Albert Brooks Is Funnier Than You Think

Originally published in the July 1983 issue of Playboy. To read every article the magazine has ever published—from 1953 until today—visit the complete archive at iplayboy.com. For more Playboy, check out PlayboySFW.kinja.com.

It's Thanksgiving Eve in NBC studio 6-A, and Albert Brooks is talking about bowling.

"In every bowling alley, there's a room just a little bit larger than this desk called the pro shop," he tells David Letterman. "It's full of balls and shoes, because that's really all bowling is. Now, there's this guy who works in one in L.A.—he's a nice guy—and if you listen to him on the phone, he keeps going. 'No problem! No problem!' What are people saying to him? 'A giant landed from outer space. Do you have a size-95 shoe?' 'No problem!'"

Brooks pauses for a couple of seconds to experience his favorite earthly noise—the reassuring sound of people laughing at him—and continues. "I started bowling this summer as therapy," he explains. "It's Zenlike. You get to throw this heavy thing as hard as you can at pins. At the alley I go to, you can dress up the pins to look like people you hate."

Albert Brooks has always drawn on his everyday life for his richest comedy, and since he has spent the past seven years in the movie business, most of his jokes tonight are at the expense of the studio heads whose faces he frequently envisions on his bowling pins.

"Columbia put out a picture called Happy Birthday to Me," he says. "The ad showed a guy with a skewer through his neck, and there was no such scene in the film. That's a strange kind of advertising. 'What should the ad concept be?' 'How about a skewer through the neck?' 'Great!'"

He switches to another Hollywood topic, video games based on hit movies. "Now it's mandatory," he says. "You go in to present your story idea and the studio people say, 'What's the game in it?' I had an interesting writing assignment. I had to come up with the game for Ordinary People—get in the cab and try to get the wife out of town without driving over a pedestrian. And Norma Rae was a great video game, where you had to get all these little union dots in one room."

This is Brooks's first TV appearance in almost a year, and he has accumulated a lot of material—so much, in fact, that he's firing off in ten-second bursts the kind of ideas most comics would stretch into ten-minute bits. He moves into dialects, quickly runs through superb impressions of Rudolf Nureyev, Monica Vitti and Sylvester Stallone, then comes to the star of Conan the Barbarian.

"Maybe they'll give Arnold Schwarzenegger a one-man show on cable. He's a good actor," Brooks says, his friendly face radiating sincerity. "He could do, like, Young F.D.R." Brooks slips into Schwarz-eneggerese: "Eleanors! I need you upstairs here! De Pearl Harbors is getting all crazy vit de t'ings. Eleanors!" He interrupts this imaginary promo in an announcer's voice—"As young F.D.R., Arnold Schwarzenegger!"—then cuts back to Arnie: "I'll lift up de Russians and t'row dem. Get me de hot phone. I'll skveeze it till it cools down."

Talk-show appearances aren't all that's been keeping Brooks busy during the past few months. His performance with Dan Aykroyd in the upcoming film version of The Twilight Zone is in the can, and he is about to co-star with Dudley Moore in Howard Zieff's remake of the Preston Sturges comedy Unfaithfully Yours. After that, he'd like to begin filming Lost in America, a romantic comedy he wrote for ABC Motion Pictures with his friend and longtime collaborator Monica Johnson. Unfortunately, ABC—the studio he told Variety he had chosen because it had "an easy name to remember"—rejected the script as not sufficiently commercial, so Brooks is in New York engaging in his least-favorite activity: raising money.

Animal House, Nine to Five and Smokey and the Bandit are Hollywood's top-grossing comedies, with combined rentals of more than $200,000,000. Brooks's first two films, Real Life and Modern Romance (both of which he co-wrote, directed and starred in) took in less than $5,000,000 between them. The fact that Brooks's admirers think he's a genius is irrelevant to the oilmen, real-estate tycoons and soda bottlers who now run the studios. To them, he is merely unbankable. "If, in fact, there were a hell," he says, sitting in his hotel room after the Letterman taping, chain-eating pieces of dried fruit, "hell for me would be a place where I'd be given a huge budget and be told to make a movie to please Gene Shalit."

Both of his films had the enthusiastic support of several important critics—Shalit conspicuously not among them—and their popularity as pay-TV attractions bolsters Brooks's claim that their box-office failures were caused, in part, by the less than wizardly marketing decisions of their distributors. "With Real Life, they said they didn't think we needed to advertise on Mork and Mindy" he says with the ironic, deadpan delivery that characterizes much of his speech. "I said, 'You're right; why would we need a show that everybody watches?' Then the newspaper ads started shrinking to the size of want ads, and when I complained, they said, 'Do you have any idea how many people read want ads?'

"When Rex Reed wrote that I had a face like an open-faced sandwich, that was the best moment so far," says Brooks. "It's just a thing of mine—I've always wanted to be compared to deli food."

Steve Martin was the guy with the arrow through his head who said "Excuse me." Chevy Chase smirked and fell down a lot. Cheech and Chong did dope jokes, George Carlin said dirty words and Andy Kaufman seemed to think that the point of performing was to make people nervous about laughing. For those of us who took comedy seriously in the Seventies, though, there was only the holy trinity: Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin and Albert Brooks.

Those three can't be summed up in single sentences, and part of our implicit agreement with them is that we encourage them to keep growing. Pryor and Tomlin became superstars, then almost self-destructed, he with his cocaine conflagration and she with her performance in the unspeakably bad Moment by Moment (Rex Reed loved it). Brooks has avoided the pitfalls of mass acceptance by avoiding that acceptance. At 35, after 16 years in the business, he is still not quite a star.

"If you want to know if people come up to me on the street and say, 'Mr. Brooks, I enjoyed your movie even though it was improperly released by the studio,' yes, that happens," Brooks says, several days after the Letterman show. He is sipping an iced coffee in a booth in Canter's delicatessen, a Hollywood landmark whose older Jewish clientele has been joined in the past few years by a sizable contingent of punks.

Two of them—a spiky-haired teen in a FEAR T-shirt and his barefoot, blonde girlfriend—spot Brooks as they walk past us, toward the bathrooms. Although his six-foot frame is leaner than it appears on camera, he is not difficult to recognize. His unpretentious fashion statement rarely changes: plaid shirt, thin-wale corduroys and running shoes. His most distinctive feature is his hair, a mass of springy, dark curls that would not be worn by anyone who took himself too seriously. His deep-set eyes and semi-sad smile combine to form a face that seems both vulnerable and completely honest. It is this honesty that has made Brooks the comic of choice among L.A.'s punk crowd. The kids smile and exchange knowing glances, but they don't stop to talk.

"Basically, I still have the privacy that all celebrities crave," Brooks says, "except for those celebrities who feel that privacy reflects some kind of failure on their part."

Brooks entered the public consciousness in the early Seventies with a series of stand-up routines on The Tonight Show that are remembered with reverence by anyone lucky enough to have seen them: the impressionist whose every imitation sounded like Ed Sullivan; the shadow artist with the broken hand who was reduced to portraying "a bunny hiding behind a rock"; the mime who described everything he was doing in a French accent ("Now I am walking up ze stairs, now I am petting ze dog"); and dozens of others. He turned his "Famous School for Comedians" parody in Esquire magazine into a classic film piece on the PBS series The Great American Dream Machine. (The school featured a counselor who helped students choose the disease in whose honor they wanted to hold telethons.) His albums, Comedy Minus One and A Star Is Bought, include such gems as an audition for a new national anthem ("Got a country,/ I spell it A-M-E-R-I-C-A!") and a version of Ravel's Bolero with lyrics ("Hey, is the room just the right temperature?/ Should we do it on the couch/Or should we do it on the floor?").

In 1975, Time called Brooks "the smartest, most audacious comic since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen." Wary of too much success too soon, he was determined to keep control of his career. He was on the verge of signing to star in Our Man in Ra-taan, a sitcom about a TV newsman stationed in Africa, when a network executive asked him, "What do you see for this character in five years?"

"Suicide," Brooks replied, and abandoned the project. He suggested the idea of rotating guest hosts when he rejected Lorne Michaels's offer to make him the permanent host of what would become Saturday Night Live. He was content not to do anything unless it was exactly what he wanted to do. That was not a career strategy designed to land him on the cover of People, but it did allow him to create an uncompromised body of work that tends to support those fans—many of them in the show-business community—who believe that Albert Brooks is the funniest white man in America.

"Every kid should have an Albert," said his writing partner Monica Johnson a few years ago. "He's the kind of person you'd want to be locked in jail with. You know: You don't have a game, you don't have any cigarettes. What could be better than having Albert Brooks in there?"

Everything sparks Brooks's humor. As we head west on Santa Monica Boulevard in his new car, his associations and references are dazzling. When an Ozzy Osbourne song comes on the radio, I mention that Osbourne was arrested not long ago in San Antonio for peeing on the Alamo. "What does a person like that do when he sells out?" Brooks wonders. "Use a real bathroom?" When a tail-gater gets a little too close, he says, "Cars should come equipped with screens like that thing in Times Square that spells out the news. Then you could punch out your own instant messages: Will the small red car with the ugly driver please stay a little farther back?" A squashed dog on the side of the road elicits the observation, "He might just be taking a nap."

Someone on the radio is talking about Charles Bronson's vigilante movies, Death Wish and Death Wish II. "I once wrote a vigilante picture," Brooks says, "but it all had to do with killing studio people. You know: They take your parking space back without telling you about it, and then you drive in the next morning and they're raping your wife right in your old spot, and the paint they covered your name with is in her hair. It's hard to sell an idea like that." From there, he segues into some thoughts on the cosmic insignificance of movie critics. "How can you take seriously statements like, 'I loved it ten times as much as Rex Reed' or 'Oscar, get into a cab and go to Paul Newman's house. The race is over'? You have to look at a newspaper and see the context in which articles appear. On the front page, there's always the threat of nuclear war. That puts your review in perspective instantly."

Nuclear war is never far from Brooks's mind; as a Jew with an acute awareness of the horror of the holocaust, he cannot assume that any human activity is unthinkable. I ask him if he has heard White House aide Ed Meese's description of the apocalypse as "something that may not be desirable."

Brooks laughs derisively. "You know," he says, "being President is a lot like making a movie. You write a script—basically, that's your campaign. The studio decides to go ahead—in the President's case, the people elect him. Then they release the movie—in the case of the President, he fires weapons. You never know if a movie's going to appeal to the public, nor do you ever know if weapons will strike key cities. They say that once one nuclear weapon is fired, it could ruin the direction gadgets in all the others. What are the other missiles gonna do? They could turn around and come back at us. It's the same with a movie. Not only could it be a bomb, it could haunt you forever."

When Brooks gets going, his comic momentum seems to take on a life of its own. "The thing that amazed me when I got to know him was his commitment," says comedian Harry Shearer. "Once he decides he's gonna do something—whether it's a movie or a joke—he commits to it totally, which frees him to go as far as he can. Even if it's an idea that just occurred to him that minute, he'll push it as far as possible."

"Albert is like E.T. for adults," Carrie Fisher said recently, describing a weekend boat trip she had taken with Brooks and four other people. "It was like being on a drug that would never end. He never slept and he was never not funny; and, finally, I was scared that he'd follow me everywhere and keep me laughing until I got physically ill and died."

Brooks applies rigorous logic to the absurd world around him and makes material out of whatever doesn't fit—not surprising when you consider that his name at birth was Albert Einstein. (His father, radio comedian Harry Einstein—better known as Parkyakarkus—had resisted the joke with three older sons.)

"I guess I was the class clown," Brooks says, turning the car onto Coldwater Canyon Road for the ride home over the Hollywood Hills to Sherman Oaks. "With a name like Albert Einstein, you don't hide in the back. I would read the school bulletin to the class and I'd add activities and make stuff up. It was good, a good ten minutes every morning."

His father, who had been ill for years, died when Albert was 12, instilling in him the knowledge that if you waited long enough, the worst would always happen. By then, though, the comics who had hung out at his family's Beverly Hills home knew he was a comedic prodigy. A few years later, when Johnny Carson asked Carl Reiner to name the funniest people he knew, a high school kid named Albert Einstein was near the top of his list. After three years at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, Albert returned to L.A., changed his name to avoid cheap laughs and began his career.

Comedy itself was his favorite subject. His bits—which he often performed on network television without even trying them out on friends—took standard comic formats, such as animal acts or ventriloquists, and made them the butts of his jokes. Increasingly, though, his own life became a source of material. When he couldn't come up with anything new for a scheduled spot on The Tonight Show, he went on and did ten of the funniest minutes in TV history about that. After explaining to the audience that he'd run out of material earlier in his career than he'd expected, he went through a scornful demonstration of all the things he could do if he wanted to settle for low-brow yoks. Sure, he could get a laugh by dropping his pants, he said, dropping them and getting a big one. Sure, he could amuse people by smashing eggs on his head. Or by drawing a funny face on his chest. Certainly, there were those who'd be convulsed if he mashed a poundcake into his face. At the end, with his pants around his ankles, eggs dripping from his hair, a cake on his face and a face on his chest, he declared, "This isn't the real me." He then pulled an 8" x 10" glossy out of his shorts, shouted, "This is the real me!" and stalked offstage.

After two years of doing TV, Brooks had built up enough confidence to start performing live. He spent the early Seventies headlining in small clubs and opening concerts in larger halls for rock stars like Neil Diamond and Richie Havens. He was miserable. "I never wanted to be a comedian; I wanted to be an actor," he says now. "And I certainly didn't want to be on the road." A tour promoting his first album pushed him over the edge. "When I released that record, I thought, Pity those poor salesmen; people are going to be trampling them to get their hands on that album. That didn't happen. The record wasn't even in the stores."

Six weeks into the tour, he was interviewed by a Boston disc jockey who said to him, "Jonathan Winters went crazy; you think that's ever gonna happen to you?"

"I think it's happening right now," Brooks answered. He canceled the rest of his engagements and flew home.

"What scared me then was that the only thing I had to look forward to was another club," he says. "Also, I think that a lot of times, audiences didn't get things, due to the fact that they didn't see them as fast as they possibly could have, because light was traveling a bit too slow. And now scientists are saying that, in fact, we aren't seeing things quite as quickly as they once thought. That hurt my timing. I would do something and there would be that infinitesimal pause, and I would feel crushed. Then there would be that big roar of laughter, but it could never bring me back to where I felt I should be. So, as light speeds up, I plan to go down to the Improv."

Technology is Brooks's abiding passion. As a child, he was one of the first wearers of contact lenses. As a teenager, he listened to electronic music and sound-effects records. As an adult, he is usually one of the earliest owners of such gadgets as a recording Walkman or a wrist-watch video game. He has said that he'd rather spend an afternoon with a surgeon or with someone who works in a jet-propulsion laboratory than with almost anyone in show business.

Today, he's thinking about buying a home computer—he wants to explore the comedic possibilities of those machines—and so we have stopped off at his local computer center. Brooks wanders through the store playing with them. He punches some numbers into a talking computer, then says, "How much does Redford want for E.T. II?"

"Thirty-eight-million-six-hundred-ninety-two-thousand-three-hundred-fifty-four," the computer fires back.

We overhear a cashier telling a customer that the store will be open on New Year's Day. "These people don't have regular holidays," Brooks says. "They celebrate Binary Day in November—the tenth."

After experimenting for 20 minutes, he is tempted to buy an Apple II on the spot. This is the first place he's looked, though, and he's not sure whether or not they're cheaper someplace else. "Are these good prices?" he asks one of the teenaged technobrats behind the counter.

The kid nods. "Sometimes, we have even bigger sales and lower prices."

"For instance, when?" Brooks asks.

"Oh, just sometimes," the kid says.

"Yes, but when?" Brooks persists. "Tell me. You think it might be any minute now? Should I wait outside?"

The kid can't tell if Brooks is kidding. Without a hint of irony, he answers, "No."

People often don't know how to take Brooks, and he has not made it easy for them. Super Season (one of six short films he made for the first season of Saturday Night Live) was intended as a savage parody of prime-time TV, but it featured promos for shows so accurately inane—Black Vet (a black Vietnam veteran takes up practice as a veterinarian in a small Southern town), Medical Season and The Three of Us—that the last, a sitcom about a young man living with two women, actually turned up on Fred Silverman's prime-time ABC schedule two years later as Three's Company.

In his first film, Real Life, Brooks played an egomaniacal comedian who set out to film an entire year in the lives of a typical American family and almost destroyed the family in the process. (To further blur the line between fantasy and reality, the comic was named Albert Brooks.) In Modern Romance, he played a jealous lover so obsessed by his unworkable relationship that he tried to trace his girlfriend's long-distance phone calls in an effort to prove her suspected infidelity. Many moviegoers walked out of theaters hating his characters. (Brooks has also played memorable nerds in his two other film appearances: He was Cybill Shepherd's pompous campaign co-worker in Taxi Driver, and, as a horny bridegroom in Private Benjamin, he died during sex with Goldie Hawn in the movie's opening minutes.)

"All I'm saying is that it's OK to present yourself as you are," Brooks says when he's back in the car. "I think I present a different side of a male character, a side that is not John Wayne-like, a side that is, in fact, destructible. To some people, that is refreshing, and to other people, especially if they don't know me, it may be disturbing.

"I don't see many explosions or ten-car crashes in the course of my life," he continues, "so I don't put them into my movies. I would love to live in a society where My Dinner with Andre made $100,000,000. Then I would be in the mainstream. I could do that stuff easier than I could do Meatballs. It would be terrible if I tried to make Meatballs, lost my mind doing it and people loved it. Then what would I do? They'd want more, and I'd have to go back into my insanity to get more."

He pulls into the driveway of an unpretentious one-story house and parks under an orange tree. "If you don't succeed on your own ground, then there's no reason to succeed," he says. "Unless, of course, you really want a boat. If you're a person who feels that with a yacht, everything will be all right, then you should do whatever you have to and get the yacht."

Brooks doesn't need the yacht; he lives in the Valley "because it's cheaper than Beverly Hills." Each room of his sparsely furnished home is dominated by electronic equipment. The living room features a projection TV, the sitting room houses a pair of four-foot-tall speakers and the bedroom contains another large-screen TV, a video-cassette recorder, a video-game system and an exercise bike that provides a digital readout of your pulse. (Although he gets little exercise aside from bowling and sex, Brooks is extremely health-conscious: He doesn't smoke cigarettes, drinks only sake, eats no red meat and takes massive quantities of vitamins.)

He has been linked with several beautiful women, among them Linda Ronstadt (they lived together), Candice Bergen and his Modern Romance co-star, Kathryn Harrold. He is currently between serious relationships, and he refuses to talk publicly about his love life. "I just think that I don't have to discuss the women I sleep with with the vendor I buy Playboy from," he says, tossing the day's mail onto the kitchen table. "When a guy says to me, 'Heeey! Is she as good as she looks?' then I draw the line."

We go into the den—obviously a room in which he spends a lot of time. On the bookshelves is a complete bound set of his father's radio scripts. The brown carpet is covered by a mass of tangled wires leading to the sound system in the closet. Cassettes and their empty plastic cases are everywhere. I remove two piles of papers and magazines from the couch, and we sit down to talk about the movie business.

Brooks thinks he may have a backer for his new film, though he may be forced to keep the budget to a minuscule $3,000,000. "I can make it for whatever amount they say," he explains. "The size of the budget translates directly into how much time I have to sleep while I'm working. On $3,000,000, I'll get about an hour a night."

I bring up Woody Allen, with whom Brooks is often compared and whom he greatly admires. How has Allen's recent dry spell at the box office affected Hollywood's attitude toward intelligent screen comedies? "The reason Woody was able to keep making films when he was starting out was that the studios were solid," Brooks says. "People did not have the fear of losing their jobs if a mistake was made, which began to happen when the conglomerates took over.

"Stardust Memories, which I love, took in less than $4,000,000. If Woody hadn't had a reputation, he'd be out. And it was tougher for me after that flopped, because I could no longer say, 'Look at Woody!' I was pitching my movie to the man who had backed his least profitable picture, and the advice I got before I went in was, 'By the way, don't use Woody in this meeting, because they lost a great deal of money on his last film.' "

To Brooks, the most contemptible aspect of corporate Hollywood is the craven reliance on research. "Anything that confirms their research kills art," he declares. "I'm positive that every bit of research told them, 'Make Annie.'' Research has been refined to such a degree that the movie does not even have to be viewed.

"To me, Annie is ten $5,000,000 pictures. When I was in school, movies were still the place where new things seemed to be encouraged. Not anymore. I heard Ray Stark or someone like him on a radio talk show while I was driving. 'What about creativity?' the interviewer asked him, and he said, 'Creativity doesn't sell at this point.' It's true. You go to a studio head and say, 'I've got the greatest new idea,' and he says, 'Olden it up and come back.'

"One of the stupidest statements in this business is 'The public likes it.' Well, maybe people would like something else, if they got to see it. Lake Michigan is nice—until you see Acapulco. Ten years ago, the studio heads thought audiences were sheep," Brooks says. "Now they think they're snails with Down's syndrome."

Lately, Brooks has been feeling the need for feedback from audiences rather than from studio heads. In October, he went to Phoenix and had the best time he's had in years, substituting for a week as the host of a local morning radio show. He gets up now, pops a cassette into his machine and plays a segment in which children call in and talk about their video-game dreams.

"Do you play the game a lot?" Brooks asked a little girl whose recurring nightmare had her being chased by the gorilla from Donkey Kong.

"Yes," she said.

"Do you want to stop dreaming about it?" Brooks asked.

"Yes," she said

"Stop playing it, honey," Brooks advised.

He gets up again and runs the tape forward to find other highlights, including "Wake Up a Star" (in which he placed an on-the-air call to his friend Rob Reiner at seven A.M.) and, thanks to the brilliant impression work of Harry Shearer, a pair of phone interviews with President Reagan. The radio experience was so positive, he says, that he is thinking about doing some live performing. "All along, I've been telling myself that if I got out in the clubs after all these years and performed live, that would be my trump card. Well, I may not be that popular. Whatever; I'm getting ready to take the consequences either way.

"When I was doing stand-up," he continues, "I noticed that the same bits that got blank stares when I first did them got huge laughs later in my career. Well, I didn't choose to stop doing them. I think it's a combination of the audience and the performer getting used to each other. You change a little, they accept a bit more. The business tries to get you to change completely. People tell you, 'Obviously, you're doing something wrong; you did not make $100,000,000. Go back, rethink your birth and come back to us like everyone else.' That's the trap of making comedy on a commercial basis: If you don't sell enough of it, you are branded a failure. So you try to please the studio and the audience and still keep enough integrity to allow you to sleep. As you get older, you need less and less integrity to sleep—or you just stay awake. That's why they have 24-hour cable services."

He pauses for a beat, then goes on. "I enjoy making three people laugh as much as I enjoy making 3,000,000 people laugh. It's just that, businesswise, three is not quite as impressive a number to a large studio. 'Three, huh? So we're guaranteed $15 at evening prices? It's a go!'

"To me, the satisfaction is not in numbers. It's that I'm making sense to other living human beings. It's instant confirmation that I am from this planet and that I deserve to continue living here.

"I'm in this for the whole fight," says Brooks. "I'm going to stick it out and try to do it. I guess I've stopped having expectations because they don't seem to be realized when I think they will, which leads me to believe that they'll be realized when I least expect it. So I'm trying to least expect it right now."


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Paul Slansky is a regular contributor to The New Yorker. His work has also appeared in, among dozens of publications, The New York Observer, Spy, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Newsweek, Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and The Soho News. He lives in Santa Monica, California.

The Stacks is Deadspin's living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter's Alex Belth. Check out some of our favorites so far. Follow us on Twitter, @DeadspinStacks, or email us at thestacks@deadspin.com.