The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue:
A Child of the Fifties Looks Back
By Robert Klein
Touchstone/Simon and Schuster,
* * *
‘I was raised on chicken soup,” comedian Robert Klein wails in one of his signature song parodies, “Middle-Class Educated Blues.” In his startlingly candid memoir, Klein reveals other, more carnal sources of nourishment that helped sustain him during his remarkable journey from “class clown” of the provincial Bronx — a wise-ass teenager simmering with sexual curiosity and raging libido at the end of the Eisenhower 1950s — to the fledgling standup comic just starting out at the threshold of the turbulent 1960s.
Looking back after a successful 40-year career in show business, Klein offers his own Bronx tale as exemplary of the emergent postwar generation’s struggle to break from the stifling expectations of middle-class conformity. Yet, unlike his classic 1973 Grammy-nominated comedy album, “Child of the Fifties,” his new book, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue,” resists appeals to mere sentiment or the salve of hazy nostalgia. Clear eyed, with a historically informed recognition of the ethnic and social conditions that shaped his bounded northwest Bronx world, he draws on still vivid memories of the old neighborhood, anchored by his Art Deco building on 3525 Decatur Avenue (east of Jerome Avenue, just north of Gun Hill Road), as a self-contained, safe territory where, he reports, there was “a comfortable, familiar sense of order and loyalty.”
Life in 1950s Bronx meant “a vertical existence” in Klein’s view. “For us apartment-dwellers life was an up-and-down affair.” If Brooklyn Jews remain “an island people,” as he explained recently to Larry King, Bronx Jews maintain a certain pride in their spatial identity as “a mainland people,” a hardy folk with geographic ties to a beckoning world outside, beyond the Bronx. Thus Klein emerges in this memoir as a partisan anthropologist of “Bronx” ways of being, a homeboy celebrant of his beloved borough.
The core narrative of “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue” charts a young man’s flight from the Jewish middle class through the discovery of his deepest self: the recognition, portrayed as a virtual epiphany, of his true calling as an actor/comedian; really, his need to be funny in order to gain access to “Joe College” fraternities, and to women; above all, the performing of shtick as a way to win the acceptance of his “living room” comedian father, “that daddy who ranged from the funniest person I’d ever known to a brooding, angry, extremely stubborn man.”
Significantly, the emotional turning point in Klein’s memoir involves the charged encounter between his chronically angry father, Ben, and the younger Klein’s sophisticated older German girlfriend — who worked at the German pavilion during the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and with whom he came to share a consuming passion for Bach and unbridled sex. For Klein père, Elizabeth Schmidt symbolized the still raw memories of Hitler and the concentration camps; in their powerfully dramatized exchange, uptown, from within the safe precincts of Decatur Avenue, the father projects, with a spiteful vengeance, the Jews’ collective historical hurt. In the end, however, through her own substantial powers of empathy and complex generational consciousness, Elizabeth tempers Ben Klein’s raging heart, to the stunned admiration of a worried Klein fils.
After this heart-wrenching, indeed climactic episode, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue” devolves, more or less, into anecdote and celebrity name-dropping. We follow Klein’s early career with the famous Second City comedy troupe in Chicago (where we witness a show-biz battle of egos between established comic David Steinberg and a brash, cocky Klein); his first legitimate role on Broadway in Mike Nichols’s production of “The Apple Tree” (and, later, his fascination with Robert Morse’s antic, charismatic performance in “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”); the shock and despair when, on the threshold of his first nationally televised standup gig (on the popular “Dean Martin Show”), the show’s producers, feeling that the young comic’s material was not funny, canceled his appearance. The narrative ends with Klein’s career-altering relationship with Rodney Dangerfield, who became a stand up mentor and (perhaps) surrogate father to the young comic in his search for approval and a role model.
Ultimately, however, Klein’s affecting memoir resists taking the necessary (if harrowing) journey into the roiling center of the comedian’s raging psyche, leaving the deeper sources of the high art of stand-up comedy shrouded. Klein’s reluctance is curious, given his own self-conscious transitional identity in the profession’s sacred history. Born too late to be ranked among the New York Friars Club fraternity of “boy-man schlemiel” comics (as famously described almost 40 years ago by Albert Goldman), the legendary cohort who invented the “desecratory” antic Jewish “spritz,” Klein nonetheless imbibed aspects of their mode of “observational” humor, above all the intimacies of Jewish wit associated with the insider pleasures of Borscht Belt verbal artistry. At the same time, he honed his acting abilities at Yale School of Drama and enhanced his brilliant improvisational skills at The Second City. By the early 1970s, Klein’s comedic talent combined a Lenny Bruce-inspired free association style while summoning his own anarchic riffs of verbal abandon with an actor’s self-consciousness of — and respect for — the art of improvisation. The result amounted to a revolutionary breakthrough in the art of performing standup comedy
Yet for all its amorous tales of a Bronx boy’s pre-Alexander Portnoy adventures in sexual discovery, for all its honesty about 1950s Jewish family life, “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue” leaves us peering through an opaque window into apartment 6F, on the sixth floor of 3525. In the end, the archaic origins of Robert Klein’s influential style of comedy remain mysterious. But who, after all, can account for funny bones? I, for one, suspect that they still reside somewhere in that living room, where Ben Klein created the schmaltzy routines that continue to haunt Robert Klein’s spiritual Bronx soul.
Donald Weber is the author of “Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture From Cahan to the Goldbergs,” published recently by Indiana University Press.