The new documentary Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg, airing now on Starz, is a fitting tribute to Klein, once famous for his garrulous observational humor and numerous HBO stand-up specials. The film, directed by Marshall Fine, does an excellent job of reintroducing Klein to a generation younger than the comedian’s: Klein is now a hale and hearty 75 years old.
For that new audience, it bears explaining that the title of the documentary refers to one of Klein’s once more-famous routines, a parody of a blues song delivered by the comedian with harmonica self-accompaniment. Look at the performance now, and you get a sense of what initially appealed about Klein: his gravelly voice and energetic delivery, which introduced a fast-talking comic who distinguished himself from his comic idols — Lenny Bruce, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jonathan Winters — with his rapid-fire articulation and sharp eye.
The film brings on a slew of big-name comics who cite Klein as an influence and force of nature: Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Jay Leno, and Billy Crystal all attest on-camera to Klein’s impact on their own stand-up careers. Can’t Stop My Leg spends much of its time following Klein around in the present day, and he proves an affable narrator of his own life, visiting his hometown in the Bronx, and reminiscing with friends including an equally first-rate comedian and comic actor, Fred Willard.
Klein has a lot of range. While making his initial impact as a stand-up — recording a number of best-selling comedy albums including the still-funny Child of the 50s — he also went on to star on Broadway (Tony-nominated for his lead role in the 1979 Neil Simon musical They’re Playing Our Song). Like a lot of stand-up comedians, he’s also a good actor, although he never quite found the sort of roles that would bring him film prominence. There’s a tart moment in Can’t Stop My Leg when a bunch of teenage girls start following Klein because he’s being filmed as he walks down a street, yet they have no idea who he is. He tries to help jog memories of him that they do not possess — their little ah-ha moment occurs when he cites his small role in a movie they know: the Kate Hudson rom-com How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days.
One achievement of Can’t Stop His Leg is that it avoids having such moments seem sad or pathetic; instead, it just makes Klein look more genially indomitable. Looking at a TV screen at his own cameo in Sharknado 2, he turns to the documentary camera and snaps, “I gotta make a living, don’t I?” Spoken like a man who always knows how to please an audience.
Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg is airing now on Starz.
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