Sunday Editor’s Pick: “An Evening with Albert Brooks,” featuring Drive (2011)

by on January 8, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Jan 08 at 7:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


Tonight’s “Evening with Albert Brooks” event at the Film Society of Lincoln Center — which features a screening of last year’s “neon-noir” car caper Drive and an on-stage discussion with the legendary comedian’s-comedian himself — is sadly sold out. The roundup of Brooks-related viewing and reading below should whet the appetites of ticket holders; for the rest of us, it can double as an evening-at-home consolation prize. And are you following Brooks’ funny and frequently updated Twitter account? A recent Tweet, dated December 28th: “Starting to drink now in preparation for New Years. No more last minute stuff like Christmas.”


Here’s Brooks in 1972, performing his famous ventriloquist bit on The Flip Wilson Show:



Ben Greenman, the New Yorker “Goings on About Town” section editor and an “amateur Brooksologist,” via Richard Brody:


Albert Brooks started out his career as an anti-comedian. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny, but that he peeled the onion of comedy until audiences cried so hard they laughed; early routines like his incompetent ventriloquist and his exhaustion-of-ideas bit were closest in spirit to the deconstructed comedy that Andy Kaufman would popularize a few years later. But as Brooks became a filmmaker, he managed to load emotional and personal experience into his comedy, converting what could be arch into something surprisingly personal.


Some of it, no doubt, has to do with his background. His father, Harry Einstein, was a Hollywood comedian who specialized in Greek-dialect routines and performed under the name Parkyakarkus. Harry Einstein’s life was similar to that of many of his colleagues, but his death was something else: in November 1958, while performing at a roast for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, he suffered a massive heart attack on the dais, slumped against Milton Berle, and died backstage. (The full story of his death, complete with incredible details like a pocketknife surgery and on-site heart massage, is available via the Victoria Advocate.) Albert was only eleven years old at the time.

Flip back 17 years in the New Yorker archives, to Alison Rose’s February 1994 profile (subscribers only), and you’ll learn that there was an audio tape of papa Einstein’s final minutes which Brooks held onto and at one point offers to play. In lieu of that audio clip, here’s Brooks’ 1983 follow-up joke to Buddy the Talking Dummy, delivered on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over a decade after he first made the bit famous:



Rose on the gap between Brooks’ popular recognition and inside-showbiz cache:

It is quite possible to live in America and not know about Albert Brooks… None of his own movies were successful in the strictest, commercial sense, and in certain Hollywood circles he is regarded as someone with an instinct for offbeat, unmarketable projects. It would be stretching things to talk about an Albert Brooks “cult,” but nevertheless there is a sizable population of Albert Brooks fanatics, who watch his movies over and over again and can quote his early standup routines from memory. Among his peers, Brooks is an object of veneration that has nothing to do with box office. Famously funny people speak about him with awe. […]


By way of explaining Albert Brooks’ relative lack of fame, Mel Brooks said once on “Larry King live,” “I think he doesn’t want the responsibility of being a star. Because he could have it… He just simply doesn’t want to be famous.’ Pauline Kael may have been closer to the mark when she wrote appreciatively of Brooks, “Everything he does is odd.” Or as the director Michael Ritchie put it, “people don’t think any human mind acts that way.”


Here’s a bit from one of Brook’s comedy records, “A Daddy’s Christmas”:



And two more quotes from that same New Yorker profile, the first from screenwriter, production designer and producer Polly Platt:


I always wonder what he does, you know, with his life. What does Albert do? Sometimes I think he spends a lot of solitary time practicing some of his stories and jokes. If you’ve ever seen anyone who does magic tricks very well, you realize it means a lot of lonely, solitary practicing. I think he requires that seclusion.


And in the section covering the six short films Brooks made for “Saturday Night Live” in its inaugural season (can’t find any good clips online — sorry), there’s this from SNL producer Lorne Michaels, with whom Brooks is described as having later had “a falling out”:


I had a sort of blind admiration for Albert. We worked together about twenty-five years ago. He was doing the Danny and Dave routine then. And, of course, I had seen “Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians”,’ and I’d seen him on the “Tonight Show” lots of times… He was everything I wanted the show to be in terms of comedic voice. I think all that ever mattered to Albert–at least, in the period that I knew him well–was the work.


The hilarious “3D” trailer to Brooks’ decidedly 2D feature debut, Real Life, one of the earliest and best “mockumentary” films of all time:



And here’s the great Jim Hoberman, formerly of the Village Voice, in the 50th-anniversary anthology of that once vital alternative weekly, on Real Life:



Robert DiMatteo, in his introduction to a 1994 Film Comment interview with Brooks:

Throughout his career, Albert Brooks has toyed with an understated form of absurdism. Some first remember from The Tonight Show, where he did comedy bits like the one involving an impressionist who impersonations all tended to sound like Ed Sullivan… Modern Romance, Brooks’ 1981 comedy, opened to mixed reviews, though some of us have a special affection for it. What seemed to throw people was the wavering tone: the behavior of the protagonist alternated between sympathetic and offensive. Never one ot romanticize the characters he plays, Brooks stayed true to the role… It can be annoying, partly because the characters themselves are annoying. But it touches an emotional chord rare in satirical comedy. [Brooks’] mixture of moods keeps us on his toes… I think one reason some of us love him so much is that we know he won’t get gooey.


And this on the bi-coastal dialectic of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen, “the premiere comic auteurs of contemporary American film”:


They’re both Jewish but Brooks, being from a later generation, doesn’t seem to have had his humor formed so thoroughly on the analyst’s couch. He’s almost post-analytic, if you will. Nor does Brooks’ Jewishness seems as crucial to his comic vision–whereas Allen can’t leave the subject alone. It may be relevant to mention here that Brooks hails from Los Angeles, and doesn’t have the same degree of cultural “Jewish” angst that we associate with Woody Allen’s New York. What the two men share, though, is a wry intelligence and a bravery in being self-deprecating.


A.O. Scott with a New York Times Critic’s Pick on Lost in America:


Bruce Weber, also for the NY Times, profiles Brooks:

In Lost in America (1985), Brooks played a married advertising executive who is on the verge of buying a new house and a new Mercedes when the promotion he expects falls through. After getting the bad news, he enacts one of movie history’s memorable tantrums — “I’ve seen the future! It’s a bald-headed man from New York!” is his exit line — which gets him fired. He then persuades his wife to join him as they cash in their assets, buy a mobile home and “drop out of society,” taking a somewhat skewed view of themselves as updated versions of the renegade motorcyclists from the 1969 film “Easy Rider.” Their subsequent misadventures define a fundamental Brooksian quandary. How does someone live out two distinct — and distinctly appealing — American dreams?


Of course, much of Brooks’s humor derives from such impossible dreams. He’s practiced at holding contradictory desires in his mind at the same time. You want everlasting love, but you want to be single. You want to be accepted, but you want to be extraordinary. You want to be interviewed, but you’re afraid of sounding foolish. You want everything, but you can’t have it. Of course, none of this makes him unusual, which he admits. In fact, he sees himself as something of a spokesman for the world’s consciously divided selves. “If the result of something I do is that someone feels 10 percent less crazy because they see someone else is thinking what they’re thinking, then I provide a service,” Brooks says.


Cars figure prominently in Brooks on- and off-screen lives. His big-screen debut was in Taxi Driver. (A funny anecdote about the production, via Brooks’ Wikipedia page: “In an interview, Brooks mentioned a conversation he’d had with Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, in which Schrader said that Brooks’s character was the only one in the movie that he could not ‘understand’ – a remark that Brooks found amusing, as the movie’s antihero was a psychotic loner.”) Most of Lost in America takes place in a winebago, and Brooks’ character in the afterlife comedy Defending Your Life dies in a car accident. Almost all of the magazine profiles above refer at least once and often extensively to the leisurely, hours-long drives that Brooks took with coworkers and romantic interests alike. Then there’s the opening sequence of Twilight Zone: The Movie:



…and now, of course, Drive.


Also, did we mention that Brooks directed a few more films, wrote a book, delivered unforgettable turns in James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, and voiced animated characters on the big screen (Little Nemo) and the boob tube?


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