Robert Klein and the Elevator Fart.Posted: February 11, 2010
This story takes place in three time periods. The seventies, the nineties, and now.
The elevator fart happened in the nineties. But the story can’t be told without the other two decades.
To begin at the beginning…Robert Klein was my comedic idol. He combined observational humor with a countercultural attitude that made him the preeminent comic of his generation. Even George Carlin professed to be influenced by him. Jerry Seinfeld has acknowledged a debt. So have dozens of other comics. Klein could be political (saying what needed to be said about Nixon, but funny), or he could be a smart social satirist, or he could just be silly. His act was a thing of beauty, a perfectly structured work of art. I saw him at a club in Chicago called The Quiet Knight, on Belmont Avenue under the el tracks, in 1975 or thereabouts. At the end of his set my face was literally in pain from the rictus of a grin that had been plastered across it for the previous ninety minutes. It took hours for the pain to go away. “I laughed so much I hurt” was literally true.
To me, Robert Klein was a god among men.
Slow dissolve to the mid-1990s.
I am in Los Angeles on a commercial shoot, staying at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny Drive. My room is on the eighth floor. It is morning. I press the button for the elevator to go down to the lobby. The elevator arrives, and it is empty—except for a foul smell. The smell of a human gaseous expulsion, or, to put it bluntly, a fart. I get into the elevator, not thinking of too much other than that I will soon be in the lobby and away from the unpleasantness.
I don’t think about the possibility that on the way down, the elevator will stop at the fifth floor and Robert Klein will get on.
But he does.
And he looks at me with disgust. The man I idolize among all other men thinks that I farted in an elevator.
Why didn’t I just say, “Hey, it wasn’t me, man”? I have asked myself that question a thousand times since that day. I don’t have an answer. I think I was just frozen in humiliation at the thought that Robert Klein thought I farted in an elevator, and that I went into some kind of insane denial in my own mind that this whole sequence of events was happening at all.
Slow dissolve to last week. Robert Klein is playing at Zanie’s, a Chicago comedy club that goes back more than twenty-five years. He is on the road, getting an act together for an upcoming HBO comedy special.
We go. We are sitting in the second row, probably not more than five yards away from him. I am sitting on the aisle.
My face is literally in pain from the rictus of a grin that is plastered across it for more than an hour.
His set completed, he leaves the stage, and walks next to me, since I am sitting right next to the lane by which comedians walk to and from the stage.
As he passes, he puts his hand on my shoulder. I feel that I have received absolution. I know what the hand on the shoulder means. It means, “Hey man, I know it wasn’t you who farted in that elevator. I’ve known it all along. We’re cool.”
I am so sure that this is what his gesture means that I don’t feel the need to bring it up when, after the show, I buy a copy of his memoir (The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue) and have him sign it. I do consider it. I do consider saying, when he asks me how I want my book inscribed, to reply, “To Ted—I know it wasn’t you who farted in that elevator.” But I think that he will think I am stark raving mad, so I don’t. I do tell him about my wonderful memories of him at The Quiet Knight, and we have a nice conversation about that, and he tells me something else about his book, treating me not like a fan but like a friend, which I am.
I decide to just go with the knowledge that we have a secret understanding about the whole fart thing. He signs my book, “To Ted, from Robert Klein.”
But just in case: Robert Klein, if you ever Google yourself and come upon this blog post, now you know. It wasn’t me, man.