Laughs That Hurt: Albert Brooks’s Uncomfortable Comedies

Laughs That Hurt: Albert Brooks’s Uncomfortable Comedies

When I think of Albert Brooks, the first image that invariably comes to mind is that of a worry-stricken man desperately impressing his anxieties upon a bemused, notably less nebbishy partner, presenting an elaborate case for the legitimacy of those anxieties, and ultimately feeling defeated and alone as his counterpart placates him, dismisses his distress, or rejects his outlook. Of course, if he was met with agreement (as he sometimes is, in an attempt to end the conversation), he’d need to immediately present an equally thorough counterargument of why he might be wrong. Brooks’s comedy, as it has evolved, is the comedy of ambivalence. His characters are often terrified of making decisions—or taking decisive action—because they’re terrified of the infinite possible consequences. (This conflict is the fulcrum of his most accomplished film, Defending Your Life.) I love this because it’s my sickness, too. I go back to his films again and again because they make me feel less defeated and alone. My condition, they remind me, is a human one, to be suffered not in isolation but rather in solidarity with Albert Brooks.

Brooks was born Albert Einstein, the first evidence that his father, Harry (a.k.a. “Parkyakarkus”), was a comedian. Albert was raised in a show-business family and achieved fame in his twenties as one of the pioneers in a new wave of postmodern, self-reflexive punks who emerged in the early 1970s and defiantly poked holes in the conventions of mainstream comedy, dissecting and dismantling its mechanics while disdaining the gullibility of the audience. It was comedy as performance art as criticism, and his two albums, Comedy Minus One (1973) and A Star Is Bought (1975), are anarchic, smart-ass classics that prefigure many comedic modes we take for granted today. Brooks went on to write and direct six innovatively deconstructive shorts for Saturday Night Live in its first year, a concession he made after turning down an offer to permanently host. This came after writing, directing, and starring in the mockumentary short The Famous School for Comedians, commissioned for PBS’s variety show The Great American Dream Machine after the bit’s first incarnation as a convincing, five-page fake advertising spread in Esquire. Through all of this, “Albert Brooks” was his enduring alter ego, driven by monstrous hubris and carried over with lunatic showbiz swagger, and it’s impossible to imagine the emergence of artists like Chris Morris, Stephen Colbert, Sacha Baron Cohen, or even Tim & Eric without the influence of this early-career work.

Brooks’s character in Real Life (1979), his debut feature as a writer-director and arguably his most purely “funny,” is the fullest realization of the entertainer-as-scum-of-the-earth act that he had been cultivating through the first phase of his career. Here he once again plays a character named after himself, the world’s neediest car-salesman-in-documentarian’s-clothing (car salesmen, of course, being Brooks’s most cherished objects of derision), and the film—a trailblazing and hysterically funny mockumentary (released five years before his pal Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap), as painfully real in its staging as Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park and somehow just as bleak—is a remarkable prophecy of the coming ethical hell-swamp of reality television. Ruthlessly satirizing the 1971 PBS experiment An American Family and channeling the neurotic spectacle of Allan King’s A Married Couple, Brooks’s most gleefully misanthropic film follows a charismatic sociopath’s attempt at winning “not only an Oscar but possibly a Nobel Prize, too,” by observing and documenting the Yeagers, a middle-class Arizona family (Mom and Dad are played by Charles Grodin and Frances Lee McCain), with “minimal interference.” Real Life gets incredible mileage out of the Brooks character’s employment of the hottest and “most expensive” technologies of the day (the omnidirectional camera helmets!), his petty complaints over lifelong mistreatment (if he had been graded more fairly, he would have been a scientist), the family’s self-conscious negotiations of behavior in front of the ever-invasive cameras, and the protagonist’s delusional, self-serving, increasingly psychotic proselytizations about the importance of capturing “the greatest show of all: life! Hey, you’re great . . . you’re great!”

Real Life

In many ways Real Life feels like an exploded version of what Brooks was doing in those brilliant SNL shorts (Grodin’s emergency horse surgery is straight out of Heart Surgery, and the incredible early sequence of “highly scientific” family testing at the National Institute of Human Behavior is a clear nod to The National Audience Research Institute). At the same time, it stands as a giddily seized opportunity to ram every comic idea he’s ever had about show business and the sham of suburban family life into a feature vessel. Even the trailer—a hilarious send-up of 1953’s House of Wax, in which Brooks tries to startle a presumed 3D audience by abruptly throwing a cup of water at the camera (“you’re welcome”) and then enlisting a world-champion paddleball player to paddle balls in their face, all after the appearance of a caption reading “[3D] glasses not provided in this part of the country”—feels like a trademark early Brooks gag.   

Brooks’s next two films, Modern Romance (1981) and Lost in America (1985), are major departures from the caustic parody of his earlier work, moving toward something more character-driven and empathic. Still, his cynical worldview—which wouldn’t start to budge until the feel-good triumph of Defending Your Life—remains intact. It is with Modern Romance that his persona shifted definitively from the glitzy, hyper-confident grifter-performer “Albert Brooks” to the erudite, sardonic, uber-neurotic everyman whose crushing self-doubt is exceeded only by his exasperation over the other putz in the room. It is also with Modern Romance that we see the first sustained flex of one of Brooks’s great gifts: an intuitive sense of pacing that’s as unhurried and deceptively casual as it is musical. 

Modern Romance is a comedy of anguish in which Brooks plays a pathologically jealous film editor named Robert, who calls it quits with his put-upon on-again, off-again girlfriend, Mary (Kathryn Harrold), before spiraling into despair and desperately entering back into a destructive pact of codependency with her. As a portrait of jealousy and obsession, it’s as striking and focused as Eyes Wide Shut (it should come as no surprise that Kubrick loved the film), and it also happens to serve, on the side, as one of the funniest depictions of below-the-line work in Hollywood ever made (featuring a deceptively benign, dopily ingenuous director of B shlock in the perfectly cast person of James L. Brooks, who would later direct his buddy Albert in his best film, Broadcast News). But in the end, this is a break-up comedy—perhaps the break-up comedy—and it’s the only movie I’ve made a tradition out of revisiting after the fresh collapse of a romantic relationship. It always makes me feel better/worse.

Modern Romance highlights include: Brooks’s brother Bob Einstein (a.k.a. Super Dave Osbourne) as a pushy salesman at an athletics store (“you want happiness? Get away from the box”); Robert priming for a run on the race track (“one, two, three, I-don’t-even-miss-her, two, three”), launching into a sprint, and then beelining to a payphone to call Mary; Robert picking up a date in his car, proceeding to drive around the block in one unbroken shot as Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life” plays on the radio, and then arriving back at her building to drop her off (“I’m dating too soon, Ellen”); Robert struggling in the sound mix with co-editor Bruno Kirby (!) to inspire soul-dead foley artists to help them make the footsteps of fleeing space-villain George Kennedy more impactful, beginning with a failed attempt at co-opting “Hulk Running” and culminating with Brooks providing his own foley, eliciting a total lack of affect from his collaborators (“I think you saved the picture”); Robert trying to kiss Mary while driving and then saving face after being met with a gentle rebuff (“A kiss is more important than life, anyway, isn’t it?”). Okay, I’ll stop there, but the list does go on.

Modern Romance

And then there’s Lost in America, Brooks’s satire of Reagan-era disenchantment and entitlement, which marks the arguable height of his underappreciated formalism. The hard-earned simplicity and cleanness of his scenes—always so elegantly photographed and designed—is one of Brooks’s unsung signatures, and I’d argue that it reaches its apogee here (okay, maybe Defending Your Life). There’s so much that I love about this film, starting with the beginning. The opening shot slithers through a house filled with packed moving boxes as a conversation about the sorry state of “movies today” with Rex Reed (!) drones bleakly on the radio. (Reed gave Brooks’s earlier films negative reviews—a sure sign of their artistic merit.) I love the late-night argument that follows, between David Howard (Brooks) and his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty, the greatest), immediately and economically establishing their strained-but-loving dynamic—David being in a constant state of neurotic uncertainty, and Linda in a state of dissatisfaction that he doesn’t quite see—and the stifling upper-middle-class rut in which they’ve found themselves. I love how David routinely anticipates Linda’s frustrations (“Can I ask you something else?”), the myriad ways he turns her soothsaying against her (“you think we’re too responsible? . . . I’m gonna go sleep in the garage! . . . Why not? I’m responsible. I should be guarding the car”), and the compassion with which she apologizes for his paranoid interpretations (“you’re upset. I’m sorry I used that word”). I love the overhead two-shot and the meticulously framed medium shots that frame the scene. The coverage is executed with the same care that characterizes the tightrope writing—so efficient and unfussy as to be invisible.

The same patience that distinguishes this scene (and also distinguished Modern Romance) carries gracefully into the first great sequence of the film and one of the high points in all of Brooks’s filmography: David’s meeting with his boss at the ad agency Ross & McMahon, in which he expects to be promoted to senior vice president but finds that his rightful seat has been given to an “executive type” who’s only been there two years, and that he’s being sent to New York to work on Ford’s new marketing campaign. This is one of Brooks’s great long scenes—arguments as set pieces—stretched to the point where every possibility feels considered and included, and always dropped just when it feels like it might be in danger of dragging itself out. The pacing—again—is intuitive, but it’s also ballsy and extremely confident. Here David swings from stunned incredulity to confused denial to desperate bargaining to furious rage (“our hair-piece secret is off!”) as he realizes that he’s wasted the last eight years of his life. He finally quits his job in a manic state and rushes to Linda’s purgatorial office to convince her to do the same. They soon consign themselves to the open road, dropping out of society like the heroes of David’s favorite movie, Easy Rider, with nothing to sustain them but their considerable “nest egg.” Of course nobody in the movie remembers how things ended for the characters in Easy Rider. 

I love how, just before the big meeting scene, the camera follows Brooks so fluidly through the beige corporate halls—evoking Jack Torrance’s strolls through the Overlook Hotel, but with tongue-in-cheek, sitcom-romantic pep provided gaily by composer Arthur B. Rubinstein (all of Brooks’s scores are great)—as he ventures optimistically to his office, where he will wait for the doomed meeting while on the phone with Mercedes salesman Hans, voiced very obviously by Brooks (Brooks is always doing the voices!), who has “stars coming in” to look at the car that David is considering. I love David’s enthusiasm, after they’ve embarked on their adventure, about the grilled cheese produced by his new Winnebago’s microwave and its “good browning element.” I love him discovering Linda at the end of a psychotic gambling spree and then his subsequent, now-legendary negotiation—every dialogue scene with Brooks, coscripted by his longtime writing partner Monica Johnson, is a negotiation scene—with the manager of the Desert Inn Casino (Garry Marshall as a classically obstinate Brooks foil). I love the Howards’ residential stint in Safford, Arizona; David’s short-lived career as a minimum-wage-making crossing guard; and the final straw: Skippy, Linda’s smooth-talking teenaged manager at the local Der Wienerschnitzel (“you got a good wife”). I even love Brooks’s trademark “ending,” which amounts (as with the two films before it) to a narrative shrug that suggests, through a drama-deflating (and -negating) text crawl, that the characters will never change, their cycles and patterns will persist, and really, honestly, who gives a shit?

Defending Your Life

Defending Your Life (1991)for me, the greatest of Brooks’s films—begins in a place that might suggest a slightly gentler, more resigned Lost in America. It might even come across as a sequel to that film, set five years later, in a world where David and Linda have divorced, and David—who, by all accounts, actually likes his coworkers and is well-liked in turn—has accepted his bourgeois status and commemorates it by moving decisively forward on buying a new BMW from another smoke-blowing salesman. Brooks’s alter ego, named Daniel here, has finally earned that luxury car, and—not five minutes into the film—he pops Barbra Streisand into the cutting-edge CD player and hits the road with her rendition of “Something’s Coming” blasting triumphantly. Brooks gives Daniel a full minute of driving time to bask in his hard-won glory before a sharp turn sends his CDs crashing to the passenger floor and, while he bends down to retrieve them, Daniel’s car veers stupidly out of his lane to fatally collide head-on with a bus. Cue the opening credits and Michael Gore’s rhapsodic orchestral score as Daniel is ushered through the white halls and then into the open air of Judgment City—a pleasant cross between heaven and limbo, where the recently deceased go on trial to determine whether they lived their lives well enough (that is, with sufficient bravery and intelligence and gusto) to justify their “moving on” to a better place, or whether they must go back to earth and do the whole farce over again. It all amounts to a remarkably optimistic and comforting vision of the afterlife, which must have come as a shock—and perhaps a balm—to fans of Brooks’s previous work.

Daniel’s boisterously patronizing defense attorney is played by the great Rip Torn (stealing every scene he’s in with that marvelous baritone laugh), Daniel’s cutthroat prosecutor is a world-weary Lee Grant, and Shirley MacLaine is Shirley MacLaine (and when her hologram shows up at the Past Lives Pavilion to say, “Hello, I’m Shirley MacLaine,” the outraged off-screen woman who blurts a scandalized “oh my God” is better than anything). While on trial, Daniel meets the absurdly well-rounded Julia, played with infectious warmth by Meryl Streep, and they fall in love in a way that feels real and true (despite its utter instantaneousness) and is deeply moving without ever feeling saccharine. Julia is good-humored and confident, she lived her life with courage and generosity, and there’s no doubt about whether she’ll be moving on to the better place (her prosecuting attorney has moved on to the defense’s side and her trial has turned into a joyous formality). Daniel, on the other hand, is a charming cynic who lived his life cautiously, worrying over inconsequential things and neglecting to take big swings when life offered rare opportunities. The short films that make up Daniel’s trial are among the most memorable bits in Brooks’s filmography, and they reach a delirious apex with a breathless montage of blunders and fuck-ups (“half of them fear-based, half of them just stupid”) that represents a cross between Brooks’s earlier, more gag-driven work and the still-prickly humanism he later warmed to.  

Anyway, everything in Defending Your Life is so great, but here are some pearls: the Past Lives Pavilion, in which Julia discovers that she was once incarnated as Prince Valiant and Daniel learns that he was “dinner”; every scene involving food (in Judgment City you can eat whatever you want and never gain weight, while the residents—who use half their brains, where earthlings use a pitiful 3-5%—eat gruel that, to an untrained palate, tastes “a little like horseshit”), the best of which gives us the avuncular Italian waiter Eduardo, who brings Daniel nine pies, one for every day of his trial, to Daniel’s pronounced embarrassment (“aw, you shy! I’m a-gonna bring you some steaks!”); and of course the swooningly romantic ending, which has Daniel refusing his verdict (“you’re going back”) and chasing Julia’s tram in a mad, love-stricken dash, resulting in a grant of clemency from his omniscient court (“brave enough for ya?”). This not only serves as Brooks’s most satisfying ending; it’s one of the great, totally earned tear-jerkers in all of cinema.

I remember my mother first showing me Defending Your Life when I was very young. It was my introduction to Brooks. “This is the best movie ever made,” she said as she popped in the VHS tape, and to this day I see her point. (In truth, my mother—a better writer than I, and the most devoted of Brooks devotees—should be writing this.) There are many films that I’ve shared with her, mostly sourced back to my adolescence: we both saw Dogville together at the Lincoln Square cinema and cheered with delight as the titular town was karmically mowed down by gangsters; we saw Mulholland Dr. in theaters and were possessed by competing certainties that we had intuited all of its secret codes; we saw and were mesmerized by Songs from the Second Floor in a mostly empty theater and were the only ones laughing. But Defending Your Life is a film that my mother gave to me (after Brooks gave it to her), and it’s now an essential part of my vocabulary. Whenever I return to it, it feels more like a precious memory than a film. And yet it never fails to grow in pathos with every viewing, Daniel’s personal plight feeling increasingly like my own (a testament, I suppose, to my mounting catalogue of regrets). At the risk of sounding maudlin, this magnificent movie—perhaps more than any other—feels like home.


Speaking of mothers, 1996 gave us Mother (sorry!), in which Albert Brooks plays John Henderson, a twice-divorced sci-fi novelist who decides to move into his childhood home to investigate the source of his problems with women. Debbie Reynolds plays his mother, Beatrice, as a perpetual skeptic, bright in her demeanor (she speaks in honeyed tones) but passive-aggressive at every turn. Where John is perhaps a little self-regarding and impatient, Beatrice issues veiled criticisms and suggestions of disapproval at an incessant rate (“Maybe when you stopped eating meat, your writing became a little thinner”). It finally becomes clear that Beatrice’s reproaches of John come from a much more complicated place than the early scenes suggest, and the reveal that she harbored a secret life as an unpublished writer feels insightful, whereas in another filmmaker’s hands it could have so easily come off as cloying or convenient. (This might be the only film where a spoken epiphany like “she raised children who she hated for ruining her life and killing her chances of doing the one thing she loved” qualifies as its most genuinely uplifting moment.) The film ultimately belongs to Reynolds, who turns Beatrice into a brilliant comic creation. The role is a beautiful gift to a great actor, one who hadn’t been given a lead part in almost three decades. 

Mother finds Brooks at his most generous. Where the earlier films—all barbed satires, if increasingly forgiving in their attitudes—railed witheringly against hypocrisies of all colors (the enduring theme being the forfeiture of principles in the name of comfort and ease and fear), Mother, a film very much about disappointment, stands as a warm gesture of acceptance. Its ending, which offers a sense of closure, feels somehow like a shedding of skin—less a selling out (an accusation that one could see a young Brooks casting on the film) than a settling down. Brooks’s work has grown and matured in a way that one might hope to mature in one’s own life. 

How I envy the wretch who has not yet discovered Albert Brooks! The opportunity to now watch these five remarkable films on the Criterion Channel—each looking crisper than I’ve ever seen them and retaining all of their original bite—is one to be celebrated and then mourned when it’s over. There’s never been an artist like Brooks (imitators included), and these films are true wonders, all of them treasured in knowing circles but none given their due in their own time. It’s an honor to be able to gush about them here, preaching to the devoted choir and perhaps—hopefully—introducing these boons to a few unenlightened innocents who might also emerge feeling less defeated, less alone.

A series of Albert Brooks’s films is playing on the Criterion Channel now through October 31, 2020.

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