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!”
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