Saturday, July 9, 2011

The comedy of discomfort: Albert Brooks

First the book review, then the career retrospective. By way of explanation: I’ve been following Albert Brooks’ career since I was a kid in the Seventies and saw him do standup on The Flip Wilson Show. That show also served as my intro at that couldn’t-stay-up-late age to Pryor, Carlin, and Robert Klein, among others. I’ve followed Albert from his TV standup work through his two utterly perfect LPs (only one of which was ever reissued on CD — and now it’s out of print), through his short films on SNL to his acting work and his filmmaking career.

Albert is a difficult figure to explain, if only because, much like two other favorites of mine (Martin Mull and Chris Elliott) his comic persona has always been difficult to summarize in a few words. Incidentally, I will refer to Mr. Brooks (as The New York Times calls him) throughout this piece as “Albert,” not to claim any personal acquaintance with the gent, but because using his last name might conjure up the more famous (and overwhelming) Brooks, namely Mel (no relation; Albert’s family name is actually Einstein). Or Richard Brooks. Or Broadcast News director James L. Brooks.

There was, and is, sort of an enigma to Albert. He currently holds the status of “comedian’s comedian,” which was demonstrated in the late-night interviews he did during a recent blitz of publicity for his new novel, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America. The publicity tour, which included what seemed to be his first lengthy stints at the mic since the Seventies (bookstore Q&As), was very successful, in that it helped the book crack The New York Times bestseller list and got it reviewed in countless outlets. Most of the reviews were exceptionally kind; the only dissenter was the reviewer for the NYT Book Review, whose piece was unfortunately the nearest to accurate.

2030 contains some terrific ideas about where America is headed, and by extension is an interesting reflection of where we’re at. Albert spoke at length in interviews about how he didn’t want the book to be labeled “dystopian” because he’s “hopeful” about the future. However, the best scenes in the book occur in the first third, and all of them offer a deeply grim (but realistically grim) look into the near future. Thus, at its best, the book is indeed dystopian, no matter Albert’s intentions, and winds up becoming a lot less interesting when the characters’ personal melodramas take centerstage.

The plot element that has been discussed at length in reviews and interviews is the notion that, by 2030, seniors will live longer and thus use up more of the country’s financial resources. This leads to the “olds,” as they are called, being loathed by younger Americans, who hate paying into the endless extension of the seniors’ lives.

It may sound like a variant on Clockwork Orange, but Albert is too reasonable a gent to explore the darker side of his premise — in fact, one scene where teens are menacing the hell out of some “olds” just winds down and ends with our principal senior protagonist musing on how lucky he was not to get beaten up (not very realistic…). The violence in the book is “offscreen,” to the point that even the terrorist event that is the book’s anticlimax seems like a fait accompli where nothing truly tragic will occur.

The first third of the book, though, is literally teeming with valid ideas. The one that hit hardest for me is Brooks’ take on American healthcare: 19 years from now the country still has no plan in place for uninsured folk, so patients and their relatives will take out the equivalent of high-interest, college aid-type loans to pay for operations. Needless to say, this “health loan” business has a resonance and makes one wish Albert had just explored the notions of young-versus-old and America’s lamentable healthcare status in the novel.

Instead, there is a profusion of ideas and events, each of which is fascinating on first introduction and becomes less so as the book moves on. Close to the book’s beginning comes the first trauma: a massive earthquake devastates Los Angeles. Hot on the heels of that disaster comes an event that affects every American, as China refuses to lend the U.S. any more money and opts instead for a “greater stake” in the functioning of the country.

The loan-refusal scenario is the stuff of a true “nightmare comedy” (the label that was used to hype Dr. Strangelove), but somehow Albert reconfigures it to be oddly reassuring and even heartwarming. The idea that China is, and has been for more than half a century, an authoritarian government is never dealt with because, as the case is presented in the book, the Chinese are an orderly, clean race — and besides (this joke appears at least once, possibly twice) we already like their food!

The young/”olds” war and the China-as-America’s-savior premises are big enough concepts that one could hang an entire novel on either one, but Albert — seemingly intoxicated with the prospect of creating his own universe — betrays an epic vision in the book, while still wanting to keep it down to a reasonable length. A commendable notion — and given his inexperience as a novelist, a wise one — but 2030 loses a lot of steam as it goes on, and sinks its fascinating premises in melodramatic two-character confrontations.

Running nearly 400 pages, 2030 is in fact three books in one:
—A “shape of things to come” prognostication (entertaining and thought-provoking)
—A political thriller in the book’s final chapters (where we should be in Richard Condon territory, but never are)
—A Dickensian or Altman-esque “tapestry” about disparate characters whose lives are going to intersect because of a special event

A tapestry narrative is a HELL of an ambitious endeavor for a first-time novelist to carry off, since it requires hundreds and hundreds of pages to follow each character (unless you’re a master miniaturist like Raymond Carver — who, of course, never wrote a novel — or a master satirist like Thomas Pynchon). In terms of length, 2030 isn’t an epic, but it begins to feel like one as it reaches its midpoint. (By comparison, a genuinely dystopian pulp fiction like Stephen King’s The Stand glides along.)

Perhaps this is because Albert avoids any sort of modernist techniques and instead writes in simple, declarative sentences. The book is comprised of third-person descriptions of the character’s actions, thoughts, and emotions — one gets the impression while reading it that Albert is aware of both modernist sci-fi/fantasy (Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick) and the turgid, oversimplified (but sporadically suspenseful) writing found in potboilers of the DaVinci Code variety, and he opted to go for neither.

The page count is somewhat evenly split between the many protagonists, but the most fully developed characters are sadly also the dullest. They are America’s first half-Jewish president (presumably the role that Albert would play if 2030 were ever to become a film), his Treasury Secretary (an all-too-wise and far-too-noble individual who, as the NYT reviewer noted, seems like a character custom-built for Meryl Streep), and a Chinese healthcare expert, brought in to help the ailing city of L.A., who is nothing less than an Asian variant of a Frank Capra hero.

There are no real villains or even solid antiheroes in 2030, since Albert oddly envisions a social landscape where everything is wrong… and then things start to go “right.” It’s sort of a fluffy, politically naïve tack to take, and it mirrors the “lovable” period of Albert’s movies, when he tried to make his scripts simpler and cuter, but still proved unable to make a film that would wow the public, and in the process lost all but the hardliners (yes, I paid to see The Muse in a theater — yes, it was cute, and yes, I can barely remember a moment of it).

The opposite has happened with 2030: its reviews haven’t just been positive, they’ve been near to raves — making me wonder, “did they read the same book I did?” I know it doesn’t seem like it from the above, but I am genuinely happy to see Albert back in the national spotlight and am glad that his first book was such an ambitious endeavor. The best I can say for 2030, though, is that he wrote at least one-third of a great book, and put the spotlight on some very important topics.

Now on to the happier portion of the program, intended to show that the above came not as a drubbing of Albert, but merely as the thoughts of a weary reader. Let me now celebrate the career that led up to the book:

Despite his having worked simultaneously as an actor, most of us who were around in the Seventies became aware of Albert as a standup. His act was always conceptual (although not as aggressively or as experimentally weird as that of Andy Kaufman), and his subsequent screen persona was that of a bothered/harassed guy (one critic used the helpful term “worrywart”) who boasted a sense of urgency mixed with panic and righteous indignation.

An important component of his comedy throughout the Seventies and Eighties was that “Albert Brooks” the character was both abrasive and blithely unaware (or uncaring) of the havoc he caused. The latter is a classic comic conceit and was brilliantly carved out by the man. His standup routines were airtight bits like this gem:

He hasn’t been one who is given to “explaining” his comedy, but in the recent spate of interviews he’s done he has commented, apropos of his new, wonderfully funny Twitter account, that he has “spent years deconstructing Bob Hope,” meaning he did acts that dissected and mocked the old show-biz models, like this extremely rare clip of him doing an “and then I wrote…” songwriter act. And, of course, this ventriloquist act from… The Flip Wilson Show:

Perhaps his finest conceptual moment is this Tonight Show moment where he does slapstick comedy while commenting on the fact that he doesn’t do slapstick comedy:

His standup career is also unusual in that he gave it up entirely after a half-dozen or so years, but would return to the form sporadically, but only for The Tonight Show. Carson was such a powerful force in show business at the time, and he was such a fan of certain acts that they would do things for him they did for no one else. Thus, Steve Martin and Albert both would return to their standup roots when appearing with Johnny. Two great examples of this are thankfully available on YT:

I mentioned his two excellent LPs above, and they are both must-listens; they exist as downloads at various places online, and you should indeed take advantage, since they are both currently way out of print. The second LP, A Star is Bought (1974), is a brilliant concept piece created by Albert and Harry Shearer in which Albert devises several ways to get his record played “on every radio station in the country.”

One of those gimmicks is this incredibly esoteric but spot-on abuse of Dickie Goodman’s “flying saucer” records, which sampled hits of the day. Albert explains before the track that he couldn’t afford the rights to popular songs (neither could Goodman — he was frequently sued), so he just had some made up. What is notable about the track is that two of the singers are the late, GREAT Harry Nilsson and Albert’s girlfriend in the early Seventies, a certain Linda Ronstadt:

This is the Albert bit that I’ve listened to the the most over the years, his six-minute evisceration of talk radio that is as absolutely perfect now as when it was released back in '74:

And the rarest piece of Albert vinyl, his Xmas single (also co-written by Shearer):

Albert left standup comedy behind for filmmaking in the mid-Seventies and unfortunately has often been thought of as working “in the shadow of Woody Allen.” Plainly put, Woody’s schlemiel character was lovable; Albert’s brash character was not. Woody made wonderful, conventionally structured films, while Albert’s films were conventionally structured but also commented on the ugly, manipulative side of show business (Real Life) and the destructive side of relationships (Modern Romance). Most importantly, Woody developed a solid following in Europe and the UK, while Albert has remained a well-known supporting actor and cult filmmaker solely in America.

Additionally, Woody started making serious films as early as the late Seventies and has made films in which he didn’t appear, while Albert has always remained an onscreen comic figure in his films. With his fourth film as a writer-director, Defending Your Life (1991), he softened his onscreen persona, making him a harassed but lovable figure — presumably because he wanted to get more features made and was not of a mind to make indie films (many filmmakers who have worked in Hollywood stay infatuated, like Orson Welles, with the “greatest train a boy could ever have” and can’t conceive of working with a smaller palette on a far lower budget).

His first three films — Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), and Lost in America (1985) — remain hysterical today, not only because his comic instincts are razor-sharp (he was hailed as the “funniest white man alive” in the Seventies — because Pryor was assumed to be the single funniest person), but also because he was willing to play an abrasive protagonist in his own films, an antihero who had a bit more backbone than Woody’s screen persona, but just as many neuroses.

In my opinion the really brave, truly interesting artists are willing to be disliked by the audience if it benefits the work they’ve made (not to evoke Woody too many times in this piece, but even he adopted an abrasive variation on his comic persona in both Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry). The works may fail commercially, but they definitely acquire the right audience as time passes.

But first, the aspiration. Albert broke into filmmaking with a series of shorts in which he appeared that aired on the first season of Saturday Night Live (all of which are worth your time and attention). His first-ever short, though, was called “The Famous Comedians School” and aired on the PBS series The Great American Dream Machine. The abbreviated version that is available on YT is a weird edit made for a Milton Berle-hosted special on comedy; the producers unwisely added a laugh track — had Albert emerged in the Eighties or Nineties, one can easily see him starring in an HBO, laugh track-less sitcom of the Curb Your Enthusiasm variety:

His first feature is indeed a marvel. Real Life is a brilliant (and brilliantly abrasive) satire on the PBS documentary series An American Family (the forerunner of today’s “reality TV”), cinema verite, pretentious filmmakers, and money-hungry studio execs. Co-written with Harry Shearer, it remains a pungent piece of nasty comedy. There are no clips from the film available online, but the fucking wonderful trailer, in which Albert uses 3D effects when it’s certain the audience won’t have the glasses, is right here:

His second feature, Modern Romance, is a fascinating artifact of the Eighties zeitgeist that finds Albert and his costar Kathryn Harrold playing characters who are hard to warm up to, involved in a relationship that is difficult to care about. And yet the film is extremely funny and very perceptive about the screwed-up patterns people manifest in their love relationships. One of my favorite bits from the film is online thankfully. It consists of Albert rambling around his apartment after taking a quaalude:

A memorable bit from the film set in an editing suite:

And the only onscreen meeting of Albert and his brother Bob Einstein (aka “Super Dave Obsorne” and “Officer Judy”):

Of the seven films he’s made, I believe Lost in America was the biggest hit at the box office. It’s easy to see why — his “Easy Rider for yuppies” is filled with great dialogue and situations (and is oddly in synch with everything that has happened in this last decade). At this point Albert’s character was still abrasive and capable of having a world-class freakout:

An amazing bit of uncomfortable comedy, with Garry Marshall as the casino owner:

The infamous “nest egg” speech:

With Defending Your Life (1991) Albert and his writing partner Monica Johnson “softened” the character he played, a change that stayed in place until recently. I enjoyed the films that ensued, but they were clearly attempts at a “family friendly” Albert Brooks. Here is a great moment with the one and only Rip Torn from Defending:

His seventh and most recent film as a writer/director/star, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (2005), was a major flop, but it represented a return to the Brooks character of the Seventies and Eighties. His rendition of himself in Muslim World is again an abrasive and blithely unaware individual who constantly questions his own behavior and that of others. The film failed at the box office due to political events, Americans’ disinterest in really solid comedy (as opposed to crap SNL- and Apatow-related farces), and the criminally unwieldy title. But I thought it brought us full circle, back to the Albert I’ve been a fan of since the early Seventies:

This clip from Muslim World encapsulates what Albert does at his best: crafting a *thoroughly* uncomfortable situation, putting his brusque character in the middle of it, and lampooning the way we communicate with each other. In this scene he also quite deftly decimates the improv comedy process. We’ve all encountered this situation in comedy clubs: a performer asks for suggestions, and then proceeds to simply go with whatever he/she feels confident doing:

The oddest thing about this whole “resurgence” in Albert’s career is that, as a major fan, I’ve actually been more enthused to read Albert’s wonderful Twitter feed, which is funny and caustic as hell, than I was reading the last half of 2030. His career as an actor has been fertile for more than two decades now (I guess I’ll take the very sentimental My First Mister over the please-WHY-are-you-guys-doing-this? remake of The In-Laws), but I do hope that he gets the opportunity to make more films.

If he continues to write fiction, I’d hope he takes a slightly less ambitious tack, and (please!) avoids the personal melodrama. I’d also earnestly, amiably suggest that he avoid EVER AGAIN ending a piece of writing with a speech that earnestly, amiably makes suggestions about how something could be changed for the better. I, for one, would never conceive of… whoops!


Temple of Schlock said...

Congrats on another terrific post! We're big Brooks fans here, proud to say we have the original vinyl of his two comedy albums in our collection and still toss them on the turntable a few times a year. "RICH-ie! RICH-ie! RICH-ie! RICH-ie!"

Lisa H. said...

Oh, great. Now I have to rent all of those Albert Brooks films!

Ivan said...

I agree with you on almost every point, though I actually think Defending is his most well-crafted film (though the first three films have darker, funnier dialogue), and Muslim World fails because (a) it's not really funny (b) the funniest bit is his recycled ventriloquist routine, and (c) the cleverest idea, that his travels are accidentally pushing India and Pakistan toward war, comes almost at the end and never pays off on its Sellers-like potential.