Robert Klein Works a Couple of Jersey High School Proms

Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives. June 7, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 23

Class of '73: Save the last dance for anyone but me by Blair Sobol

How could i refuse an offer to go to two proms in one week? Especially when one was in Newark and the other was in East Brunswick, New Jersey. After all, I never went to my own prom eight years ago and thought the whole ritual got dumped on during these "self-awareness" days of weed and poppers. It's already been a notable sign of the times that most New York City schools have canceled their year-end Commodore celebrations. And frankly I couldn't see today's kids having a reason to go (not even as camp nostalgia).

The only reason we went to proms in the past was to revel in the long awaited end of our high school days and the beginning of our so-called new life as "classy collegiates." (Even though most of us either still hadn't received that "fat enveloped" June acceptance or were already rejected by all our choices, including our "back-ups" like Harcum Junior College and Katherine Gibbs's Two Year "Refresher" program.)

But today's kids don't even care who graduates, and going to college is considered no big change-of-life-deal. Of course the other prime purpose of proms was the hope of getting laid for the first time. The thought was that we could stay out all night (watching the sunrise was the excuse and usually it rained), vomit up 20 cans of Colt 45, and then maybe score (or at least get felt up with top off andor pants down but shoes always on) in some friend's basement appropriately labeled the "family room" or "game room." Yet most of the kids today have already had that experience under their belt by the time they're 13. And if they haven't gotten it over with in elementary school, then there's always ninth grade and the class field trips to the local juice bar. So what, why, and wherefore proms? (Even the word "prom" sounds so archaic.) Or are the new young Newarkers and East Brunswick Breed into some fresh form of perverse amusement that we don't know about?

Comedian Robert Klein an I were trying to get a handle on the problem. He was performing at both events, not because he's into playing the prom circuit or Concord catered affairs but because he's into plugging his "Child of the '50s" album which is already a hit with the people who experienced school in the '50s and ironically as big a laugh for those who are graduating in the '70s. Actually, Klein's material is brilliantly universal and most 18-year-olds can relate to it, except for a brief shtick on old tv shows ("My Little Margie" has long since finished its daytime reruns) and a line or two about the embarrassment of finding contraceptives in your father's drawer (nowadays it's more the father's embarrassment at finding a compact of pills in his kid's drawer). At any rate, both New Jersey proma audiences, and even the toupeed and tanked social studies teachers/chaperones, found him highly amusing. Almost as amusing as we found them.

...We were ushered into a windowless cell downstairs next to the men's room to wait. We sat on the floor and stared at each other for 25 minutes, after which the door opened and Karen, Sharen, Patsy, and "Fatsy" (the prom directress and the entertainment committee) came in to gleefully check on their talent. Again Klein was cordial, kidding and complimenting the girls on their dresses, mustard seed drop necklaces, and corsages. Then a Mr. Fensterwald (physics teacher and class adviser) arrived and shook Robert's hand firmly and hoped Robert understood the audience. "You see I've never seen your act so I don't know your humor." Klein assured him in his substitute teacher tone of voice he could handle the group. Klein deftly filled the silent pauses with idle chatter, and Fensterwald (who had the with-it Watergate appeal of a Haldeman or Ehrlichman) over-reacted to every word with hiccups of hysteria. "Isn't he funny Sharen, Karen?" Suddenly his mouth slanted down in schizoid seriousness as he asked Robert to pose in a picture "for the record." They locked arms, Mr. Fensterwald said "cheese," and then with the flash of the bulb he disintegrated. Only to be replaced by the Pine Mansion manager dressed in a dubonnet knit suit, orange tie, and tortoise shell hair. He came over to tell Klein he didn't know whether they had the right "performing set-up" (let alone three chairs we could sit on in our cell). It seems the sound was a bit off and the spotlight shaky. "By the way, what do you do? See I never get out of this place so I never watch tv." Klein took all this in professional stride and sent his stage manager/pianist Phil Goldston upstairs to check on it.

...He finally went on and started off smoothly. But this time the room was shaped in an awkward L so that 200 people could hardly see him. The mike was too short and though he tried to wring the stand loose he ended up having to stand in a semi-crouch for most of his act. During his dogshit riff the spotlight went out -- which might have been someone expressing his personal feeling about Klein or dogshit or both. A quartet of sad-eyed girls kept wandering about obviously estranged and looking for an early ride home. Up against the back wall five glossy Desi Arnaz, Jr., look-alikes (described to me as the "town toughies" but not of the motorcycle ilk) were trying to play it cool by drumming up their dates bare back cleavages and looking for some tittered reaction either from the girls or one another as to who could do the sexiest finger pattern. Meanwhile Klein got the biggest hand with his sex dreams, commercial imitations, and his graffiti experiences of teachers having to change all the bathroom F's to P's. AFter 35 minutes though, the kids were sinking but Klein was consistent.

Twenty minutes later we dashed out of the plastilene Pine paradise and headed for Klein's Upper West Side apartment to catch him on CBS's "Midnight Special." On the way we tried dissecting the New Jersey kids one more time. We were still baffled at the straightness and how it seemed as if nothing had changed since we were in high school. But then maybe we are used to Quaalude-crazy, dope dealing, no shit sophisticated Big City Kids. Yet East Brunswick isn't exactly Des Moines. Or is it? By the time we reached Klein's apartment and sat around with his wife Brenda and friends watching him get legit knee-slapping laughs (not canned) from an L.A. studio audience, we all decided he was a trouper to have done the prom gigs in the first place. But more than that, we all praised the unknown person who coined the phrase "West of Elizabeth, New Jersey, it's a whole other world."

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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