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“How’d you die?” a desperate comedy-club performer asks of Brooks’ newly dead Daniel Miller in an indelible exchange from Defending Your Life (1991), Brooks’ hugely imaginative afterlife comedy (and one of his only films to culminate in a happy ending).
To which Miller replies, “Onstage, like you.”
It’s a telling moment, for Brooks’ father, the radio comedian Harry Einstein (a.k.a. Parkyakarkus), did die onstage, or rather on the dais, just after completing a bravura performance at a 1958 Friars Club roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But as the old saying goes, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” and from early in his career, Brooks revealed himself as a master practitioner of the comedy of self-humiliation, appearing under such guises as the world’s worst ventriloquist, an impressionist whose every utterance sounds like Ed Sullivan and, in a storied 1970s appearance on The Tonight Show, declaring that he had completely run out of material before proceeding to smash eggs into his hair, rub cake on his face and squirt himself with seltzer water.
Audiences haven’t always known what to make of him, and those who queue up for Brooks’ latest will prove no exception. “I remember the first time I ever did this bit on television,” Brooks recalls. “I was a mime who came out and talked a mile a minute. I did it on The Steve Allen Show and, I’m telling you, nobody in the audience laughed. And I said to my manager, ‘It’s them. It’s not me. They just don’t get it.’ When I did it four years later on Johnny Carson, they went crazy for it.”
Indeed, the peculiar brilliance of Albert Brooks — like that of the late Andy Kaufman and a handful of other comics who’ve dared to walk that fine line between entertaining and castigating their audiences — is that you’re never quite sure whether what he’s doing is supposed to be funny.
Here is a situation worthy of a character in an Albert Brooks movie: A child is born into a family called Einstein and is christened Albert by a comedian father who can’t bring himself to pass up such a golden opportunity. That son grows up to follow in his father’s footsteps, hailed as the most brilliant American comic since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen, then segues into filmmaking with a series of inspired shorts made for the first season of Saturday Night Live. A career on the big screen follows, including an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for Broadcast News (1987). And yet, when all is said and done, this comic genius may be best known for giving voice to an animated fish in a movie that he neither wrote nor directed, but which was seen by more people than have seen all of his other movies combined.
“You know,” Brooks says with a sigh, “I’m just doing the thing that I can do. If I knew how to change four sentences and guarantee myself $150 million, I’d do it. I have no control over the commerce part. And so therefore, over the years, I’ve stopped thinking about it.
“Back when I did Modern Romance, you could have as many preview screenings as you wanted — there was no Internet, they could all be private — and the studio executives came to, like, 11 of them and they sat in the back and they loved the movie. Then they previewed it in San Francisco and the audience hated the preview, and the studio [Columbia Pictures] treated me like I had secretly done something to the movie in the middle of the night. And I hadn’t! So there were big fights and I remember Michael Ovitz, who was my agent at the time, calling me and being very compassionate. He was trying to smooth things out with the studio, and he said to me, ‘I don’t know why you always take the hard road.’ And I said, ‘You think I see two roads. But I don’t.’?”
In the 25 years since, Brooks has continued to take the road less traveled, no matter that it has become ever harder to do so. “When I was in my formative years of watching movies, in the 1960s and ’70s, you would sit up all night talking about a movie and nobody ever talked about how much money it had made. Nobody gave a shit. Nobody knew. It was never a discussion. You talked for five hours whether you thought the scene in the bathroom was necessary. Or what did the running water mean? But nobody would say, ‘Let me tell you something, nobody’s going in Ohio.’ Then the world changed.”
But if all else fails, Brooks can always go back to standup.
“[Standup] gets me nervous, but I also like it if it goes well. So, never say never.”
“The ideal thing,” I say, “would be to do it by phone.”
“Boy, that could be great. Or what about, you know, over the Internet — just me at my desk, projected on a big screen in front of 2,000 people.”
“Then you wouldn’t have to leave the house.”
“Now there’s a career.”
For Ella Taylor’s review of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, see Opening This Week.
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