A glance at the heavyweights contributing blurbs to the packaging for this four-disc set -- Jerry Seinfeld, the New York Times, Ray Romano -- and you get a sense of comedian Robert Klein's contributions to the genre of stand-up. With a career stretching more than three decades, Klein's dry, observational monologues have sharpened with age, but always been nothing less than hilarious. Robert Klein: The HBO Specials 1975-2005 is a self-explanatory title, a four-disc set that houses all eight stand-up specials Klein has performed over the last 30 years for the now powerhouse network.
At its suggested retail price, this collection is a steal; having all of these performances available to watch back-to-back, you get a real sense of Klein's evolution as a comedian from a goofy, sort-of fringe funnyman to one of comedy's elder statesmen. The liner notes, penned by critic Marshall Fine, goes so far as to suggest "without Robert Klein, modern stand-up comedy would not exist." That might be a bit generous, particularly since Fine goes on to namecheck George Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, three figures arguably of slightly greater import than Klein, but there's no denying that many of today's marquee names would not have careers were it not for Klein's trailblazing, deadpan style. These four DVDs are housed on a pair of hinged, double-sided trays; a booklet with liner notes is tucked into the pocket Onto the specials ...
On Location: An Evening with Robert Klein (1975)
The set kicks off with Klein's first HBO special, filmed in the mid-'70s at New Jersey's Haverford College, which features some pretty amusing riffs on the then-nascent cable television format ("Shit! What a catharsis!") and one truly atrocious sweater. Klein's voice, notably (and obviously), is much higher than now. He's also clearly just getting his stand-up legs, as he opines about microphone technique and generally displays a rough charm that's endearing but would be refined out of later performances. Worth the price of admission if only to see Klein's iconic "I Can't Stop My Leg" close out his show (as it does on every single special here).
On Location: Robert Klein Revisited (1977)
With an interesting prelude that examines the cultural impact of Klein's 1975 HBO debut (and a fantastically dated "On Location" intro), this 90-minute special, taped at New York University, finds a far more confident Klein punching out a rapid-fire string of odd-ball observations. The funnyman even opens up a bit about his home life, revealing his side career as "an opera pimp." Oh, and his sweater is much tolerable in this performance -- and don't forget the much bluesier take on "I Can't Stop My Leg."
On Location: Robert Klein at Yale (1982)
Klein's third appearance on fledgling cable network HBO finds the comic returning to his alma mater, Yale University. He spends much of the special's opening moments recounting his days at Yale's drama school (Klein later bolted for the experimental opportunities of improv group Second City). The sweater sucks again, but the set design is markedly improved as is the breadth of his material; airlines, baseball, advertising and fishing all take a hit. Plus, "The Robert Klein Orchestra" lets the man get his Broadway-style sing on.
Robert Klein: Child of the 50's, Man of the 80's (1984)
Continuing a thread from his previous HBO appearance, Klein spends the beginning of his fourth special walking through the halls of his old Bronx high school, complete with a doo-wop number (Klein really does have a pretty great singing voice). His distinctive gravelly voice is beginning to show itself, he's upgraded to a smart-looking suit and this 58-minute gig finds the comic exploring parenthood, game shows and doling out a song or two (including, yes, "I Can't Stop My Leg").
Robert Klein on Broadway (1986)
The comedian's odyssey through his past continues during this fifth special, as he returns to the Great White Way, where he once earned a Tony nomination. It's a bigger, splashier affair, with Klein forced to roam an enormous stage and project to the back row. It diminishes Klein's intimate, jokey delivery a bit -- he really seems to function better in cozier environments -- but he still manages to deliver some solid laughs, particularly about religion and our country's obsession with its heritage.
Robert Klein: It All Started Here (1995)
Fast-forwarding a decade, Klein cheekily glances back 20 years to his very first HBO special, complete with cheeseball "On Location" intro. Clips from the first five specials open the show and it's a bit shocking to see how modern the set looks and also, how much older Klein appears. His once-thick hair has gone gray, but his wit hasn't dulled at all; he riffs on his age, of course, as well as the then-ongoing O.J. Simpson case, John Gotti and a retro version of "I Can't Stop My Leg."
Robert Klein: Child in his 50's (2000)
There are plenty of funny folks in the audience -- Richard Beltzer and Gilbert Gottfried are glimpsed -- and there's even a tongue-in-cheek cameo from Federico Castelluccio (Silvio from "The Sopranos"), a glaring reminder that, once upon a time, even one of television's most revered programs had to stoop to brain-dead stunts like this. Opening with the slow-jam "Colonoscopy," Klein's much more preoccupied with aging and the detritus of American pop culture (cooking shows, Disney and Viagra).
Robert Klein: The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue (2005)
Taking its name from the 2006 memoir of the same name, Klein's most recent stand-up special is paced in a similar fashion to Child in his 50's (opening with a song, consumed with reflections on modern-day annoyances and the past). It's an undeniably elegiac performance, drawing heavily from his autobiography and fusing his literary observations with his finely-honed wit.
All eight specials are presented in perfectly acceptable 1.33:1 fullscreen transfers that look progressively cleaner and sharper. The first three specials suffer from that dated, glare-y video look, but by the time 2005's special rolls around, it's crisp, vivid and free from any visual drawbacks. I could swear that HBO broadcast Klein's last couple specials in hi-def widescreen, but I could be wrong.
As with the visuals, the aural presentation is unremarkable but solid: Each special is outfitted with a Dolby 2.0 stereo track that conveys Klein's jokes and each audience's response with clarity and no distortion. The earlier specials are bit rougher, but never slip into unintelligibility.
In a disappointing call, the set is woefully thin on supplements. The lone extra is found on the fourth disc, a 42-minute interview featurette titled "A Conversation with Robert Klein," filmed in June 2007 and conducted, inexplicably, by Fox News anchor Alan Colmes. It's a loose affair, but hardly makes up for the fact that this set should have something a bit more substantive.
There's no denying that many of today's marquee comic names would not have careers were it not for comedian Robert Klein's trailblazing, deadpan style. Robert Klein: The HBO Specials 1975-2005 is a self-explanatory title, a four-disc set that houses all eight stand-up specials Klein has performed over the last 30 years for the now powerhouse network; the lack of extras, however, keep this collection from being an essential part of any comedy fan's collection. Recommended.