Albert Brooks (Albert Einstein, b. 1947) turns 75 as I compose this, a not unsuitable moment for a little sizing up. Brooks is one of those show biz figures who has pursued several related but discrete careers, a bit of a plate-spinning act. It’s fairly easy (and useful, I think) to look at portions of his life and career in separate pieces, each of which is plenty interesting and impressive in its own right, with the sum being downright remarkable. Weaving it together into a unified portrait would take a lot of space in order to be readable, given all the jumping around. He’d make a lot of people happy if he wrote a memoir! Anyhow, the titular four pieces: 1) famous family; 2) stand-up comedian; 3) actor; 4) auteur.
This is one of those of handy litmus tests that instantly lets you know whether someone is a real show biz buff or a mere civilian. The latter may forgivably ask “What famous family?” Is Brooks related to Mel Brooks or his frequent collaborator James L. Brooks? No. As you may have noticed from our opening sentence, his real given name was “Albert Einstein“. Now, the famous physicist by that name first published on the Theory of Relativity in 1905, and consequently had been famous for a long time by the hour of the comedian’s nativity. His ideas had gained such wide dissemination that by the time his namesake was born, the A bomb had already won World War II. So the naming was not an oversight or a coincidence. It was clearly either an homage or a whimsical joke. The reason why we would even entertain such an absurd idea as the latter explanation is that Brooks’ father was the famous eccentric radio and film comedian Harry Einstein a.k.a. Parkyakarkus, whom we wrote about here. When the younger Einstein went into show business, he changed his professional name, because, while it would be amusing for a comedian to be announced as “Albert Einstein”, it would be funny in a wrong way, a distracting way. It would make you more gimmicky than you might otherwise wish to be, and raise all kinds of questions that wouldn’t permit the comedian the kind of freedom he might want. So he changed it. His older brothers, who all also attained their own measures of fame in one realm or another, all remained Einsteins. His much older half brother Charles Einstein was a journalist and author; brother Cliff Einstein was a high-powered ad exec and art collector; and of course the late comedian Bob Einstein, is the second most-famous of the brothers. The last three were brought into the world by mom Thelma Leeds, a fellow performer whom Harry had met on the set of the movie New Faces of 1937. Consequently, Albert was brought up a show biz brat, whose set of friends growing up included the likes of Rob Reiner (Carl Reiner‘s son) and Carrie Fisher (daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds). He attended Carnegie Mellon, the same school as Michael McKean and Dave L. Lander, but he left after one year to pursue his career as….
Not a ventriloquist, as the photo suggests, but a comedian. Because his rise was pretty rapid he moved on from stand-up after just a few years, with the result that this phase of his career has become pretty forgotten. In fact, I didn’t really know about it. Though alive at the time, I only became aware of him much later; early clips of him in action are pretty rare. What I have seen has delighted me, though, very much in the conceptual, aggressively surreal anti-comedy vein that was happening at the time, as practiced by the likes of Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin (a colleague of brother Bob’s on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), The Unknown Comic, Martin Mull, and others. In the ventriloquist bit, he performs all the usual, expected material any hack vent would employ: cross-talk, stunts like smoking or drinking a class of water while talking. The twist was that, though he moved the dummy’s mouth throughout the routine, he cheerfully made no effort to refrain from moving his own lips. By “no”, I mean ZERO, not even a minimal effort. He doesn’t even bother to hide his moving mouth, yet he acts like it’s the greatest act in the world! It feels radical, almost like theatre or performance art, and a key to his future screen character. Similarly, on The Tonight Show, he did an entire five minute routine that had no humorous material. When audience discomfort reaches critical mass, he confesses that he has run out of jokes. The resulting laugh clocked a minute. While he played live dates and made a couple of comedy records, his years in the world of old school straight television were roughly 1969-1974, during which time he did The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, Hollywood Squares, and many other variety and talk shows. At almost exactly the same time though, he was also working as…
This I hope you know! His best known roles are probably his Oscar nominated performance in James L. Brooks’ 1987 Broadcast News, and the voice of Marlin (basically the lead) in Pixar/Disney’s Finding Nemo (2003) and sequels. His time of relative obscurity as an actor was very short. He did guest appearances on shows like The Odd Couple and Love American Style, and by the late ’70s was in demand for major films like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Private Benjamin (1980) with Goldie Hawn, Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), the 1984 remake of Unfaithfully Yours with Dudley Moore, Michael Ritchie’s The Scout (1994), the 1998 remake of Doctor Doolittle; the 2003 remake of The In-Laws, a critically acclaimed performance against type as a gangster in Drive (2011), Judd Apatow’s This is 40 (2012) with Paul Rudd, and much else. What elevated him to this exalted place of castablity was his relatively early efforts to establish himself as…
It was of course in his own films that Brooks was able to integrate his talents as a comedian and an actor. Like Groove Tube collaborators Ken Shapiro and Chevy Chase, Brooks got his start as a director with a short that was broadcast as a segment on the PBS show The Great American Dream Machine. His bit “Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians” aired in 1972, and helped establish his screen persona, based on his stand-up character, going forward: an extremely self-indulgent, self-enchanted, narcissistic, whiny worrier and kvetcher. Comparisons with Woody Allen are inevitable, some valid, some a little more superficial and knee-jerk. Just because two film-makers are Jewish stand-up comedians, it doesn’t make them “the same”. Brooks differs from Allen in too many respects to count (West Coast vs. East Coast; Baby Boomer vs. Depression Era; Good-Looking Guy vs. Nebbish ) and he also pioneered a certain kind of comedy of…discomfort. His characters often say and do things that are painfully embarrassing. Often his neediness leaves the realm of comedy and blasts off into shared mortification. It’s the kind of thing I associate nowadays with Ricky Gervais.
At any rate, a transitional moment for Brooks occurred in 1975, when he became the first in-house film-maker during the inaugural season of Saturday Night Live. A few weeks ago, during my Covid spell, I finally had a chance to look at the six shorts he made for SNL, and they were an absolute eye-opener. It’s like watching Brooks’ future career in embryo. One thing that was interesting to me about the films was that they were pretty much in tune with the show overall. Brooks’ sensibility was satirical and he often poked fun of patented SNL targets like advertising and corporate culture. But (unlike the later Gary Weiss) he’s at the center of his films as a performer. Seeing him in the context of SNL, he’s just as strong and entertaining presence as The Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and once he’s off the show, you miss him.
At any rate, that was when things began to turn for him, and he was cast in Taxi Driver not long after. His 1979 film Real Life was a brilliant next step bridge to feature length, a parody of the documentary PBS series An American Family featuring the Loud family, starring Charles Grodin (much as Rob Reiner’s first feature was a doc parody). Parody is a handy way to get your feet wet. You can get the technical aspects of film-making down with less worry about narrative. Critics were divided about the movie, which has some of the same flaws most of his later ones do. Brooks cooks up brilliant, hilarious situations and dialogue, but has some difficulty sustaining momentum, and he seems allergic to fashioning story arcs. Here he inserts himself into the film, transforming an ostensible sociological study into a movie about his own pathetic self, which is most hilarious. At one point, he dons a circus clown costume to cheer the family up (see above) which presciently reminds me of Capturing the Friedmans. It would be interesting to see what younger people think of the film now that reality television is an entire genre of entertainment.
Real Life, like five of his six subsequent features, was cowritten with Monica Johnson, who — well, get ready for a very incestuous Hollywood circle. Johnson was the sister of Garry Marshall’s early writing partner Jerry Belson. She was the original writing partner of Marilyn Suzanne Miller. The pair wrote together for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, before Miller was hired to write for SNL and Johnson worked for Marshall’s Laverne and Shirley.
Each of Brooks’ subsequent films yields rewards: Modern Romance (1981) is probably the most Woody-like of his comedies, a rom-com starring himself and Kathryn Harrold, who was also in The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper the same year. Believe it or not, though I have been alive throughout his entire career, I’m pretty sure I was not aware of Brooks until Lost in America (1985), a side-splitting romp where he and Julie Hagerty from Airplane! play a couple who drop out of their lives and head cross country in an RV — only to lose their savings right away in Las Vegas. (Marshall, fresh off The Flamingo Kid, does a hilarious return as a scary casino manager). Defending Your Life (1991) has a lot in common with Heaven Can Wait and It’s a Wonderful Life and seems to reference both Brooks’ father and his brother Cliff. Meryl Streep is stunt cast as an angel and Shirley MacLaine as a reincarnation facilitator. Mother (1996) is an appropriately Oedipal tale in which his character goes home to live with his mom (Debbie Reynolds), a character obviously modeled closely on his own mother. TMI! The Muse (1999) is a magical allegory in which Sharon Stone plays the titular inspiration Goddess; with an all-star cast of cameos. His most recent self-directed film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005) was written as a response to September 11, an attempt to diffuse anti-Muslim feeling in the U.S. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very well received.
In 2010, Brooks wrote his first novel, a comic sci fi yarn 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. His film activity has slowed, but he continues to act down to the present day. But as I expressed in the first paragraph, I’d sure like to read his autobiography! Keep up with his doings here.
For more on variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on comedy film-making Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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