The Stacks: The Inimitable Albert Brooks Caught at the Dawn of His Movie Career
Albert Brooks’ second album, A Star is Bought, is the best comedy record most of you have probably never heart. It was never released on CD and it’s not available on ITunes. And that’s a shame because the record—which was made in collaboration with Harry Shearer—is one of the finest comedy albums ever made. Never mind that it was nominated for a Grammy or that it was in many ways a precursor to faux-documentary style of This Is Spinal Tap, it Albert in top form. You know, hilarious.
According to Paul Slansky, who wrote “Everybody Should Have an Albert” for The Village Voice in March 1979, Brooks owns the rights to A Star is Bought, he just isn’t motivated to re-release it. What would get Brooks to reconsider, I wonder?
C'mon, Albert: Please.
As for Slansky, his profiles, essays, and humor pieces have appeared in The New Yorker (where his political and cultural quizzes have been a frequent feature for the past dozen years), the legendary Spy magazine, and, among dozens of other publications, The New York Observer, The New York Times, Newsweek, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Esquire (where he co-ordinated the annual Dubious Achievements Awards feature throughout the 1980s). He is the author of six books, including My Bad: The Apology Anthology (2006), and Idiots, Hypocrites, Demagogues and More Idiots: Five Decades of Political Infamy (2008). Slansky also edited Carrie Fisher’s first book, Postcards From the Edge (1987), and her most recent, Shockaholic (2011). He is currently working with legendary producer Norman Lear on his memoir.
He knows funny when he sees it, which is why he was a beautiful fit to write about Albert. This story appears here with the author’s permission.
On February 4, 1974, Albert Brooks walked on the stage of the Tonight Show for the 22nd time. His past performances had included some of the funniest bits ever seen on the show: an impressionist whose imitation of various celebrities all sounded like Ed Sullivan; a mime who came out in whiteface and proceeded to describe, with a French accent, his every action (“Now I am walking down ze stairs, now I am petting ze dog”); and an elephant trainer whose elephant was sick, forcing him to substitute a frog.
But this time Brooks’s normally genial face wore a troubled expression. He explained that his appearance on the show was an unfortunate mistake, that he had only come because his manager insisted it was time to do another Carson show. “Let’s just talk philosophy for a minute,” he said earnestly. “A lot of us have a game plan. We don’t want to give too much of ourselves too quickly because, you know, then it’s all gone. Here I am, five years into my career, and my game plan is all off. I have no material left. While you folks were having turkey dinner last week, I was down to my last bit.”
This was no laughing matter, as the silent audience clearly recognized. There had been those rumors of a recent breakdown on stage in a Boston nightclub, and didn’t Johnny always call him “Crazy Albert Brooks?” God, was the guy about to crack up on national television? A few uneasy coughs broke the silence.
He then went through a scornful recitation of all the things he could do if he wanted to settle for cheap laughs. Sure, he could get a laugh by dropping his pants, he said, dropping them and getting an enormous (and relieved) one. Sure, he could break people up smashing eggs on his head, but who couldn’t? Sure, he could draw a funny face on his chest…
A few minutes later, with his pants around his ankles, whipped cream and eggs dripping from his head, a cake on his face, and a face on his chest, he stared into the camera and said, “This isn’t the real me.” He pulled an 8x10 glossy out of his shorts, declared, “This is the real me!” and stalked offstage a la Jimmy Durante. The audience responded with a solid minute of applause.
So whatever happened to Albert Brooks? Three years ago it looked like he was going to make it big. His short films were appearing on Saturday Night Live. He made his motion picture debut as the pushy campaign worker in Taxi Driver. His second album, A Star is Bought, received a Grammy nomination, and Time called him “the smartest, most audacious comic talent since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.” Enormous success seemed within his grasp, if only he would reach for it. Instead, he dropped out of sight.
He has spent the past three years working on Real Life, his first feature film which Paramount is distributing. Real Life is the most original American comedy in recent memory. Brooks wrote the film, with comedy writers Harry Shearer and Monica Johnson. He raised the money for it—under $1 million—from a man who didn’t even read the script. He directed it and spent six months in the editing room with it, designed the print ad and created the TV and radio spots. In short, total control.
“When he was younger,” says Harry Shearer, “he really sat down and mapped out five-year plans—he was like a communist government. One of the ways Albert is smarter than most of the people in the business is that he’s held out for total control over the things that are important to him.”
Brooks called Real Life “a staged documentary comedy.“ In it, he plays a comedian named Albert Brooks, who joins forces with a scientific research institute and a major Hollywood studio to make a film about a year in the lives of a typical American family. (Remember the Louds?) Wall cameras sensitive to body heat, and portable devices worn over the heads of the film crew will capture every moment’s bit of activity.
The Yeagers of Phoenix, Arizona, are chosen: veterinarian Warren, his first wife Jeanette, and their two children. Unsurprisingly, their lives immediately begin to fall apart under the scrutiny. Their first dinner sets the mood, with Warren and Jeanette arguing about her menstrual cramps while cameramen diligently circle the table.
Things get worse. Jeanette visits her gynecologist, whom Albert recognizes as a baby broker exposed on 60 Minutes. Warren loses a patient—a horse. Jeanette’s grandmother dies, and Warren talks about the dead horse during her funeral service. Finally, an article about the family appears in a local newspaper, and they are besieged by TV cameras whenever they leave the house. Throughout the family’s ordeal Brooks reassures them, even as he manipulates them to ensure the success of the project. (When Jeanette says her children are afraid to go to school, Brooks counters, “That’s normal, trust me.”)
The Yeagers are victims, not villains. Their irrational desire for celebrity—and Brooks’s—is the result of society’s celebration of it as the only goal worth attaining. Real Life operates on so many levels and takes on so many subjects, with such attention to detail, that it demands to be seen more than once. Brooks’s cynicism is aimed at our affectations, not our aspirations, and he trusts his audience to join him in acknowledging—and enjoying—the utter silliness of it all.
“Albert is a national treasure,” says Charles Grodin, who plays Warren Yeager in the film. “I’m delighted that we’re alive at the same time. I’d like to see him have everything. He’s so damn good, you just have to feel that way.”
When I call Albert Brooks to set up a meeting for the following day, he suggests getting together immediately. Unfortunately, my tape recorder has a dead battery, and I don’t want to sit down with him without it.
“Maybe I should just jot down some of the things I might say,” he says. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. I’ll bring a tape recorder, I’ll bring batteries, I’ll even bring cassettes. What size shirt do you wear?” Twenty minutes later, he walks into the El Padrino Room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with a recorder and a cassette of Emmylou Harris’s Elite Hotel. “It’s the only tape I could find,” he says. “You've got 40 minutes.”
We begin by discussing the genesis of some of his early routines, including the out-of-material bit. “It was time to do another Carson show,” he says, “and I really didn’t have anything to do. So I thought, this is interesting, maybe I can get something out of this. Most of my bits come from what’s really there. You turn it into entertainment by making it a little more interesting.”
He points to a horse behind our table. “Sometimes I like to make up names for the horses of famous people,” he says. “Like if Burt Bachrach had a horse, what would he call it? Maybe, ‘Where’s Angie?’ If we stop now, you get the rest of Emmylou’s album, you know.”
The waiter brings my drink, and a chef’s salad and iced coffee for Albert, who says that he might be going to Hawaii for a vacation in a few days. “Maybe I shouldn’t see you again before you go,” I say. “Then I’ll have to go to Hawaii to finish the piece.”
“Will your editors pay for it?” he asks. “Because if they will, here’s what we’ll do. When you get to Hawaii, there’ll be a message waiting for you saying I’ve gone on to Japan. Then we’ll go to China, and…” He stops himself. “What am I talking about?” he practically moans. “I’ll never leave. I’ve been talking about a vacation for five years, I just never leave. It’s sick, it’s not healthy.” He suddenly brightens. “You know what I’ve always wanted to do? I’ve always wanted to put a lung in a suitcase and send it through an airport security check. In effect, the guard would be looking at an X-ray of a lung.
Aside from Albert’s comic instinct, the most striking thing about him is his confidence in it. His jokes are delivered as casually as they occur to him. It’s clear that if he thinks something is funny, he goes with it—getting a laugh is a pleasant but nonessential bonus.
“I'll leave the tip,” Albert says loudly when the check arrives. “Not really. That was just for the tape recorder.”
Two days later, I arrive at Albert’s Hollywood office intending to observe an average day in his real life, but he has other plans: a trip to Magic Mountain to ride Colossus, this year’s World’s Largest Roller Coaster.
Albert calls Magic Mountain, lowering his voice in an approximation of the sort of simpleton who doesn’t find the very notion of such hype ludicrous: “Hullo, uh, I’m not going to be coming up there, but if I were, what time does Colossus open? And how long is the wait? Thank you.” He hangs up and laughs. “She said, ‘It opens at 3 and there’s a two-hour wait. Let everybody go on and then it’ll clear out and you’ll go later in the evening.’ She’s planning our evening! ‘You’ll have dinner here, you’ll buy bumper stickers, we got a hotel room for you…’ Let’s go.”
An hour later, we pay $17 at the admission gate, stop to buy Sno-Cones, and join the line about a quarter-mile from the ride. “It’s amazing how this place generates absolutely no excitement of its own,” Albert says. “The frightening thing would be if they said we could never leave here. Aside from all the things you’d never be able to do again, you’d have to eat every meal here.”
Two young girls walk by wearing Fonzie T-shirts. “I bet half the kids in this park know the name Freddie Silverman,” Albert says. “What other era could you live in where kids know the name of a head of programming?
“But I can’t think of any time I’d rather be living in, because of the technology. It’s just amazing.” (Few of his friends understand his fascination with technology, which is much in evidence in Real Life. But Harry Shearer, who shares the obsession, has an explanation: “Albert is basically an optimist, and if you want to be optimistic about the future, technology is the only refuge you’ve got.”)
“Catalina was the last place in the country to get a phone system that didn’t need operators,” Albert continues. “Everyone in town used to know each other through the operator, and now that way of life is gone, just gone,” he says wistfully, then interrupts himself. “Who cares? I wanna go on Colossus!” He breaks into a Bob Hope parody: “Now I don’t wanna say that it was a long wait, but the kid in front of me learned to read on the line. I don’t wanna say I was scared, but… you finish it.”
An hour after getting on line, we pass under the Colossus sign, and Albert begins his countdown “Six minutes, six minutes! Four minutes!” Albert screams and waves his hands in the air as our car plunges along the tracks, but the ride is unworthy of its hype. “Weightless 11 times, they said—I only counted four,” he says as we walk down the ramp. “Three good drops, no good banks. If we’d waited two hours, I would have been disappointed.”
We stop at a souvenir stand to buy buttons that proclaim I RODE IT! “We rode it,” Albert says, “but only because you wanted to know what my average day was like. I do it every day. See what my button says, I RODE IT A MILLION TIMES!”
Looking for a place to get a salad, we pass a gift shop with a rack of dresses near the doorway. “Who buys clothes here?” Albert wonders. “Hey, that’s nice, where’d you get it?’ ‘Magic Mountain.’”
The salad hunt proves futile. “I didn’t really want one anyway,” Albert says as we leave the park. “I wanted to get the button that came with it—I ATE SALAD AT MAGIC MOUNTAIN.”
“Every kid should have an Albert,” says comedy writer Monica Johnson. “He’s the kind of person you’d want to be locked in jail with. You know, you don’t have a game, you don’t have any cigarettes, what could be better than having Albert Brooks in there?”
Harry Einstein (better known as Parkyakarkus, a Greek-dialect radio comedian), finally couldn’t resist the joke—he named his fourth son Albert. “My father was very sick around the time I was born,” says Albert, sitting in the living room of his rented Benedict Canyon home and leafing through a bound volume of Parkyakarkus’s radio scripts. “The doctors thought he wouldn’t live.
“He did recover, but I don’t remember him as very active. I do remember lots of schtick around the dinner table. Generally he and my brothers and I were all laughing at the same thing my mother did not find funny, whatever that was.
“I guess I was the class clown—with a name like Albert Einstein, you don’t hide in the back. I’d read the school bulletin to the class and I’d add activities and make stuff up. It was good, a good 10 minutes every morning.”
When Harry Einstein died in 1958, 11-year-old Albert, who had grown up around Hollywood comedians, already had a reputation among them as a budding comic genius. A few years later, when Johnny Carson asked Carl Reiner to name the funniest men he knew, Mel Brooks and a high school kid named Albert Einstein were the two that he mentioned.
In the summer of 1965, after graduating from Beverly Hills High, Albert went to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to perform in summer stock. “Albert wanted to be a serious actor,” says Rob Reiner, a close friend since high school. “He went to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh for its drama department and he was talking about doing all this dramatic theater. We’d say, ‘Albert, you’re funny. What you do best is make people laugh.’ He fought that for the longest time, and finally he started doing it and liking it.” He left college after three years, took the name of Brooks (“It sounded good with Albert,” he says) and returned to Los Angeles to start his career.
The traditional comedy formats became his targets. The first bit he came up with was “Danny and Dave,” an inept ventriloquist act that he performed on the syndicated Steve Allen Show in 1968. The Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, and Ed Sullivan shows followed, and other offers were coming in, but even then Albert was wary of losing control of his life.
“If I’d wanted to be a big star, I could have done the dummy bit 40 times, and everyone in the country would have known me,” he says. “But I didn’t want to be known as the guy with the dummy, so I forced myself to keep coming up with new stuff.”
In February 1971 Esquire ran an article called “Albert Brook’s Famous School for Comedians,” a take-off on all those correspondence schools that promise to turn you into another Van Gogh if you can trace the outline of your hand. The article—which Albert later turned into a short film for PBS’s Great American Dream Machine—presented the faculty (Joe Garagiola and Totie Fields, among others), key campus sites (the Don DeFont Mall) and the curriculum, which included courses in dialect, the double take, and the importance of choosing a disease to help eradicate. At the end came a comedy talent test which the reader could to take to see if he qualified for enrollment. A sample question:
Take my wife ______.
A. for instance.
B. I’ll be along later.
The magazine received over 200 serious inquires about the school.
He did his first Tonight Show in mid-1972, and quickly became a Carson favorite. Instead of adopting bizarre, negative personae that would exploit the audience’s hostilities, Albert performed as himself, using his feelings rather than disguising them and talking as if the audience were sitting in his living room. So sure was he of his instincts that he didn’t even audition his new material for friends. “I tried out all my stuff on national television,” he says. “After doing two years of TV, I felt confident enough to put together a live bit.”
Albert spent three years on the road, headlining in small clubs and opening for rock stars like Neil Diamond in larger halls. The anxiety and boredom created by doing the same material night after night finally got to him during a tour to promote his first album, Comedy Minus One, and a gig at Paul’s Mall in Boston was literally the end of the road. “I was just real tired,” he says, “and the record wasn’t even in the stores. I remember doing an interview with a disc jockey who said to me, ‘Jonathan Winters went crazy, you think that’s ever gonna happen to you?’ I said, ‘I think it’s happening right now.’” In the middle of the one-week engagement, he flew back to L.A.
Around this time, he began going out with Linda Ronstadt, a relationship that lasted two years. “I was going with Linda just before big things started happening for her,” he says. “We lived together for almost a year. We liked each other because at that time we had the exact same fear of performing—whatever that fear was, we shared it.”
(Albert is reluctant to discuss his personal life, but Penelope Spheeris, who produced Real Life, says, “Albert’s women are usually real serious. His love affairs are always like The Tempest.”)
By the end of 1975, his films were appearing regularly on Saturday Night, ostensibly the ideal vehicle to catapult him to stardom. Unfortunately, the relationship was not a smooth one.
“Albert, to put it in its mildest form, is sometimes intolerant of other people’s problems,” says producer Lorne Michaels. “We couldn’t edit, we couldn’t have audience laughter on the soundtrack. He had complete creative control. I had asked him for three-to-five-minute films, he got me up to five-to-seven minutes, and eventually they came in at 10. And you couldn’t say they were too long, because he would say, ‘They’re brilliant.’”
Well, they were. “The Impossible Truth” featured an interview with a blind cab driver: “Damn right, I still drive. What should I do, sit home and collect welfare?” Another film had Albert fulfilling a lifelong dream—performing heart surgery. (“I pray it doesn’t hurt, I pray it doesn’t hurt,” says the patient as Albert, who has forgotten the anesthesia, prepares to make the first incision.)
But the best of the lot was “Super Season,” an elaborately filmed parody of network promotion spots previewing scenes from three “new” shows: Black Vet (a black Vietnam veteran takes up practice as a veterinarian in a small southern town); Medical Season (“But it’s unnecessary. This man does not need surgery,” a doctor says as a patient is wheeled into the operating room. Replies his colleague: “It’s too late. He’s already paid for it and we’ve already spent the money.”); and The Three of Us, a sitcom about a man living with two women—a premise which apparently was not too ridiculous for ABC, which built a real series around it two years later.
When the six-film contract expired, neither party was inclined to renew. “Viewer mail rated my films the least popular part of the show,” says Albert. “The Muppets were the audience favorites.”
Instead of becoming a superstar, he went to work on Real Life. “The groundhog came out today, laughed, and scratched ‘See Real Life’ in the dirt,” he says. “That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
“You rode the ride, now hear the commercial,” Albert says, as an ad for Colossus comes on the radio of his Honda Civic. A Mercedes with a RUNNERS MAKE BETTER LOVERS bumper sticker on its trunk moves in front of us as we drive to a Japanese restaurant for sushi, Albert’s favorite food.
“Wouldn’t it be great if cars came equipped with screens like that thing they have in Times Square that spells out the news? He asks. “You could punch out your own instant messages: WILL THE SMALL RED CAR WITH THE UGLY DRIVER PLEASE STAY A LITTLE FURTHER BEHIND?”
“Night Fever” comes on the radio. “A few months ago, you literally could not turn on the radio without hearing this,” he says. “If someone put a gun to your head and said, ‘Find the Bee Gees in 30 seconds,’ you could do it.”
What about his plans for the future? “I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” Albert says. “I haven’t started writing another film yet. I want to see what the climate is like for Real Life before I decide.
“It only makes me anxious when I think ahead. I mean, some things you have to plan, but if you think far enough ahead, you’re dead. Hey, that sounds like a slogan. Let’s put in on the bumper.”
Everything is material for Albert Brooks—a lawn sprinkler watering an area of grass the size of a paper plate, a squashed coyote on the side of the road that “might just be taking a nap,” the president of the United States saying that “as far as sovereignty goes, I have no hang-ups about it.” His comedic vision encompasses everything he sees. Nothing is wasted, not even a pit stop to buy cassettes for the drive up to Magic Mountain, as I realize days later while transcribing my tapes.
There’s Albert, talking about why he doesn’t smoke or drink, describing how uncomfortable he felt the time he leased a Cadillac, saying he’ll wait in the car while I get the cassettes.
And then there’s this: “You’re in the record store now, Paul, so this’ll be a surprise for you, because right now you’re buying tapes and we’re going to Magic Mountain. What’s going to happen is that I intend to kill you at Magic Mountain. This will happen right before we go on the ride. I’m only doing it to get new movie ideas, ‘cause, you know, I owe it to the people. Bye bye.”