Featuring Albert Brooks, Rob Reiner, Jon Stewart, Sharon Stone, David Letterman, James L. Brooks, Brian Williams, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Sarah Silverman, Larry David, Cliff Einstein, Judd Apatow.
“Do you know what time it is?” my old man wauled, the force of his footsteps as he bounded towards the living room causing the shoulders of the dining room chairs to clack together.
It was coming up on 11 p.m., and the reason for Larry’s rude awakening was the fit of uncontrollable laughter that had suddenly overpowered me. “What’s so goddamn funny?” he demanded. “Albert Brooks,” I replied while pointing to the couch. “Sit down and watch.”
The comedian’s legendary “Danny and Dave” routine, in which the overconfident ventriloquist unashamedly moved his lips, was re-created in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, but does anyone remember Al and Buddy? Albert jury-rigged a face to the back of a Fisher Price Speak and Spell and a new ventriloquist act was born. Johnny Carson never stopped laughing. Neither did dad. A snippet from this singularly monumental father and son bonding moment and more can be found on HBO’s Albert Brooks: Defending My Life, now streaming on Max.
For director Rob Reiner, the task couldn’t have been simpler: a few days spent in Matteo’s Restaurant interviewing a lifelong friend in simple reverse angles. Reiner got to leave the restaurant to conduct interviews. Albert didn’t. For die-hards, there isn’t much new to uncover, although this is the first time I’ve heard Albert discuss his father’s passing. Harry Einstein, a comedian who went by the name “Parkyakarkus,” died famously in the middle of the Friars Club Roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Then there’s the subject of his birth name, Albert Einstein. The fourth son in the family reasoned it took his father so long to name a child Albert because he wanted to make sure that the theory of relativity wouldn’t be proven wrong. Brian Williams surmised his parents named him Albert because they wanted him to spend the rest of his life getting beaten up for his lunch money.
I have spent the greater portion of my adult life defending the comic (and at times cosmic) genius of Albert Brooks. The reasons why most Americans shun spastic Jerry Lewis and gamy Howard Stern are fairly obvious: Detractors either dislike them or they despise them. Certainly Albert didn’t provoke the same spirit of disregard. From the start, he was branded an “acquired taste.” Didn’t they catch-on to his conceptual slant on “The Ed Sullivan Show”? What about “The Albert Brooks Famous School for Comedians,” the perpetually too-hip-for-the-room swipe at showbiz sycophancy that first aired on PBS’s “Great American Dream Machine.” I find it almost impossible to put into words the effect this eight-minute short had on me. Only a crazed original could have left such an indelible brand simply by spoofing artless industrial films. I was at that point in my upbringing where I was beginning to seriously question the merits of many of the fleeting showbiz funnymen whom I grew up blindly accepting as icons. Were Allen and Rossi really that funny? “Hello, Dere.” Okay, I chuckled the first few times. The same goes for Wayne and Shuster. I used to wait for those two Canadian cutups to appear on the Sullivan Show. The W.C. Fields Box Set Vol. 2 has a television “documentary” on the Lord of the Grampian Hills that’s hosted by W & S. I defy you to get through it.
Albert saw (through) them all. He inverted the “serious” Jerry Lewis and played it for laughs. I didn’t know it at the time, but long before “SCTV” alum Dave Thomas “owned” Bob Hope, Albert was helping to interpret the violently insane thought transmissions emanating from Toluca Lake. Before Albert, I’d just as soon stare at a blank wall than watch a Bob “For Texaco” Hope special. Mind you, this was long before I embraced his collaborations with director Frank Tashlin and some of Hope’s stronger pre-TV vehicles (The Lemon Drop Kid, Son of Paleface, The Big Broadcast of 1938). I found nothing funny about the man and it took several years before I realized just how funny the fact that he wasn’t funny was. I can’t tell you how many hours of Hope’s TV work I have in my collection. Hope was probably the single finest example of showbiz royalty flying on auto-pilot to ever scan an idiot card. Once I tapped into this, I couldn’t stop taping, darlin’.
Though Brooks was originally considered the West Coast’s answer to Woody Allen, the latter’s name is fleetingly mentioned by Larry David. One need only do a side-by-side comparison of Modern Romance and Annie Hall to understand which film packs more honesty, structural integrity, and sheer visual storytelling. Albert is now, always has been, and always will be Woody’s cinematic superior. Woody’s recurring themes are all cerebral, and visually speaking, the major difference between the “early, funny films” and his later dramas can be traced to the director’s ability to eventually afford imposing cinematographers. Without the collaboration of a quality DP, Small Time Crooks, Allen’s comedic nadir, shows zero structural or visual advancement over Take the Money and Run, his 1968 directorial debut. In Woody’s defense, not all great comedic directors are formally faultless (Preston Sturges and Frank Capra come to mind) and therefore should be studied for their ability to draw on laughter as a means of chipping away at societal pretense.
Woody Allen may not be the big, bad Jewish intellectual middle-America perceives him to be, but he is definitely an above-average thinker with a devastating sense of humor. Woody’s my cranky celluloid Rabbi and I am always eager and curious to hear his observations on the modern world. Alas, film comedy must first and foremost be judged on formal presentation, not laugh quotient. Aside from being one of the funniest men alive, Albert Brooks is also a master visual storyteller. As with all great comics he is constantly aware of his body placement in the frame. His timing is impeccable; no one cuts a comedy quite like Albert. When it comes to using film as a means of comedic expression, Albert is closer in style and spirit to Keaton and Tati than Woody is to Chaplin.
The one film in Albert’s canon that goes largely overlooked is Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. The premise was pure genius: In order to bring about peace through understanding, Albert is asked by the government to travel to Pakistan and compile a report on what makes the locals laugh. It’s the greatest Bob Hope vehicle that Hope didn’t live to star in. Albert presents a self-eviscerating overview of his career and no one is more aware of their ‘Q’ rating (the measure of a celebrity’s name recognition) than Albert. Hindus might not place the face, but everyone knows the voice of Nemo’s father! Albert took comedy seriously enough to actually attempt a breakdown of just what makes us laugh. You didn’t see it. Nobody saw it. The title terrified distributors and exhibitors. The moral of the story turned out to be: Don’t release a film with the word “Muslim” in the title that soon after 9/11. Sony Pictures Classics refused to release it. At a time when movie comedy was defined by wedding crashers and 40-year-old virgins, Albert and Warner Independent’s stab at bringing logic back to laughter was a resounding flop at the box office.
Jon Stewart called him the first alternative comic. According to Brian Williams, “It is about time for a Hollywood reassessment of the gift to moving pictures and television that Albert Brooks is.” As much as one enjoys watching the carousel of clips and listening to friends lavish praise, there’s no happy ending to this story. I’d rather be watching an Albert Brooks film than a film about Albert Brooks. The greatest cinematic tragedy in my lifetime is not the conversion to digital, nor is it studios’ dependence on comic books to do most of the heavy lifting. The awful truth is, we’re coming up on 20 years since Albert Brooks stepped behind a camera.