Rolling Stone by Bill Zehme
Hello and welcome. You have begun to read something we like to call the Albert Brooks Celebrity Profile. This is an exciting opportunity for you to learn about Albert Brooks, a man most experts believe to be the funniest human being currently living. You say, If Albert Brooks is so funny, why haven’t I seen more of him? The answer is not simple, but let me ask you this: Is it necessary to see more of someone in order to appreciate how funny he or she is? In fact, aren’t most people actually funnier in retrospect than they are when you’re with them? And whats funny, anyway? It’s a foolish word, when you think about it. Funny. How would you like to be called funny? It’s not exactly dignified, is it? Therefore, if people were running around calling you the funniest man alive, maybe you wouldn’t want to be making a public spectacle of yourself. Maybe you’d like a little privacy and prefer to stay at home and watch a great deal of television and think about death. Well, thats what comedian-auteur Albert Brooks has done, and now he’s ready to talk about it – just in time to coincde with the release of his fourth film in twelve years, Defending Your Life, in which he and Meryl Streep portray two very funny dead people.
Long ago, when life cost less, Albert Brooks roamed the earth. He had curly hair then, and his posture was rigid. Also he wore much plaid. Even so, he was merciless. If he came upon houses, he would bring them down. If he came upon aisles, he would force people to roll in them. The great hosts of television- Sullivan, Griffin, Carson- loosed him upon their viewing herds, and always he left them laughing. They laughed when he left, you see, because if he had stayed, audience members might have died or possibly suffered internal bleeding. Years later he would say, my biggest fear was of being too funny and murdering people by making them cough and winding up in a lawsuit.
And so he stopped.
He turned to film- not literally, of course, but as a career move. No longer would he speak before mobs or visit men with microphones on their desks. Immediacy bored him; he craved delayed response. He wondered, if I created a humorous concept today, would people laugh when they experienced it a year from now? What about three years? The challenge was irresistable. First, he made seven short films that aired on Saturday Night Live, a brand-new program for which he declined an offer to be the permanent host. (Such was his comic enormity.) In one film, Israel and Georgia traded places; In another, Albert ordered in broasted chicken. Then in 1979, Paramount released his first feature, Real Life, an echo of the classic PBS documenatry An American Family, in which he portrayed a comedian named Albert Brooks who spent months filming daily tedium in a Phoenix household until, desperate for action, he set it aflame. Two years later he unvieled Modern Romance, perhaps the finest film ever made about horrible behavior in love. His thrid film Lost in America, about a couple who give up everything to live in a Winnebago, succeeded in something its predecessors did not: Many people saw it. But never was he more visible than in Broadcast News, the movie made not by Albert Brooks but by his friend James L. Brooks, in which Albert delivered an Oscar-nominated performance as a brilliant network correspondant who sweats prodigously on-camera. (From The Larry King Show, on radio, last summer. Caller: how did you get all that sweat to pour from your head? Albert [in a rare media appearance]: They read me the back-end deal that I made.)
In between all of the others, he was nowhere to be found, unless you went over to his house.
Albert Brooks reinvents comedy:
ALBERT: Knock, knock.
YOU: Who’s there?
ALBERT: [Pauses, confused] I don’t – what do you mean?
I have never been to Albert Brooks’ house, and he has never been to mine. And yet, we have both been to other peoples homes. He is rigorously private and difficult to pin down without the help of several muscular men. Like many private persons, he has much to protect. One day, for instance, I ask him on the telephone to describe the contents of his refrigerator, since there would be no chance of me seeing for myself. He goes to look, then reports: chopped-up fruit. Melon and canteloupe. Spinach in a bag, which, by the way, is a great delicacy. Nonfat milk. Six truffles, a layer cake, a wedding cake and a human body.
He is known as Comedy’s Recluse. Imprisoned by impossibly high standards, he has become a show-business hermit. He is uncompromised, therefore unseen. As such he lives a hermits life, if hermits lived in the San Fernando Valley, had offices at Warners, drove Mercedes, ate great quantities of sushi and thrilled to the company of beautiful women. For the most part, however, he burrows in the handsome Sherman Oaks ranch home where he has dwelled for nine years. There, he will phone up friends and disguise his voice, pretending to be an angry neighbor or a law-enforcement officer. (Among those in his comically astute telephone circle: Richard Lewis, Carrie Fisher, and Rob Reiner.) Or he will watch television over the phone with many of these friends, instructing them in which channel to tune in. He then supplies detailed commentarty on what he sees, often while impersonating famous people. (His repertoire of mimicry is vast, ranging from Bob Hope to CNN anchor Bernard Shaw.) For example, as Rex Reed, Jessica Llllllange, marry someone else! You’re getting bad advice! As George Bush (his excellent Bush, friends point out, predated Dana Carveys version): Wanna preserve the right of the hunter. At the same time, don’t like to see those children shot. Maybe theres a compromise. Maybe we can send deer to school.
And when he can be no one else, he will resort to being a forty-three-year-old Jewish man who is always worried and who never laughs harder than when he is being laughed at. Or with. Or something.
Why he lives where he lives:
As long as I’ve been supporting myself, I’ve always lived in the Valley. And I think about leaving all the time. But I look at it like this: I pretty much would be living the same life wherever I lived. I’m always afraid that if I get too far away from show business, I wouldn’t do it anymore. If I moved to a little cabin somewhere, I’m afraid I could sit and do nothing for too long. Here, at least, I can watch people zoom right by me.
You Are There: the wrap party for Defending Your Life, May 1990, downtown Los Angeles. Mr. Brooks has taken over the large, swell club Vertigo for a full evening of celebration. Everywhere there is bounty: ice sculptures, grand buffets, free liquor, two bands, laughs aplenty. Mr. Brooks elects to arrive late, perhaps ninety minutes late, with his lovely female companion, the one called Cathy, a production coordinator on the movie. Now he is coming over here, propelled by his extraordinarily purposeful gait. His hangdog face betrays great discomfort. Now he speaks to you. I look around this room, he says, finally, and all I can do is wonder how this money could have improved my life.
From Albert Brooks’ Famous School For Comedians, a 1971 parody article he created for Esquire
Q: Is a life in comedy always fun?
A: No. But is anything always anything?
He is never on and his is never off. For this reason, he is considered less a comedian, more an oracle. His name is spoken reverently by those who know comedy. To them he is Albert, simply Albert. As if to say, We are here but he is Over There. His mind produces only pungent thought or, in essence, entertainment; there is no respite. Brain waves crash, pound, thunder and permit him only three, maybe four hours sleep- usually while the TV flickers in the darkness. ?t? disturbing, he says. if the last thirty dreams I’ve had, I?’ve been on that show Amazing Discoveries in twenty of them. It must be because it’s on at three in the morning. Or maybe I really do have a product to wash your car better than anyone else.
Of mind and man:
I don’t think of him as being on in the same way that comics are on, says nonrelative Jim Brooks, comedy impresario (The Simpsons, Broadcast News). I just think it bursts out of him. It’s his way of communicating. It’s him. His mind questions itself and never locks in. Listen, the big deal is never can you find a moment that wasn’t a moment of absolute integrity. Never did he do something because the money was right. He’s a comic artist, man. And he’s one of the great comedy directors.
Albert has always been one of the few people in my generation who has always been taken seriously in comedy, says Saturday Night Live godfather Lorne Michaels (the very fellow to whom Albert reportedly suggested the concept of different weekly guest hosts, having refused the full-time gig himself.) He plays to the top of the audience and he’s paid a price for it, but not too great a price. It’s very hard to get integrity late in life, and he’s had it from the beginning.
He has a huge brain, says actress Kathryn Harrold, who was the object of Albert’s affection in Modern Romance and, for a time thereafter, in life.
He’s almost too smart for his own good.
Billy Crystal once told a Playboy interviewer the following story about a birthday party for Rob Reiner, boyhood chum of Albert Brooks:
Albert Brooks had bought Rob some books. One was Stunts and Games. And Albert said, let me read you some of these things. Then he started making them up and reading them as if they were in the book: this ones called National Football League. Get thirty of your friends together, have them donate $5 million each to buy black people who can run and hit. Or Kennedy Assassination. Pretend you see smoke coming only from the Texas Book Depository, ignoring the man with the rifle in the tree standing next to you. I’ve probably never seen anyone funnier in my whole life. In fact, it was so funny that he had to leave immediately afterward. I felt sad that Albert couldn’t be a person; he had to leave.
Let us now ponder the Brooksian oeuvre, a small body of performances whose chief thematic link is desperation. Albert Brooks is the Desperate Man, a universally beset character crusading (mostly internally) for order and respect in a cold, capricous world. (Couldn’t this be a great world, he asked, in Broadcast News, if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?) Pauline Kael, who once admiringly likened Albert’s curled hair to brains worn outside of his head, has correctly observed, when he’s at his most desperate, he’s funniest. As with many desperate lives, his personal desperation was honed as a stand-up comic. But it was immortalized in the Seventies with a legendary Tonight Show appearance, wherein he announced that he had completely run out of material and proceeded to smash eggs into his hair, drop his pants, squirt himself with seltzer, rub poundcake on his face and stalk offstage, bellowing the caveat this isn’t the real me!
Likewise, in his films, he dares to be psychologically, um, persistent. In Real Life, he fought to keep his documentary of an ordinary family from boring itself to death by asking the wife to have an on-camera affair with him. In Modern Romance, he ended his relationship with Kathryn Harrold in the first scene and fought for the rest of the film to reinstate it. (Let me ask you something, his character, Robert Cole, says to Harrold’s character, Mary Harvard, after waiting for her to return from a date with someone else. If a persons not home, and you start driving around their house, and you drive around and around and around and around, and then you start driving around the city, and you’re going ninety miles and hour, and you call um every four seconds, and you don’t think about anything else, what is that? Is that not love?) In Lost in America, he was an adman who fought a lateral job transfer by dropping out of society to wander the country in a mobile home. Then when his wife (played by Julie Hagerty) immediately lost their six-figure nest egg in a Las Vegas casino, he begged the pit boss to return their money as a public-relations gesture, suggesting as a campaign jingle: The Desert Inn has heart! The Desert Inn has heart!
That distinguishes Albert’s work, says Jim Brooks, explaining the Essential Albert Truth, is that he totally sees how painful life can be. It? not like he? using humor as a cushion to make life more palatable. He’s using his comedy to get further inside the pain.
Which brings us to Defending Your Life, whose title, even, is the apotheosis of desperation. In the opening moments, Albert drives into a bus and dies. He awakens in Judgment City, where he must wear strange linen gowns and account for is earthly lot. If he proves that he faced up to his fears, he will ?ove forward in the universe and become smarter. If not, he will be reincarnated on earth and try again. Meanwhile, he meets Meryl Streep and together they frolic and play miniature golf in the afterlife.
Sure, it’s opimistic, says Albert, one afternoon in his Burbank office. None of it takes place here. And as death goes, all in all, he’d rather live in Judgment City. Nothing else ever made sense to me, and the only other thing I thought it might be was dirt, which I couldn’t get financing for. Two hours of dirt- no ones gonna really put up much money. But my father died when I was twelve years old, which does start one thinking, Gee, where did Dad go? I wasn’t looking for answers as much as ideas. And as I started to look at what are the few things that bind us- What would make me the same as somebody who lives in Haiti or Ethiopia or London? And basically, all human beings are frightened.
From A Star Is Bought, his classic 1974 comedy album:
[reading tip: Albert plays both roles.]
PSYCHIATRIST: Do you still feel you can buy your friends with laughter?
ALBERT: [Angrily] Let me tell you something. I know I don’t have to buy my friends with anything. I don’t need friends. I shouldn’t have friends. You don’t go into this business and expect friends. I am a loner, I must be a loner- thats what an artist is!
PSYCHIATRIST: You don’t believe that.
ALBERT: [Deflated} You’re damed right I don’t believe that. Help me, man, I’m sick.
He was born a joke.
His father named him Albert Einstein. And his mother did not stop his father from doing so. His father was Harry Einstein, a radio dialect comedian known as Parkyakarkus (as in park-a-your-carcass) who worked with Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. His mother is actress-singer Thelma Leeds. His older brothers were named Cliff (an adman) and Bob (a comic-actor), also known as deadpan-daredevil Super dave Osborne. Albert, however, was called Albert, a human punch line with no choice but to live up to the name. (He switched to Brooks when he started performing, since, he says, ?t sounded great with Albert. I tried Finney, but I got sued. I tried Prince, but it was taken. I tried Salmi and actually used it for two years.) They were the Einsteins of Bevery Hills adjacent, and showbiz was their life. Everyone was fighting for ten minutes at the dinner table, says Albert, with the youngest having the roughest time.
I think Albert’s fathers absence is at least as large an event as anything in his present, says a friend, writer Paul Slansky. Indeed, Albert covets memories of his father, wily, antic man, and shares them with zeal. We sat one morning in Arts Delicatessen, in Studio City, where he devoured matzo brie pancakes and regaled me with happy recollections. Like the time his family went to see the movie Peyton Place, and his father stood up at the end to sing loudly Suld Lang Syne with the cast. I’m pulling him down, saying, Dad, please!? Then there was a ritual of announcing to crowded restaurants that his youngest son was not eating his vegetables. We would take his knife and for ten seconds just hit on the water glass- alas, here Albert demonstrates- “until everyone was quiet. Then he’d say, ladies and gentlemen, my little boy here… By then, I am not only eating the vegetables, Is eating the farmer! I’ve gone back to the source. I’m eating all of agriculture.
His father died a great show-business death. He died onstage at a Friars Club roast, honoring Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. By this time, Harry Einstein was ill and semiretired but still an active Friar. It was a dais of legendary performers, says Albert, and my dad was on the dais and, the night before, I had helped him with his routine. He would talk very seriously and sincerely about the honorees and then miss their names: My closest friends in the world, Louise Bowls and Danny Arnaz! I never saw it, but he got up, and he was brilliant. It was elegant, and they screamed, and he sat down and passed on. Right there. They stopped the dinner and took him backstage- the classic is there a doctor in the house! They cut him open backstage, shocked him with a lamp cord.”
The interesting thing, he says, hopefully, Is that he finished. Thats what makes you believe in something. Whatever reason death comes, something is here to make us finish. He didn’t die in the middle of a line, and thats something.
The Impossible Turth! Did you know that:
Albert and Woody Allen once appeared on the same Merv Griffin Show! Afterward, Woody told Albert, you’re a funny man, Brooks. They have not spoken since, even though Albert has tried calling.
Once there were no young comedians! Sensing this, Albert gave up plans to become a young actor and embarked upon a life of young comedy. ?s an actor at nineteen, he says, I was one of a thousand. As a comedian, I was one of two! But first he completed three years at Carnegie Tech, in Pittsburgh.
His first Comedy Bit was that of the Worlds Worst Ventriloquist, whose dummy gurgled when Albert sipped water. Other early favorites, Al-bert the French mime, who described his every movement (how I am walking up ze stairs); Alberto the animal trainer, whose elephant was lost, forcing him to make do with a frog; and the impressionist whose every offering sounded like Ed Sullivan.
Albert is an accomplished pianist, owns a clown suit and holds ticket No. 70 on Pan Ams first flight to the moon, should one be scheduled. Hell, I’m only glad it’s not on Eastern, he says.
Albert will proudly tell anyone, I am one of the longest wearers of contact lenses in the country!
Often Albert’s friends haven’t known the last names of the women he dated- unless they were famous. Among these: Linda Ronstadt (they lived together), Candice Bergen, Julie Hargerty and Harrold, who fondly remembers Albert’s penchant for talking to livestock when driving through farmland. If he saw a cow, she says, he would always pull over and say, Hi, how are ya??
Albert has acted in other peoples movies: You may remember him as the annoying campaign aide in Taxi Driver, as Goldie Hawn’s dead husband in Private Benjamin; as the guy Dan Aykroyd eats in Twilight Zone- the Movie; and as conductor Dudley Moore’s manager in Unfaithfully Yours. On The Simpsons he was the voice of Marge’s amorous bowling instructor, Jacques.
Albert gave Michael Dukakis comedy lessons during his presidential campaign and wrote many jokes for the small governor. Dukakis, a reticent pupil, used only one. I was trying o get him to be a little self-deprecating, says Albert. The joke was, George Bush says it? time to give the country back to the little guy- here I am!?
So, I’m in trial for being afraid? Albert says in Defending Your Life.
To overcome fear, he had to make a movie about overcoming fear. Fear has kept him hiding. Fear kept him from showing up in public as Albert Brooks, which kept America from remembering that there still is an Albert Brooks. His Carson appearances are now gauzy memory. Prior to this film, he had been a guest on the Letterman show exactly once. He last performed live in the days of the druids. Woody, at least, makes a movie every year and is therefore difficult to forget. Steve Martin may never do stand-up again, but he sops media with aplomb. (Plus, unlike Albert, when Steve Martin is offstage, he is achingly sedate; a natural resource is not being wasted here.) Meanwhile, Albert’s idea of exposure is to call Larry King in the dead of night and claim to be a black decathlon athlete. People begin to talk.
There are people throughout Hollywood who for a long time have theorized that Albert is afraid of success, says comedian Harry Shearer, who coproduced A Star is Bought and co-wrote Real Life. I don’t think it’s that simple. From a standpoint outside of his head, it’s easy to say that Albert’s too protective of himself. Because he’s so good, you can bet that whatever it is that he’s afraid of is clearly not going to happen. He’s the comedian least likely to fail in a spontaneous situation, because he is so spontaneous. So it’s sad that those explosively spontaneous gusts of comedy that Albert is more capable of coming up with than anybody aren’t on public display. That side of him doesn’t come through in his movies, where he’s always extremely controlled. More than anybody else, he taught me the value of saying no in show business. But for my taste, he says it a little too often for his own good.
As cruel irony would have it, Albert once knew no fear. I was abnormally fearless, he confesses, almost ashamedly. I remember being offstage at The Ed Sullivan Show, talking to a friend on the telephone while I was being introduced! I wasn’t even talking about the show- I was talking about dinner! My friend said, hang up! You’re on! I said nonchalantly: Uh. Okay. I didn’t even think about it. I wish I could have gone through my whole life that way. But unfortunately, it caught up with me. One day I said, Jesus!! I was like the Road Runner. I ran a half-mile off the mountain, and then one day I looked down and went, Oh, my God!?
Wow, I don’t think the object is to have no fear; it’s to exist with fear. That seems healthy. To have no thought of fear isn’t brave; it’s a little crazy. Because when you finally do think of it, your equilibrium is thrown. The best combination is to say, this is scary and here I go.?
So, then, could he ever perform again?
I think it might be great fun to do it again, he says, as though he possibly believes this. Especially since life doesn’t hinge on it. I’m a director now, so I don’t have to be funny. One of the terrible things stand-up comedy can lead to, if you’re not careful, is that your life starts to hinge on your performances. If it doesn’t go well, your life stinks. I’d rather measure my life by my movies. Maybe I’ll film it. Be interesting to see.
He stops and smells his own lack of conviction. Edit this part out, he says, woeful and embarrassed. That was all bullshit. It doesn’t matter that I have another profession. It would still make me nervous. Because I still want it to be as good as it could be. And you couldn’t convince me that it was all right not to be good, just because I had another job. You know? It’s still the only game in town while you’re doing it.
An Epilogue: Because there is nowhere else to put it, he keeps some comedy to himself. Above the desk in Albert Brooks’ office there hangs a framed letter. Few visitors ever notice it, but that is inconsequential. Badly typed on New York Yankees stationery, the letter is dated August 5th, 1928, and is addressed to a Dr. Herbert Stevens, at Mount Sinai Hospital. It reads as follows:
Dear Dr. Stevens:
Last Sunday when I visited Tommy on the fourth floor, I promised him I would hit a home run. As you may have heard, I grounded out four times that day. I understand that little Tommy has since passed on. In the future, I won’t promise anything specific to the children. I’ll just do what I can.
Albert’s secretary typed the letter exacly as he had dictated it to her. She says that he has lately been asking her to find federal-prison stationery.