Meeting of the Comedy Minds

ShoWest award-winners Brooks and Johnson find lots of love with Mother.
The Hollywood Reporter By Jerry Roberts

He was born with the name Albert Einstein. She’s been married nine times and says that, in her younger years, being a medical assistant and a go-go dancer was my dream, but the writing thing came up. Is it any surprise that the two would team to write some of the wittiest, most off-the-wall film comedies of our time?

When writer-director-actor Albert Brooks and writer Monica Johnson take the stage tonight in Las Vegas to accept the 1997 ShoWest Screenwriter of the Year Award, it will mark yet another hard-earned validation for the writing duo. Since they first teamed in 1979 for Real Life, Brooks and Johnson have dazzled movie audiences with such droll classics as Modern Romance; Lost in America; The Scout; and this winter’s Paramount Pictures son-returns-to-mama opus, Mother. (All the films also starred and were directed by Brooks, save the Michael Ritchie-directed Scout.)

Though comedy aficionados have been singing the praises of the team for years, the ShoWest award is somewhat of a milestone for Brooks and Johnson. I’m shocked. We’ve never before been recognized [by] the business world, says Johnson. Partner Brooks adds, in his trademark deadpan fashion: I’m pleased. It’s tough to make an exhibitor laugh.

Critics and audiences have been laughing along with Mother since its release on Christmas Day of last year. The film earlier won Best Screenplay honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. Mother follows a two-time divorcee, played by Brooks, who moves back in with his mother, played by Debbie Reynolds in one of the more inspired casting decisions of the year. Their household relationship easily settles into one that feeds off the foibles and emotional wounds of familial baggage. The adult son-aging mother dynamic has probably never been transferred to the screen in such an exacting and funny way as it has in Mother.

Sherry Lansing, chaiman and CEO of Paramount’s motion-picture unit, says that the studio is thrilled with the results from Mother. The film proves that, if you do a picture for a reasonable price, you don’t have to gross $100 million. The humor is smart, intelligent. It strikes a chord of truth. We’re very proud of this movie and that the writers are getting due credit.

Like many great comedy writing teams, Brooks and Johnson have backgrounds that are, in some ways, remarkably similar. They were born into households where showbiz ran through the bloodlines.

Brooks is the son of radio comic Harry Einstein. The elder Einstein was heard on Mutual Radio’s meet Me at Parkys as the Greek-dialect character Parkyakarkus. Einstein also served a stretch as Eddie Cantor’s radio partner. When son Albert left Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, the younger Einstein says he changed his name to Brooks “for obvious reasons, as you can imagine.

After college, Brooks, who grew up in Beverly Hills with chums Rob Reiner and Richard Dreyfuss, returned to Los Angelos and soon found comedy maven Herb Nanas. He walked into my office one morning in 1969 and stayed for six hours. I never laughed so hard or so long in all my life, remembers Nanas, who became Brooks agent and is now his manager.

Brooks became a stand-up comedy hit on college campuses and ubiquitous on such TV variety programs as The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Hollywood Palace. In 1975, he turned down a shot at being permanent host of a show that NBC was about to debut: Saturday Night Live. Brooks had other plans; he really wanted to direct.
His first effort had been Albert Brooks Famous School For Comedians, which he made for the 1973 PBS series ?he Great American Dream Machine. He would go on to direct six short films for the debut 1975-76 season of SNL. Concurrently with SNL, he made his memorable film-acting debut as a political campaign worker in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. His other acting roles include Private Benjamin, Twilight Zone- The Movie, Unfaithfully Yours, Broadcast News (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and I’ll Do Anything.

Brooks is an actor, writer and director of comedy that demands an audience with some degree of intelligence. His cinematic efforts have never drawn the type of mass following that broader-based comedies are prone to attract (his highest domestic-grossing film as a director prior to the still-in-release Mother is Defending Your Life- written sans Johnson-that topped out at $16.4 million). But as pal Reiner explains, some comedy just can’t be served before its time.

My dad (Carl Reiner) was once guest hosting The Tonight Show, remembers Reiner. Albert comes on and does this routine where he plays a mime who won’t shut up- Here I am pulling the rope! kind of stuff. So Albert does his act, and the audience is totally silent. They don’t get it. A few weeks later, Johnny Carson is back, and he asks Albert back on. I ask him what he’s gonna do. The mime piece, Albert says. I reply that he’s nuts. The bit just laid there. He says, but it’s funny. So he does it again, and once again the audience is totally silent. But Carson, whose never seen it before, suddenly busts out laughing. He laughs so hard he falls off his chair. By the end of Albert’s bit, the people were screaming. It just goes to show that it takes a while for people to get good comedy.

Brooks and Johnson have been writing together for a long while- they first met back in 1976. She was writing a pilot for Sally Field, and he was working for Saturday Night Live, he says Johnson had never heard of him. We had offices in the same building in the old Goldwyn Studios in West Hollywood. What started us writing together was that we would share ideas we each had. Then we decided we liked each others style. My mother is kind of like Albert. When [my mother] heard I was a writer she said, you mean they actually let you in the studio?

Johnson, who claims she never considers herself funny- I just have a funny voice!- was born Monica Lenore Belson Jr. and grew up in California? Imperial Valley. The junior Monica is the sister of Jerry Belson, the screenwriter of Smile, The End and Always.

Though her brother waited until he finished high school to bolt the Imperial Valley for Los Angeles, sister Monica had other plans. I didn’t finish school. I traveled around Europe, [then came Los Angeles] and started go-go dancing at the Whisky and Gazzaris, she says. Ilove to dance, and I love to be watched while dancing. Men like it when you wear less clothes.
Johonson’s showbiz break came when she started typing brother Jerry’s scripts. I would rewrite things, and sometimes he really liked the changes, she remembers. But sometimes he’d get real pissed off. Belson insists his anger was short-lived. I think she understands characters very well. She’s been married to so many of them, he says of the sister whose nine husbands (including a soap-opera actor, a clock maker and a cable-TV executive) have enabled her to fashion memorable characters for TVs, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Laverne and Shirley, The Garry Shandling Show and the 1979 feature Americathon.

When they get together to create, Brooks and Johnson are among the few writers who don’t work in front of a typewriter or word processor. They talk into tape recorders, have the tapes transcribed, and then pencil edit the results. I don’t find it unusual at all, Johnson says of their modus operandi. I type when I do a script solo, but with Albert, all we have is a set of cards with the story structure on them. A lot of times we drive around up on Mulholland Drive. We can hear the movie before we see it. It’s an advantage with Albert, because he can do his own character, and I do all the other parts. Sometimes I do his character too.

Brooks says there’s a good reason why he and Johnson have stuck together for so long. She’s a wonderfully eccentric character and a very smart partner, he says. “When we decided to work together, I think she understood what I was about and liked my humor. It’s usually very lonely to write by yourself. But we laugh and have a good time together. I love Monica.

But with all the acting and talking and role-playing going on in their car, who pays attention to the road; the director or the eccentric?

Johnson’s response comes as a relief to fans of comedy (and Los Angeles commuters): Albert always drives!