Welcome to the second installment of “Real Men of Genius,” the semi-semi-regular feature that celebrates creative artists who, while successful, have been largely under-appreciated by the general public (with apologies to Bud Light for letting me rip off their commercial theme…so far).
Today’s nominee is Mr. Albert Brooks. Brooks, like many of his contemporaries, started his career as a stand- up comedian. I picked up his first album, “Comedy Minus One,” in 1973. Side one is notable for the now- classic routine, “Rewriting the National Anthem.” Brooks’ premise is that the anthem is tough to sing, the words are hard to remember and it’s badly in need of an overhaul. So he decides to hold open auditions to choose the next likely candidate. When a series of well-meaning losers, senile old folks and pissed-off minorities heed the casting call, hilarity –as they say in the biz — ensues. My favorites include a man who sings (to the tune of the real anthem), “As we stand here waiting for the ballgame to start…” and a radical African- American who shouts, “You jail all your Blacks…” before they cut the power to his microphone. I’ve listened to this routine dozens of times over the years and it’s as fresh today as it was nearly four decades ago.
Side 2 is dominated by the title track, “Comedy Minus One.” In this innovative, two-part bit, Brooks serves as the straight man while You deliver the punch lines provided in the enclosed script. Brooks generously lets his comedy partner (You) get the lion’s share of the laughs. There’s even a special guest appearance by legendary old-time comedian George Jessel. Geek that I was (and still am), I recorded the whole thing to make it sound like I was part of the act. As evidenced by the response of the laugh track, I’ve never been funnier.
Soon after, Brooks branched out into films, first creating a handful of shorts for the fledgling “Saturday Night Live,” as well as another subculture gem, “The Famous Comedians School,” a satire of late night trade school advertising memorable for its “spit-take” scene.
From there, he began writing and directing Hollywood feature films. My favorite is 1985’s “Lost in America,” which preceded the “cashing out” trend by a few of years. In the movie, Brooks and his wife (played by “Airplane’s” Julie Hagarty) quit their corporate jobs, withdraw their life savings and buy an RV to find the real America. Soon after, their plans get derailed in Las Vegas when his wife loses everything at roulette. Her infamous “We’re still down” scene invokes laughter and angst simultaneously. So does the film’s signature piece, in which Brooks vainly attempts to convince the CEO of the Desert Inn (writer/director Garry Marshall in top deadpan form) to return his money as part of a brilliant promotional campaign. Both cringe-worthy and hilarious (heralding “The Office” –style humor by two decades), that scene holds particular meaning for those of us who call Las Vegas home.
Brooks’ well-developed comic persona, kvetchier than Steve Martin and less neurotic than Woody Allen, is on display in an assortment of other movies, including the excellent “Defending Your Life” (holding his own opposite Meryl Streep, no less), “Mother” (Debbie Reynolds possibly playing a version of herself in the title role), “The Scout” and “The Muse.” The latter two ran out of gas somewhere in their third acts, but are still worth checking out. In all of them, Brooks never hesitates to allow himself to look like a sad sack and a schmuck, albeit an intelligent one trying desperately to hold on to a last shred of dignity.
Like all good performers, Brooks makes his roles look easy. In 1987, the Motion Picture Academy recognized him with a supporting actor nomination for his role in “Broadcast News.” More recently, he has lent his vocal talents to a number of high profile animated features, including “Finding Nemo” and “The Simpsons.”
For his clear comedic vision and artistic integrity spanning forty-plus years, Albert Brooks is the winner of this blog’s second “Real Men of Genius” award. I only have one trophy (sort of like a low-rent Stanley Cup), so he’ll have to go get it from Randy Newman.