ALBERT BROOKS as Albert Brooks dons a clown’s costume to lift the spirits of Frances Lee McCain and Charles Grodin, whose lives have been disrupted by a filmmaking group which has moved in with their equipment to record their lives in Paramount Pictures’ new comedy, Real Life.
Brooks directed and wrote the screenplay with Monica Johnson and Harry Shearer. The film was produced by Penelope Spheeris, exective producers Norman Epstein and Jonathan Kovler.
Gifted Comedian Albert Brooks Brings his Creativity to Motion Picture Screen with Paramount’s Real Life.
“I was the class clown, the school clown, the city clown, the clown of the year,” Albert Brooks says. “I guess many people thought of me as a clown.” Brooks, who has a loyal following of fans who know him from his numerous Tonight Show appearances and his work on the first season of Saturday Night Live, has now brought his comedic gifts to the motion picture screen with Paramount Pictures’ Real Life. The movie tells the story of what happens when a filmmaking group moves in with an average American family and tries to turn their lives into a major motion picture. It’s going to win for Brooks a legion of new fans.
He was born in Los Angeles on July 22, 1947. The son of radio comedian Harry Einstein (better known as Parkyakarkus), Albert grew up in Beverly Hills. While attending Beverly Hills High, Brooks formed a comedy team with Joey Bishop’s son Larry; he also worked as a sportswriter at KMPC, where he made up all the scores before the games were over. After graduating, he briefly attended Los Angeles City College, where he had a radio show that was broadcast to the campus nutrition shack. “The great thing was to watch all the kids who had radio shows,” he recalls, “because as soon as the mike went on, they talked like it was the world – ‘Okay, how’re you all doing out there?’ – and at most there were four people listening.”
By 1966 Brooks had started performing in summer stock with his friend Rob Reiner, and he transferred to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh for its drama department. “It has a great arts department and great engineering department,” he says of the school. “Strange campus mixture, artists and engineers. It’s probably the last time they’ll ever meet.” Two years later, he left college and returned to Los Angeles to begin his career.
An appearance on a local television show led to a spot on the syndicated Steve Allen Show in 1968, on which he performed his ventrilioquist parody, “Danny and Dave.” Greg Garrison, producer of The Dean Martin Show, signed Brooks as a regular on the Martin summer replacement show, Gold-diggers of ’69. “He said to me, ‘I like you, you got any other stuff?’” Brooks remembers. “I didn’t at the time, but of course I said yes. I went home and though, okay, I’m going to do this for a living now, I’d better get down to it.”
Guest spots on the Merv Griffin, Dean Martin and Ed Sullivan shows led inevitably to The Tonight Show, on which Brooks has appeared more than 25 times. His routines, almost all of them lampooning some aspect of show business, have included: a mime who narrated every move he made; an impressionist whose imitations all sounded uncannily like Ed Sullivan; a band leader whose band didn’t show up, and an elephant trainer who, thanks to the illness of his elephant, was forced to do his act with a frog.
In 1972 his first film, and adaptation of his Esquire “Famous School For Comedians” article, appeared on PBS’ Great American Dream Machine.
“I’ve always thought that the best way to do comedy is to make audiences laugh the way you can make small groups of people laugh in your living room,” he says. “Very intimately, so that their sides hurt. Just talking to them.” On one of his Tonight bits, he offered to perform in the home of anyone willing to pay a nominal fee.
During the early ‘70s, Brooks performed in clubs around the country, but the grind of touring finally got to him. “Albert,” says Carl Reiner, “is one of those guys who is so creative that the fact that he has to say the same material more than once is very discomforting to him.” He gave it up after three years.
“I just kind of stopped,” Brooks says. “You know, you always wonder how you’re going to move into something else, how is it going to happen, when is it going to happen, and the more stand-up comedy I was doing, the more I felt that it was never going to happen. So I stopped doing all the things I didn’t want to do, and started doing only the things I wanted to do.”
These things included his Grammy-nominated second album, “A Star Is Bought” (co-written and co-produced by Harry Shearer), and his first film role, as the campaign worker in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. In 1975, Time Magazine called Brooks “the smartest, most audacious comic talent since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.”
“The best thing about being a comedian,” Brooks says, “is that if you can make people laugh, you’re a success. I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘This guy’s just too damn funny, get him out of here.’”
Brooks made six films for the first season of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, including the legendary “Super Season,” a parody of network promotion spots for which he conceived, and shot scene for, three “new” shows. (The idea for one of them, centering on a young guy living with two women, turned up a few years later as the premise for ABC’s Three’s Company).
Brooks has spent the past three years out of the public eye working on Real Life. In March 1976 he got together with Harry Shearer and Monica Johnson to write a screenplay.
“We started with another idea, a pseudo-est thing,” says Shearer, “but Albert just didn’t feel comfortable being a Werner Erhard-type guy. After three weeks of working on it, he said, ‘I don’t think I can do this, it doesn’t feel right,’ so we stopped. The next day he came in with the idea about filming a family’s life. The whole idea of the camera as being somehow unintrusive and capable of finding the truth is ridiculous, and people should be reminded of it.”
The script was finished in November, and Brooks devoted the next eight months to raising the money for it. Real Life, with Brooks starring and directing, was shot in six weeks (in Los Angeles and Phoenix) during November-December 1977.
“Directing was second nature to him,” says Penelope Spheeris, the producer (Norman Epstein and Jonathan Kovler served as executive producers). “All actors love direction, they love to be told, and Albert likes to tell.”
“Albert is a very easy-going director,” says Charles Grodin, who co-stars in the film. “The whole set had a wonderful, loose feeling. This movie just embraces his kind of mind, it’s a perfect picture for him to have made. I’m a big admirer of a lot of people around, but there’s no one I enjoy as much as I do him.”
The editing took seven months. “I had worked with Albert before, on the Saturday Night Live films, so I was familiar with what I was getting myself into,” says David Finfer, the editor. “He’s a perfectionist dealing with a world of imperfection. Albert is a child of computers, and he can’t understand why things are so archaic, why it takes so long to get things done.” Adds Spheeris: “He’d spend hours on a single thought like, ‘Should I use an eight-second dissolve at the end of this scene?’ Hours and hours and days, you know, calls in the middle of the night…”
Brooks’ involvement extended through the making of the trailer and the TV and radio spots. “It’s been three years from beginning to end – if in fact this is the end,” he says. “It’s not definite yet, but it looks like we’ve got an offer to manufacture Real Life food. The Real Life clothing line looks pretty good, and we’re in the beginning stages now of talking about a Real Life car – but that’s in the distance.”
From the Real Life press kit, Paramount Pictures, 1978