There are at least half a hundred incarnations of Albert Brooks, and all of them are funny.
There is the elephant trainer who has lost his elephant and now must get through his act using a frog instead. The trainer looms over the little fellow, urging him through his paces with a whip, trying to get the frog to perform such evergreen elephant stunts as Roll Over and Find the Peanut.
Then there is Dave, the hapless ventriloquist who tries to throw his voice while drinking a glass of water and ends up with a gurgling dummy. Or the comedian, running out of material, who demonstrates the techniques he could employ for cheap laughs: revealing funny pictures drawn on his chest or hitting himself in the face with a cake- a pound cake.
These cameos of desperation have been enacted over the past few years, usually on TV shows like Tonight, and have helped Albert Brooks, 29, win a reputation as the smartest, most audacious comic talent since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. Brooks traffics not so much in jokes as wild ideas, bits of madhouse theater. His material offers no snappy punch lines to repeat next day at the office. Brooks makes comic epiphanies out of the giddy, gruesome excesses of popular culture. Like some antic Pirandello, he uses comedy itself as a major object of satire.
Prenatal Work. Brooks tone is usually foxy and sardonic, but his technique varies according to where and how he is working. He will shape his material specifically for a medium the way a stand-up comedian will tailor a monologue to suit an individual audience. Making a guest appearance on a TV variety show, Brooks will contrive a bit like Dave the ventriloquist that will capitalize on the the occasion and parody it at the same time. says his friend, Director Steven Spielberg (Jaws): ?lbert is not only the funniest but the most visual humorist working today.
But Brooks has worked equally well in other areas. Once, asked to contribute an article to Esquire, Brooks cooked up a six-page illustrated catalogue for an institution called Albert Brooks Famous School for Comedians. The curriculum boasted lessons in such niceties of the profession as working with a Drummer and instructions in ?n occasional heartfelt sentiment to use between jokes. (You’re a marvelous human or you’re a real saint). He received more than 200 applications to the school.
Brooks fracturing assaults on the gilded traditions of show biz satirize both the medium and its message. His new album, A Star Is Bought- out barely a month and selling briskly enough to have found a berth on the charts- is entirely devoted to scoring big on show business? own unlikely terms. Each of the record? 16 cuts is specifically designed for maximum commercial air play on a different kind of radio station. There is, for instance, a ragingly patriotic lament for country-and-western stations on which the singer bitterly points out that ?e play The Star-Spangled Banner at ball games, but one team always loses, and for nostalgia stations a vintage 1943 situation comedy called the Albert Brooks Show, complete with station identifications and commercials for war bonds. Since Brooks was born four years later, he calls this final selection my prenatal work.
He was born, in any event, right into comedy. Brooks was one of the four sons of Harry Einstein, a radio dialect comedian who performed under the name Parkyakarkus. At 15, Albert had got up his own act (a short-lived double with Joey Bishops son Larry). At about the same time, he landed a job at KMPC in Los Angeles as a sportswriter, he made up most of the baseball scores. After studying acting for two years at Pittsburghs Carnegie Tech, he took the family name of Brooks and became a TV comedy writer on a show called Turn-On, which was canceled in 1968 after the first episode.
No Emotion. He took to performing shortly after this debacle. Even when he first started appearing on national TV he displayed startling self-confidence. He almost never auditioned any of his material before friends or tried it out, like most other comedians, in small clubs. There wasn’t time, he explains. I’ll get a TV shot and just go down and do the bit. Even today, Brooks seldom repeats a routing and does not keep a catalogue of any of his creations. Whatever has not been committed to vinyl or video tape remains unrecorded.
Brooks soberly maintains (you can hear him doing so, in fact, on A Star Is Bought) that “I don’t experience basic human emotions. It’s just not my thing.” His personal life, which includes Rock Singer Linda Ronstadt, is not readily revealed, although friends testify that Brooks never entirely abandons comedy in private. Singer Harry Nilsson recalls sleeping off a drunk one night on the floor at Brooks small house in the Hollywood hills. His host appeared before him dressed in a clown suit and whispered his name like a beckoning ghost. All In the Family’s Rob Reiner remembers going for a drive with his boyhood pal and getting lost. Brooks went into a field and asked directions back to Los Angeles from a cow. “It out to know,” Brooks reasoned. “It lives around here.”
Brooks comic turns have recently found new outlets. He has started to shoot a series of short films to be aired this fall by NBC on a new late-night comedy program. Last month he completed a months work acting in Taxi Driver, Director Martin Scorsese’s upcoming feature starring Oscar Winner Robert DeNiro as a psychotic New York cabbie. Brooks portrays the campaign aide of a politician about whom DeNiro develops a homicidal fixation. Scorsese added three extra scenes to capitalize on Brooks talents.
Brooks insists that he nurtures his ego and fends off depression with the aid of Ear-Laff, a tiny device resembling a hearing aid that he purchased from an outfit in the nether reaches of Los Angeles. Whenever he writes, works, or performs, Brooks stashes the thing in his ear, where it plays the continual, comforting sound of laughter.