Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Albert Einstein of Comedy

Today Deadline Hollywood announced that Judd Apatow is in talks to cast Albert Brooks in his next movie, as Paul Rudd's father. For most of today's young moviegoes (unless they caught his guest shot on Weeds), Albert's mostly known as the voice of Nemo's dad in Finding Nemo
I hope Apatow helps fix that. Because for a certain generation of comedians and moviegoers (his), this is amazing news. To us, Albert can do little wrong (excepting the scary-looking remake of the Alan Arkin-Peter Falk comedy classic The In-Laws. I refused to watch).

My first question was, what took Apatow so long?
He has done well by other heroes like Loudon Wainwright and his entire Freaks and Geeks cast.

But as far back as 1997,  I did a New York Times Magazine piece on the comedy clique borne of Fox's swiftly cancelled, Emmy-winning Ben Stiller Show on which Apatow had been the head writer at the ripe old age of 25. And in the piece, everyone cited  Albert  as their comedy icon  -- including Apatow, Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross of HBO's Mr. Show, Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin, Mary Lynn  Rajskub, and Dana Gould. (Back then they didn't have Twitter pages or websites, and it was kind of a coup to assemble them all -- though the photos aren't online.)

As Gould put it,
''It wasn't an explosion like punk was in London in 1976. It was a gradual, subtle, social thing. What we had in common was we all thought Albert Brooks was the funniest person on the planet. We all wanted to become him, to write and direct and act in really harshly funny movies.''
I profiled Albert for Premiere for the 1996 movie Mother which, while uneven, hit very close to home for me. But that piece isn't online, and didn't allow all this excellent clip linking. So indulge me.

Albert (born Albert Einstein, the unfunny joke bestowed by dad comedian Harry Einstein, stage name Parkyakarkas) grew up in show biz and went to high school with Rob Reiner and Richard Dreyfuss. I first became aware of him through two genius albums. My favorite, favorite recorded routine ever -- more than Carlin, Pryor, Cosby, Cheech and Chong -- is this one from Comedy Minus One, now out of print again. This version is from a 1972 Flip Wilson Show, somewhat stiffer than the one on the record, but still a tour de force. It is like the ultimate American Idol spoof, three decades in advance.
And stand-up (see the Carson clip up top) -- but he walked away from it all after a kind of breakdown in a Boston nightclub.

Lorne Michaels brilliantly hired Albert to do  seven short films for the first season of Saturday Night Live, including a video version of this how-to 1971 piece Albert wrote for Esquire. 

They've never been released on DVD by themselves, but happily Michaels recently relented on his embarrassment about some of the clunkers in Season One and allowed its release on DVD
Martin Scorsese was a fan, and in 1976 cast him in a light comic role in the otherwise heavy classic Taxi Driver (above) as a co-worker of Cybil Shepard.

To be sure, Albert had many shooting-self-in-foot moments in his career, like turning down the Billy Crystal role in When Harry Met Sally because he thought it was too Woody Allenesque.  But as Gould attested, Albert's early movies are classics, ahead of their time, all worth renting -- yet many people I know have never heard of them, much less seen them. He wasn't as prolific or profitable as Woody Allen. But there's nothing like them.
1979's (!) Real Life [above, co-starring the irascible Harry Shearer, later of Spinal Tap fame] brilliantly spoofed the invasiveness of the camera in the verite series on PBS called An American Family (itself a forerunner to reality TV -- and which HBO, 31 years after Brooks, is now doing a docudrama about called Cinema Verite with James Gandolfini, Diane Lane and Tim Robbins.)

I would argue that 1981's Modern Romance is his masterpiece. Albert plays a movie editor -- and it would be worth it alone for the sequences of him trying to salvage a crappy sci-fi movie starring George Kennedy, for a nutty director played by his TV creator buddy James L. Brooks (no relation). In this sequence he and the late Bruno Kirby (who did take part in When Harry Met Sally) try to please an unpleasable sound mixer (Albert Henderson), assisted by a music mixer played by Albert's brother Cliff Einstein. Sony took down the full clip, but here's a taste of the scene:
But the true genius is his ability to nail the psychodynamics of destructive relationships. He spends the entire movie breaking up and reuniting with his girlfriend, played by a very game Kathryn Harrold (who, around that time, was his real-life girlfriend, and later played of Larry Sanders' long suffering wives on The Larry Sanders Show, on which Apatow also wrote).

Click through to watch brother Bob Einstein (aka Super Dave Osborne, later on Curb Your Enthusiasm as Marty Funkhouser), sell a despondent newly single Albert some running gear.

In 1985's Lost In America, his exuberant attempt to recreate Easy Rider by cashing out the family nest egg, gets waylaid when his wife gambles in Vegas. Albert, being Albert, thinks he can be the one guy who doesn't have to pay up. In this scene he argues with another legendary TV creator and filmmaker, Garry Marshall.

In 1991's Defending Your Life, he wrestles with the issue of whether the type selfishness we saw in Modern Romance might be enough to keep him out of heaven. (It's got a great, unheralded Meryl Streep performance.)

After a classic car crash sequence, Albert ends up on trial in his idea of purgatory, where people can eat all they want -- defended not very enthusiastically by a lawyer played by Rip Torn (who -- are you following this? -- was supposed to play the Jack Nicholson role in the real Easy Rider, but got into a fist fight with Dennis Hopper -- and who would also later star in Larry Sanders.)
As a coda, I'll skip to his career-making performance in his buddy James L. Brooks's Broadcast News, itself a timeless classic that bears revisiting. Jim Brooks somehow extracted the best of Albert's neuroses and made him more sympathetic, loveable, and tragic. Albert plays the smarter choice of a love triangle for Holly Hunter -- multilingual, morally upright, but too sweaty to be an anchor, and he loses the job and the girl to the smoother, shallower William Hurt.

Judd -- please give him something great.


Robert said...

A great post, David! I will suggest to your readers, "Critical Care," Sidney Lumet's black comedy about healthcare. Albert Brooks played a forgetful, 70ish doctor and it was easy to forget it was him. A nice turn.

David said...

Jeezt! I can practically feel Albert Brooks shaking Judd Apatow by the lapels. Give him the part?

but my more urgent question is: when did you start saying things like "as far back as 1997"? Wasn't that, like, yesterday?

Anonymous said...

Loved A.B. in "Defending Your Life". Thanks, as always for your "witty banter".

Cara said...

Loved A.B. in "Defending Your Life". Thanks, as always for your "witty banter".

mark l. said...

This is one of the best posts I have ever read. Brooks is the reigning genius of his generation and it is so good to see when people recognize that. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

I am 46 and discovered AB in 1986 when I heard his comedy album Comedy Minus One. I remember listening to the National Anthem bit on a plane and losing it completely. I was laughing out loud for 10 or more minutes and from that point I have been a huge fan.

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