- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005

THE AMOROUS BUSBOY

OF DECATUR AVENUE

By Robert Klein

Simon & Schuster, $24.95, 358 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Should a book by a funny man be funny? Or is that, as my old logic teacher would say, begging the question? Perhaps the better question is why do we buy books by funny people, comedians and monologists and TV ha-has like Ellen DeGeneris or Bill Cosby? Oops. Mr. Cosby’s another question for another day. In part we buy their books hoping to get a pleasure similar to what we get when we watch or listen to them. But we also buy them to find out what this “fool” (in the Shakespearean sense, of course) is really like. And sometimes we get what we pay for, as in the case of Robert Klein, aka “The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue.”

Rather than an elongated comic monologue or a string of favorite routines strung together, the book is a conventional memoir about coming-of-age in the 1950s and ‘60s. Or, if you will, it’s a story of what makes a funny man, rather than the very different question of what makes a man funny. The title rearranges the timeline. The amorous busboy refers to the job he had in the Catskills during college summers, whereas Decatur Avenue is the name of the street in the Bronx where little Bobby Klein grew up, up, and eventually away to the Broadway stage, improv and stand up work, television, and the rarified world of HBO specials.

By way of introduction, Mr. Klein writes “The subject that I have spent the most time learning about and know quite well is: me [so] the book is about the adventures of a child who becomes a young man: how he thinks and dreams and lusts and fears and laughs and handles adversity. Sound interesting? You bet.” Then comes the punch line: “So if you’re reading this in the bookstore and have come this far, don’t dare put it back on the shelf and fail to buy it. Mrs. Linda Bradstreet of Cummings, Minnesota, did just that and died of a virulent fever two days afterward. Harold Duggan of Sinclair, Maine, perused this book and read this very piece before he placed it back on the shelf and left the store. He was run down by a car … . Take no chances, buy this book.”

Given that Groucho-like opening, one might expect a lot more of the same. One would be wrong. And that’s, as our Martha would say, a good thing, because the foregoing example is not exactly LOL material. So I was pleased to see this relatively cerebral comedian abandon the silly stuff and get to the meat of his boy-to-man saga. The reader doesn’t have to be Jewish and from New York to identify with the author’s loving but exasperated description of his “cautious” parents: “In my sixteen years living in our apartment building, there was never a crime committed on the block. Nevertheless, when our doorbell rang, my sister and I were instructed to always ask, ‘Who is it?’ and never open the door unless there was a response and the respondent was someone known to us. Anyone else had to be viewed through the peephole in the double-locked steel door.”

One incautious moment, which indicates what kind of man the boy would become, occurred when the ferocious and intimidating Mrs. Graux, Mr. Klein’s fourth grade teacher, struck a girl who had the temerity to talk back. The next day, the girl’s immigrant father showed up in class unannounced, demanding to know why she’d hit his daughter. The teacher flatly denied it, and then turned to the class and asked if anyone had seen her hit their fellow student.

Only Robert Klein, her pet, had the courage to say yes, he had, whereupon she screamed at him furiously and ordered him out of class. To his shame, not only did he cry, but he wet his pants. “I never told my parents or anyone else about the affair for over twenty years. The story came out of me casually when I was 30” on the couch of a psychiatrist who “found it incomprehensible that I had forgotten the story and did not see its importance.” Finally, he receives praise for doing a right and noble thing that was hardly the act of a cautious child.

High school found Robert part of a singing group called the Teen Tones, which gave him his first real taste of peer and then public approval. His first real taste of the world of adult pleasures — sex — came at 15 when he and two close friends went up to 112th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem and, ah, paid for it.

Recently, while appearing at the Washington Improv as a warm-up for his next HBO special, Mr. Klein told the same story. It’s a toss-up as to which version is funnier.

College at Alfred University, where Mr. Klein got seriously into acting, was followed by acceptance in the prestigious Yale School of Drama where one of his classmates was Jimmy Burroughs, son of the brilliant Abe, then the writer-director of the Broadway hit “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

“Jimmy took me to the show about ten times,” writes Mr. Klein, “and we sat in the aisle, stood, or watched from the wings. I met Bobby Morse, Michelle Lee, Donna McKechnie, and a bevy of beautiful dancers smelling of perfume and makeup. I met Charles Nelson Reilly smelling of perfume and makeup … . I couldn’t get enough of Morse and his virtuoso performance, which, as far as I could tell, broke all of [his Drama School teacher’s] acting rules.”

The yearning for this kind of life — and sooner rather than later — became too much for Robert Klein, and the next year he left Yale without his degree to join Chicago’s famous Second City improvisational company. Fourteen months later, he was back in New York and some success in small roles on Broadway, followed by his first shot at Los Angeles and network television with a five minute spot on “The Dean Martin Show,” then a big hit. By this point, we’ve reached page 342. I could tell you how it ends, but that would be giving away the punch line.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wish Mr. Klein had been a little more discrete when recounting his many loves and sexual conquests because he’s so specific about time and place and physical characteristics that anyone who knew him will have to know them, despite his telling us he’s changed their names. That kind of reality makes me nervous on behalf of the “non-celeb.” There are also some annoying writing habits, like never using “pot” when “cannabis sativa” will do. And “peruse” (see above) does not mean what he apparently thinks it does.

Still, I laughed a lot, learned a good deal, and, like the recent night at the Improv, was thoroughly entertained. At the end of this highly readable account of one interesting young man’s road to the cusp of celebrity, Mr. Klein is still only 25. You just know this is the first book in a series. What you don’t know is long the series will run. I’ll tune in for at least one more episode.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and author of “Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.”


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