New York Times: A Comedian Laughs All the Way To Dystopia

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By Dave Itzkoff

LOS ANGELES — For a guy who just wrote a whole book about the myriad catastrophes that could befall the United States in the next 20 years, Albert Brooks says he’s not interested in end-of-the-world scenarios and, more to the point, he’s too nervous to contemplate them.

“We’ve seen those stories where three people are left, and Denzel Washington’s wearing tattered clothes,” a spirited Mr. Brooks said recently at his Beverly Hills office. “It’s a great possibility, but I don’t want to imagine it. I try to keep it out of my imagination.”

Yet when he peers into the near future in his comic debut novel, “2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America,” which St. Martin’s Press will release next Tuesday, Mr. Brooks, the comedian and filmmaker, doesn’t necessarily find a lot to laugh about.

The good news is that cancer has been cured; the bad news is that this and other innovations have prolonged people’s lives to untenable lengths, draining the resources of a broke and broken United States, and polarizing relations between the young and the old, and between the merely old and the superannuated. With the economy and the American dream in shambles, a huge earthquake hits Los Angeles, testing the administration of the country’s first Jewish president.

(“Half-Jewish,” Mr. Brooks said. “It’s a big deal.”)

Despite what would seem a deeply discouraging forecast, Mr. Brooks said that “2030” offered an uplifting message that camaraderie and humanity prevail in dystopian situations.

While “2030” offers a perspective that is dramatically wider than in any of Mr. Brooks’s movies — even his post-mortem fantasy “Defending Your Life” — it demonstrates an underlying truth about his comedy: succeeding as a satirist means always predicting, and being prepared for, disaster, and making light of the human condition requires being deeply attuned to its dark potential.

“I would say if there’s a heaven, there’s probably no comedy up there,” Mr. Brooks said. “Comedy and bliss? You don’t see a lot of funny Buddhists.”

At 63, Mr. Brooks is still regarded by his peers as a pioneering if slightly enigmatic humorist. In the short films he created for the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” and later in “Real Life” and “Modern Romance” and other features he wrote, directed and starred in, “Albert is almost a cousin to Cassavetes,” said James L. Brooks (they are not related), who created the role of the lovelorn television reporter Aaron Altman in “Broadcast News” specifically for him.

He added: “They are all his own, beginning to end. Everything minutely done, everything without any concession to the establishment.”

Judd Apatow, the writer and director of “Knocked Up” and “Funny People,” said he admired Albert Brooks for preserving his autonomy while managing to keep a low profile.

“It’s rare to bump into him at a party,” Mr. Apatow said. “And as a result he’s cherished. He’s one of the few people that there’s still some mystery with him, because he isn’t a Hollywood guy.”

Mr. Brooks said that “2030” resulted partly from the frustrations he has felt at the limitations put on him by the low budgets of his movies. “Writing anything you can think about?” he said. “For a screenwriter, that feels illegal.”

Presented with the infinite canvas of a novel, Mr. Brooks conjured up characters like Brad Miller, a lonely Angeleno confined to a makeshift camp inside the Rose Bowl after the devastating earthquake; Kathy Bernard, a young woman who is hobbled by financial obligations and drifts among dangerous gangs; and Matthew Bernstein, the half-Jewish American president simultaneously managing the needs of the nation and a mother on life support.

While the nation crumbles, the prose of “2030” is enlivened with light, Brooksian touches, in the interior monologue of a scientist wondering why he was asked to create a female version of Viagra (“Every woman he ever knew could go all night, have a bowl of cereal, and go for another afternoon”), or an elderly man who fears fatal repercussions for trying a new restaurant on the wrong side of town. (“Better to have the same old thing and not be stabbed.”)

But the jokes cannot disguise their author’s sincere feelings that America is due for a reckoning that he and his fellow baby boomers helped bring about. “I’m part of the generation that has been taking without consequence since they were born,” said Mr. Brooks, without quite apologizing for his lifelong sense of entitlement. (“I wanted the new toy just like any other kid,” he said. “I bet even Gandhi, at 8 years old, wanted a train.”)

Elizabeth Beier, Mr. Brooks’s editor at St. Martin’s, said that with most celebrity projects she is offered, people come “with a great idea and see if they have your interest, and then try to flesh it out, and get it finished.” That Mr. Brooks had already written substantial portions of “2030” before it was pitched to her, she said, was “a sign of complete seriousness of purpose.”

Critics have noted a similar intensity in Mr. Brooks’s prose. Reviewing “2030” for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote that it was “as purposeful as it is funny” and called it “escapism about problems we cannot escape.”

A degree of neurosis has always been central to Mr. Brooks’s comic persona. Andrew Stanton, a writer and director of the 2003 Disney-Pixar animated comedy “Finding Nemo,” said he cast Mr. Brooks as the voice of Marlin, the fearful clownfish seeking his missing son, because “it’s a very short list of people that can make worrying and fretting appealing, and he’s high up on that list.”

But even in films like his 1985 farce, “Lost in America,” Mr. Brooks said he has found humor in scenarios that are more miserable than audiences might realize. Behind its narrative of a yuppie couple who fail in their quest to quit their jobs and travel the country in a motor home was “the most cleverly disguised defeatist story one could write,” he said.

If, as Mr. Brooks says, his daily thoughts are darker than he lets on in “2030,” it is hard for him to pinpoint where that darkness comes from. His view of life may have been forged by seeing his father, the comedian Harry Einstein, die when he was 11, or from reading John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” as a child, or by the fifth-grade teacher who warned him that Los Angeles was becoming overpopulated.

In person, Mr. Brooks hardly seems gloomy or depressed; he is more like a 21st-century upgrade on the stereotypical Jewish parent, whether he is encouraging a reporter to start a family with his wife or referring to his latest technological obsession as “the Netflix streaming.”

He can become feverishly passionate when he talks about, say, the causes of the recent global financial crisis. But a calm washes over him when he talks about his marriage to his wife, Kimberly, an artist, or their children, Jacob, 12, and Claire, 11, who he says have helped him learn to live in the moment.

As a performer, Mr. Brooks continues to work regularly in other people’s movies, and his coming roles include a ruthless villain in Nicolas Winding Refn’s thriller “Drive” and the father of Paul Rudd’s character in a semi-sequel to “Knocked Up” that Mr. Apatow will film this summer.

He remains on the lookout for things that stimulate — or irritate — him enough to compel him to write for himself. “As long as I have antennae, I want to use them,” he said. “But now that I get the Netflix, I don’t need the antennae.”

So far, though, Netflix has mostly been Mr. Brooks’s introduction to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will,” which of course he finds morbidly fascinating.

“Each time my wife came in the bedroom,” Mr. Brooks recalled, “she says, ‘You’re watching this again?’ I’m not watching the whole thing again. This is another rally. Yeah, I memorized every line.”