Albert Brooks and Rob Reiner, now both 76, have been best friends since high school, having met in the drama club at Beverly Hills High. (Richard Dreyfuss was also in their class.) Both were what might now be referred to as “nepo babies” in that both of their fathers had successful careers in comedy — Rob as son of the legendary Carl Reiner, creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Albert the son of Harry Einstein (yes — his real name is Albert Einstein), a radio comedian who found fame as a character called Parkyakarkus. Harry might have gone on to greater heights had he not suffered a fatal heart attack moments after his routine at a roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958.
We learn those amazing facts and so many more on HBO’s Albert Brooks: Defending My Life, a love letter from Reiner to Brooks premiering tonight at 8 p.m., which brings the two together in a restaurant booth to reminisce about the good old days while tracing the arc of Brooks’ long and diverse career. We see him develop his voice as a stand-up — using props (a frog, understudying for an elephant) and high-concept scenarios (a mime who can’t shut up) to deconstruct old-fashioned notions of comedy and show business. (Brooks was meta before there was a word for it.)
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Later, the documentary explores his film career, which mimicked that of Woody Allen’s — neurotic Jewish auteur grapples with sex and death — but did so in a milder, some might say more thoughtful, way that can only be described as Brooksian. The HBO project touches on films like 1981’s Modern Romance, 1985’s Lost in America and 1991’s Defending Your Life, an exploration of purgatory which co-starred Meryl Streep. It also touches upon his impressive body of acting for other writers and directors, which includes his Oscar-nominated role in 1987’s Broadcast News, his voice work as Nemo’s dad in 2003’s Finding Nemo and his villainous turn in 2011’s Drive.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Brooks and Reiner for a conversation about the ineffability of comedy, the dread of audience testing and the call from Stanley Kubrick that changed Brooks’ life.
I loved the documentary. First of all, what a great portrait of a beautiful friendship between the two of you. Very touching. And then of course Albert your incredible career, just one amazing chapter after the other. So, how come now? Where did this come from?
ROB REINER: I approached Albert when My Dinner with Andre came out many years ago. I said, “Come on — you and I, we’ll sit in the deli, and we’ll talk, and it’ll be My Lunch with Albert.” He didn’t want to do it then. But then he said, “OK, let’s try it. Let’s do it.” So, we went and did it. Listen, we’ve known each other 60 years, and we’re as close as any two people can be. We shared a house together and everything. I’m just glad he finally said, “OK, let’s try it.”
ALBERT BROOKS: Combining it with [my career] made more sense. I was amazed that we could even find some of those old clips.
REINER: What I say in the film is true. I’ve always looked up to Albert. Just like what Judd Apatow says: He’s the funniest man in the world. The hard part was his career is just packed with stuff. It’s just hard to get everything in.
BROOKS: But the holy grail of all comedy is leave them wanting more.
I imagine you guys have had a lot of conversations over the years about the mathematics or the science of comedy. Do you have theories about what makes something funny?
REINER: We never talk about that stuff. It’s just instinctive. Albert has an instinctive ability to find the comedy in something. Jonathan Winters could do that. Albert does that.
BROOKS: I did a piece for Esquire magazine in ’71: “Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians.” Obviously, there was no such place, but we took pictures of campuses, and I had a two-page “comedy talent test” to see if you were funny. And the whole purpose was, of course, that you can’t be funny.
REINER: You can’t teach comedy.
BROOKS: Esquire got 1,200 serious, filled-out comedy tests.
REINER: That’s hysterical.
BROOKS: For a year I was thinking, “Should I do this?” But the whole point is you can’t teach any of this. Acting classes can be great if you’ve got a great teacher. They can help you with something. They can talk about underplay, they can talk about movement — but being funny, I don’t know where you start. I think it’s like being a great golfer. If I don’t meet you and you’re already shooting 68, I don’t know what I can do.
But you had your dads, right? Both of your dads were legends in the Hollywood comedy scene. Did you go to them for advice?
BROOKS: No, because my dad died when I was 11. I didn’t know enough of what to ask him. I went to Rob’s father. When I wrote [the 1979 mockumentary feature] Real Life, I went to him to direct it because I was nervous to direct my first feature. He read it, and he said to me, “You have to do this. I can’t take this apart. This is your soul, your baby. You have to do it.” That was a major moment for me because not only did I take his advice, but it had a much deeper meaning, which was: “Go fight for yourself.”
REINER: For me, I just watched how my dad worked with other people. I didn’t sit down with him, and he said, “Now, son, this is what you do.” It was basically just watching him work with the actors. Albert used to come with me sometimes during the summer. We’d watch it at The Dick Van Dyke Show. We’d sit around, hang around and watch how they put a show together, and you learn from that. It’s not like a famous school for comedians.
BROOKS: There were older famous comedians that I had run into throughout my life, and some of them liked to do that. They would pontificate — the Alan King generation — and say, “You do this, this and this. You never pick up a bottle if you’re not going to look to the right.” They had rules, and those rules made no sense.
Wasn’t that a big part of what your standup act was about? To break all those rules or sort of poke fun at what comedy traditionally was expected to be?
BROOKS: That’s all I did it for, was to break it. Exactly that, was to break it.
REINER: He was a deconstructionist. He took those things and deconstructed them and showed you what was silly about them. He satirized the dummy act or the guy who doesn’t have his elephant, and he does the act with the frog. He made fun of all that stuff. He was making fun of show business long before anybody did it.
Albert, one thing I learned from the doc is that Steven Spielberg used to drive you around in his car and film you just going up to strangers. How did that happen?
BROOKS: I was 20 years old, and I met him, and he was just starting out. What he loved to do was take his 8mm camera, and he would aim it at me. I had no other job.
REINER: This is a low-paying job.
BROOKS: Very low-paying. The first time anybody ever had sushi [in L.A. on film], that was with Steven. We would go down to Little Tokyo — because that’s where you had to go. And there was the Imperial Garden, which I used in Modern Romance, which was the only sushi bar [in West L.A.] We bonded because we both liked that. We had never had it or seen it before. We would drive around, and I would do improvs with people, and he would film it. It was fun for me.
I also learned that Columbia Pictures insisted you add a psychiatrist scene to Modern Romance to explain why your character was so neurotic.
BROOKS: We used to have screenings, which helped me finish the movie. And there was no internet. Nobody snuck any reviews. It was totally safe. So, we took the picture up to San Francisco where they were also screening Seems Like Old Times with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase. They said, “Tonight, after the feature, we have a special movie to preview for those that would like to stay.” The audience that filled that theater for Seems Like Old Times was not the Modern Romance demographic. Many people stayed and the [feedback] cards were terrible. They were supposed to give a little party after the screening. They rented out the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. There were hors d’oeuvres and liquor, and all the brass was going to come back there to revel. But they went home. They didn’t even tell me. I’m up in the room going, “When’s the party?” “Oh, they’re back in Los Angeles.”
So, I get back, and I have this meeting, and they’ve got the cards out, and it’s like I killed their mother. And they said, “Read these.” And I said, “I’m not going to read them.” And they said, “We’ll read them to you,” and they started to read these cards. “He’s got a good-looking girl, a nice car. What’s his problem?” I said, “I don’t mean this rudely, but I don’t know. This is exhibiting behavior. I’m not sure what the problem is.” By the way, today, I could probably tell you [what] the problem was, but I couldn’t tell you the day I was making those movies. I wasn’t making them from a reflective place. I was just trying to put that nuts behavior onscreen. And they basically said, “Add a psychiatrist scene and explain it.” And I said, “I can’t.” And then they said, “If you don’t, you won’t have a second week,” which was language for, “There’s no support for this movie unless you get these [feedback] cards fixed.” So, that’s what happened.
But then you got a call from Stanley Kubrick.
BROOKS: Yes, which was a lifesaver. He had gotten a hold of this movie. He had shown it to a healthy crowd in London, and he flipped over it, and he was going to call me, and I had to be there. It was like taking a call from the president: “He will call you at this minute.” Now I’m talking to him for a long time, and he’s talking to me about jealousy. This was 20 years before he made Eyes Wide Shut. Obviously, that was an important topic to him. He said, “That’s the jealousy movie I’ve always wanted to make. How did you do it?” “How did I do it? Tell me how Hal talks, I’ll tell you how I did it.”
But what the conversation turned into was about the movie business, and nobody had talked to me about the movie business before that moment. He said, “You don’t understand — when a movie doesn’t work, you will blame yourself. But that decision is made long before the movie gets out there. That’s a corporate decision whether they’re going to reach people.” He said 2001 was dumped. They didn’t believe in it. And he said a disc jockey in New York went to a preview, went nuts, and talked about it incessantly like it was a record he discovered. One thing led to another, and it was released properly.
He said until that happened, the decision was made that it was not going to work. We always blame ourselves. I still do. If I do something and it doesn’t work, I want to kick myself, but he was saying, “When you’re in a business like this, when you’re into corporations that have ad budgets that make decisions that you have no control over — then it’s done, and you’re never going to be able to counter it.”
REINER: At the end of the film, Albert says, “People ask me, ‘Why don’t you take the easy road?'” He says, “I only see what I can see. I can’t see another road. I only know one road.” That’s what makes him brilliant and singular — because he goes down his road, only his road, and nobody else can go down that road.
BROOKS: When I was having trouble at Columbia, I was just sitting alone in the commissary, and I was really down, and this person sat beside me, and they were truly a commercial success. They made big commercial movies, and they said it in a nice way: “Why don’t you just do what they want?” That is a real, valid form of show business.
REINER: A lot of people do it that way.
BROOKS: That’s right, and if you can do it that way, and you’re happy, you should. But if you make personal things, and that’s why you did it, then that way never works out well — because you’re putting something on the screen that you don’t understand and you don’t believe.
Some of your acting performances in other people’s films, though, and I’m thinking of Finding Nemo, were very much “what they want.”
BROOKS: Well, Finding Nemo was an amazing thing because it became the highest-grossing animated movie at the time. But the word at the studio before it came out was this is going to be Pixar’s first failure. At the time, I don’t think they thought Ellen [DeGeneres], who didn’t have her show yet, and I were comparable to some of the other lead names in the other Pixar movies. The feeling was that we’re not going to hit the golden ring. But it just started, and it kept going, and we were all thrilled, but I think it surprised the hell out of them.
And then I wanted to ask about your last film, 2005’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. What was the impulse to make that, a film whose title alone was getting a lot of pushback from the studios?
BROOKS: I wanted to use the word “Muslim” in a way that was acceptable and safe. I wrote that in maybe 2003 or 2004, a few years after 9/11. Right after 9/11, I was so consumed with the fear of this word that I was just trying to think, “How can I deal with this?” So, I made that movie. I hadn’t played “Albert Brooks,” the comedy character, since Real Life. And I thought: “It’s perfect. I’ll bring this guy back, and it’ll be about trying to find out what makes that part of the world laugh.” I’m the schmuck in the movie. I don’t make fun of any Muslim person. And I thought, “This is going to be great because here’s this title” — and the title did make people go, “Uh-oh.” But then they saw the movie, and nobody got scared. The movie was going to go to the Toronto Film Festival. The trailer was made. Then, that summer was the Danish cartoon controversy.
And that was it. They wouldn’t release the film with the word “Muslim” in the title. They said, “Well, the picture’s fine. We’ll call it Looking for Comedy.” And I said, “No. I made it for the title. That’s why I made it.” So, I got thrown out of the studio and wound up at that little Warner Independent. They weren’t so thrilled.
The late Steve Bing, who financed my movie, very sweet guy. I ask him, “So, what’s the TV buy?” “Oh, no, that’s old-fashioned. We’re not going to do that. You’re familiar with the internet?” “Yeah.” “Well, we’re going to start with a site called JDate. It’s a Jewish dating site.” I said, “What floor are we on? Because I wanted to jump out the window.”
In closing, would you make another movie? Do you have a script?
BROOKS: Well, I have ideas. There were so many hard parts about making movies, but one of the great joys was finally getting it into theaters, and I got such a thrill watching a packed theater go crazy over something that I made. And if I make another movie at this point, I really don’t know that I’ll be guaranteed a theater anymore
REINER: You have to do it just because you enjoy the making of a movie.
BROOKS: That’s right. The release part I have to let go of. So, if I can get there, I’ll do it again.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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