but rather honest and often touching memories of a guy blessed with wit, humor and the fortune of coming of age at a sexually convenient time in the nation's history.

This explains the "amorous" portion of the book's title. In the busboy portion — one of the memoir's finest chapters — Klein covers his worst job ever: busing dishes in a Catskills resort, meanwhile navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis (rock and a hard place) of insufferable clientele and maniac bosses. Here, Klein personifies Jackie Mason's classic bit on demanding Jewish restaurant patrons and a murderer's row of lunatic chefs sadistically berating their underlings in the kitchen. The star of the chapter is Moish the head waiter, a Polish Holocaust survivor and underground fighter who finds his own way of dealing with a kitchen mutiny that may or may not involve bloodshed.

Klein should seriously consider stretching this chapter into a screenplay. He's got it all: Colorful characters, a Latin beat and, wouldn't you know it, a love interest — no receipt involved.

"The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back" by Robert Klein (384 pages, Touchstone, $24.95).


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