Making the World Safe for Albert Brooks
An Oscar might help. He does like inanimate objects…
The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine Apr 10, 1988.
ALBERT BROOKS SPARES YOU THE PLATITUDES about how his Oscar nomination for Broadcast News exceeds his wildest fantasies. When you call him in California, the antic comedian is tranquil -uncharacteristically so – about his chances of winning best supporting actor. The telephone pacifies him.
“The Oscars are the Kentucky Derby for humans,” he says in his oboe voice, both melancholy and comic. The phone is Brooks’ muse, and he’s on. ”Already the bookies are running numbers. Sean Connery is even money. My odds are 7-5. The only sure thing about all of this is that getting nominated makes your mom feel good. ”
Should you measure Brooks’ comic success by his phone bill? By his two decades in show biz? Or by the clocklike regularity with which some oracle pronounces him the funniest man in America?
As a standup comedian (A Star is Bought), actor (Unfaithfully Yours, Broadcast News), actor/director (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America) and cult cutup, he has happily worked in the eddies rather than the mainstream. Always on the brink of fame, the 40-year-oldBrooks views it askance: funny place to look at, but would he want to live there? Still, it might be his new digs if the perennial odd man out becomes odd man in tomorrow night by receiving an Academy Award for his whiny, winning Aaron Altman in Broadcast News.
At the moment, the comedian feels cozy. Why not? He’s on the telephone, his favorite place. A self-described technobrat, Brooks says, “I must be a modern child, I love being separated from others by technology. ” He’s right. But after negotiations more protracted than those preceding the Reykjavik summit, he agrees to meet.
Brooks in real life? Trimmer, but just as anxious as he is on screen. You might mistake him for a runway jock guiding your airplane to the gate, but that six-footer with the Brillo curls is Brooks, his stuttering arms signaling you to park right here, in this Los Angeles lot on a sunny afternoon. The day – sky blue and air crisp as Brooks’ periwinkle plaid shirt – is not reflected in his overcast smile and moist, basset hound eyes.
“I warned you, I’m funnier on the telephone,” he says forlornly, revving up his “Zsa Zsa blue” Mercedes coupe. He bought it “because it looks like a Saab.”
HOW DOES THE DIRECTOR of Real Life deal with real life? He proposes a drive, staging it like a variety show. His tour seems random, but it’s actually a well-balanced meal from your four basic conversational groups: local color, politics, celebrity and sushi. He steers the car out of the lot and the conversation away from himself with a buoyant riff about the mushrooming yucko-stucco architecture in L.A., his home town.
In 1964, when Johnny Carson was the new host of The Tonight Show, he asked Carl Reiner to name the funniest people he knew. Reiner mentioned a high school kid, Albert, youngest of the three sons of comic Harry Einstein (Parkyakarkus on Eddie Cantor’s radio show) and actress/singer Thelma Leeds. Wasn’t long before Albert changed his surname to Brooks to avoid the cheap jokes. But his father, bound to a wheelchair by a spinal disease, remained an important influence.
“Dad had a great show-biz death,” Brooks remembers, fidgeting. “I must have been, oh, 11. The Friars Club was roasting Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball – she was the first woman admitted to The Friars – and Dad gave the funniest show, he got great laughs, then wheeled himself back from the podium to his seat on the dais. Moments later, he quietly had a heart attack and died. ”
Brooks’ mood flags. It’s time for a media hit. He tunes in the news. “I love the radio because of my father,” he explains. President Reagan is holding a news conference. Brooks, a devastating mimic, anticipates Reagan’s answers nine times out of 10.
Question: Pat Robertson said today that his Christian Broadcasting Network once knew the location of American hostages in the Middle East and that the U.S., in effect, missed an opportunity to rescue them . . . I wonder if you have any thoughts about the tone that he’s setting in this campaign.
Brooks: Well, it’s not my place to comment on the campaign . . .
Reagan: Well, all I can say – I don’t want to comment on the campaign . . .
“I’m a news junkie,” explains Brooks. “I’m obsessed with the news because it allows you the occasional glimpse of lives that are not staged.”
BROOKS HAS A RUDDY GLOW to his cheeks. Laughter improves his complexion. Driving west, he proposes a visit to Marilyn Monroe’s crypt. Well, why not?
“After high school, I knew I wanted to be an actor,” Brooks recalls. “But there were very few parts for people like myself – and Richie Dreyfuss was getting them all. You know, the part of the guy who the heroine likes but was too embarrassed to tell her friends? ”
So he enrolled at L.A. City College and won notoriety as a campus radio host. Then he switched to Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, but after two years there, a professor told Brooks he already knew more than his teachers.
“In 1968 I came back to L.A., changed my last name and picked up a ventriloquist’s dummy,” he remembers, parking at Westwood Presbyterian Cemetery. Brooks’ riffs as a hapless ventriloquist – who tries to throw his voice while sipping a glass of water and ends up with a gurgling dummy – earned him spots on Steve Allen’s syndicated radio show and TV’s The Hollywood Palace. “I’m the only person I know who did his act first on live TV before he did it at The Improv,” Brooks says.
In 1969, at 22, he got his network break as guest host of The Dean Martin Summer Special – broadcast the night of the moon landing. Soon after, he opened for Neil Diamond on his national tour – and pretended that the hisses and catcalls from the musician’s impatient devotees were applause. At a time when profanity and political outrage were the staples of comedy, Brooks suggested that the cutting edge was in audience interaction. He recorded loopy albums such as Comedy Minus One – a do-it-yourself affair where the listener supplies the set-up and Brooks the punchline – and his 1975 disc A Star is Bought. Time magazine called him “the smartest, most audacious talent since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. ” Even so, he was a household name only in his own household, which he then shared with Linda Ronstadt.
It’s sunset, so Marilyn Monroe’s cemetery is closed. A derelict at the entrance greets Brooks. The comedian is a magnet for eccentrics. Like a museum docent, the grizzled man offers him a tour of a nearby vacant lot. Brooks demurs graciously, but looks as if he’s recording this exchange for future use.
ALL THIS DRIVING makes a man hungry. “Sushi time?” he queries, stopping at a West Hollywood eatery he calls “Home of the Hipster Handroll. ” For Brooks, food is funny only as a prop. He eats no red meat and drinks only sake because, he says in all seriousness, “men have bad arteries. ”
Brooks is also serious about professional independence. He seeks autonomy, not celebrity. Brooks declined a TV series as well as Lorne Michaels’ request to be permanent host of Saturday Night Live. Instead, Brooks offered to direct comic film shorts for the new program.
He interrupts himself to order tuna from the sushi chef whose punk coif is pink. With a flick of the chopstick, Brooks makes you see his selection color- coordinates with the chef’s hair. Real life is
funnier than fiction.
Making movies combined his two passions, technology and acting. It thrilled his improvisational soul: “I knew I could pour my heart out on camera and capture the moment. ” At SNL, “it was like being a juggler and keeping all the plates up. I’d be writing the fourth short, editing the first and shooting the second simultaneously. I felt like all of the Little Rascals put together. ”
The director made the actor a hot property. His movie debut was Taxi Driver (1976). Director Martin Scorsese so admired Brooks’ improvisation as the grating campaign aide unsuccessfully courting Cybill Shepherd, he gave him three extra scenes.
“Taxi Driver was my first flirtation with the role of the guy who gets rejected by the girl,” says Brooks. “In Private Benjamin, I got the girl but died trying to, um, consummate our troth, so I didn’t really get the girl. Twilight Zone was my first experience of getting rejected by a man – and getting my head bitten off. Let’s see, in Terms of Endearment, I play the voice of Shirley MacLaine’s husband, who dies. In Unfaithfully Yours, I was conductor Dudley Moore’s impresario and didn’t die, but I got cuckolded. And in Broadcast News I guess I played the guy who was qualified in the way you should be qualified but unqualified in one way America likes you to be qualified – i.e., I wasn’t telegenic – and I didn’t get the girl.
“Do you see a pattern here?”
But in real life, he often does get the girl. His past paramours include Candice Bergen, Modern Romance co-star Kathryn Harrold and Lost in America co- star Julie Hagerty. “Who else do you meet?” he asks. “That’s why Broadcast News hit home to so many people. It’s about real life, about love of work and love of co-worker. ”
Brooks is uncomfortable talking about his personal life. He would rather get back in the car and drive – where he can talk about Real Life, his first feature, a study of how self-examination warps our lives. “The movies are turning into a place to see life as it might be on another planet,” he says. ”I am hopeful that someday we will see a movie in which a large, handsome man has a bad day. ”
In his movies, he says, “I try to be extra-real in order to compensate for most comedy being extra-fake. ”
In Real Life, “I was inspired by Margaret Mead. ” And Lance Loud. The film satirized the PBS documentary An American Family. Brooks plays a meddlesome director named Albert Brooks who actively interferes in – instead of objectively recording – the lives of an average American family. He proves that analyzing a phenomenon alters its outcome.
Two years later, in 1981, he made Modern Romance, in which an obsessive’s desperate attempts to fix his relationship make it break down more frequently than if he had done nothing. And Lost in America (1984) chronicles yuppie burnout as two fast-trackers imprisoned by jobs and possessions give up everything and buy a Winnebago – only to learn that they like being free spirits even less.
After Modern Romance, Playboy magazine hailed Brooks as “the funniest white man in America,” while noting that many in the theater left hating his character. In comedy, Brooks isn’t afraid to be seriously unsympathetic. As he drives past fragrant jasmine hedges, Brooks considers Modern Romance and shudders, “Unfortunately in real life I experienced some of my character’s problems. ”
Can he call it a night? The odyssey is over.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING, Brooks is happy. He’s safe, at home in Sherman Oaks. ”Let me give you a tour of my house,” Brooks chirps. “As you can see, it’s a modest ranch house furnished with items left by departed girlfriends. Note the paneling, please: knotty pine. ”
Also note that Brooks is talking to you on the phone.
“Care for breakfast? Now, let’s go to the kitchen. What’s in the refrigerator? Let’s see, broccoli, carrots, no-salt Dijon mustard, a jar of no-salt pasta sauce,” he says. “Let me make you some carrot juice. That’s how I like to start my day. ” Bzzzz! Bzzzz! Bzzzz! goes the juicer. For all you know, it’s a buzz saw.
“You asked me if I had hobbies, well, I just love making furniture here in my workshop,” he jokes. You hear slurps and swallows.
“Let me share my favorite recipe,” he says. “Lately I’ve been cooking capellini – angel hair pasta – topped with one capful of extra-virgin olive oil and lots of pepper. The extra-virgin olive oil is important. You can tell it’s extra-virgin when you open it and it shrieks, EEEEARGH! ”
He describes his bedroom as a tangle of electric cords and forest of bookstacks, mostly nonfiction and medical journals, partly because he’s a health fiend and partly because he wants to play “a certain kind of doctor” in his new screenplay.
Next stop, the sitting room. You can hear Brooks play one of his own, plaintive jazz compositions on the piano while he also delivers deadpan color commentary. “I’m strictly piano-bar quality – I couldn’t play in a hotel where they’re always requesting ‘Body and Soul.” “Brooks also plays the clarinet, he adds, “so on Oscar night, I just might be with Woody -. ”
Uh-oh. The unspoken subject! “I’m amazed how long I’ve lived in Los Angeles and been in the industry, but I’ve really never partaken of its tribal rites,” Brooks muses about the Oscar ceremony. “I’m thinking of borrowing an outfit from Michael Jackson. ” He gets serious. “What if I don’t go to the Oscars, would that be weird? ”
The prospect of becoming official makes him reflective. “If I died tomorrow, I think my contribution would be that I helped make comedy respectable. It’s no longer just Vegas and dirty jokes and cigars, but it’s become this respectable profession, this art really, where you can experiment. I mean, today, kids want to grow up to be comedians, it’s no longer this second-class thing. Comedy’s up there right under Bruce Springsteen. ” Pregnant pause. He can’t keep this up – “Thank God for Springsteen. If not for him, Joe Piscopo never would have worked on his body. ”
Brooks makes a vow. “If I don’t die tomorrow and I win the Oscar,” he swears, “I PROMISE TO BE THE FIRST SUPPORTING ACTOR TO WORK ON THE DEFICIT!”