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Albert Brooks in Vanity Fair’s January 2013 issue.
“Twitter is the Devil’s playground,” says Albert Brooks (384,000 followers and counting). “I don’t know if I’m addicted. It’s a horrible waste of time for the writer of it, the reader of it. We will lose the war to China because of Twitter.”
Brooks tells Vanity Fair Comedy Issue guest editor Judd Apatow (who directed him in his new movie, This Is 40) that the subjects of dying and death are constantly on his mind. “I mean, this getting-old stuff is something,” Brooks says. “I think I envy my dog, because my dog is 16 and she’s limping and she’s still living, but she doesn’t look at me like she knows. She’s not thinking what I’m thinking. It’s a cruel trick, that we all know the ending.”
Brooks recalls hanging out with John Lennon in Los Angeles during the period when the ex-Beatle was separated from Yoko Ono. Brooks, who grew up surrounded by show-business people in Beverly Hills, tells Apatow that Lennon was the only celebrity who blew his mind. “I’m not a person that was ever on. I was funny. I knew when to stop. I wasn’t that manic on, and I was on with him, and I didn’t know how to get out of it. I didn’t know what to do,” Brooks recalls of their first meeting. “And he said—that still remains the greatest thing to me—he leaned over and said, ‘I’ve known you for a thousand years.’ And I just never felt bad again. That was a cool thing to say.”
Brooks calls Lennon “a frustrated comedian.” “All these guys, comedy to them was the holy grail,” he says of the rockers he hung out with in the 70s. “It was interesting to know what they think of comedy. They love comedy so much. It’s a language they don’t speak as eloquently. As much as you listen to the Beatles and say, ‘How do you write that song?’ they’re going, ‘How did you say that? Where did that come from?’ And John was always the funniest Beatle. He had a sense of humor and he respected it so much.”
“I had a very wise person tell me that he thinks marriage, when you’re younger, you keep thinking you can fix things,” says Brooks, who got married in his 40s. “That’s what people do. And you can’t really fix anything. It shouldn’t be a massive difficult thing every day. Life’s difficult enough.” Apatow mentions that This Is 40 is about the disaster of trying to make things better. “You can fix little teeny things,” Brooks tells him. “If a person likes to eat their peas off a plate, and you like to eat them in a bowl, you might win at that. But that’s about it.”
On the subject of religion, Brooks tells Apatow: “It’s interesting when you’re part of a group—the Jews, to be exact—that the world has had such problems with. It has really nothing to do with religion. That’s why, if my kids didn’t want to go to temple, I used to say, ‘Let me explain something to you: If Hitler came back, he’s not going to ask if you went to temple. You’re already on the train. So you might as well know who you are and why they’re going to take you.’”
Brooks says the comedian who made the biggest impression on him when he was starting out was Jack Benny. “Because of his minimalism. And the way he got laughs. He was at the center of a storm, he let his players do the work, and just by being there made it funny. That was mind-boggling to me,” Brooks says. He tells Apatow that early on in his career he performed on The Tonight Show one night when Benny was on. “There was always that last two minutes where Johnny was asking people, ‘Thank you for coming—what do you have coming up?’ And during the last commercial Jack Benny leaned over to Johnny Carson and said, ‘When we get back, ask me where I’m going to be, will you?’ So they came back. Johnny said, ‘I want to thank Albert. Jack, where are you going to be performing?’ And Jack Benny said, ‘Never mind about me—this is the funniest kid I’ve ever seen!’”
“And it was this profound thing,” Brooks continues. “Like, Oh, that’s how you lead your life. Be generous and you can be the best person who ever lived.”
The January issue of Vanity Fair will be available on newsstands in New York and L.A. on December 6 and nationally and on the iPad, Nook, and Kindle on December 11.