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Albert Brooks Mastered the Art of Disappointment

Whether subverting the rules of stand-up or making movies about perpetually dissatisfied characters, the man behind ‘Modern Romance’ and ‘Lost in America’ taught us how to love the fact that life isn’t fair

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Albert Brooks has been responsible for so many incredible movie moments that it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. But if I had to pick, I think I’d go with a scene from Broadcast News. You probably know which one I mean.

In the film, he’s Aaron, a smart, hard-working, insecure TV reporter who’s madly in love with his best friend Jane (Holly Hunter), a sharp, no-nonsense news producer. Normally, she would never fall for a guy like Tom (William Hurt), the handsome, not-very-bright new anchor, but who said romance was ever logical? It kills Aaron that Jane likes Tom and not him. But, in a way, it also plays perfectly into his worldview, which is deeply pessimistic. To his way of thinking, the good guy (i.e., him) never gets the girl. The shallow idiots always do. Every moment is merely in preparation for something going bad, because that’s the way things are. Some people are lucky, and some other people are Aaron.

Most people who watch Broadcast News identify more with Aaron than Tom. Even if we’re not as dour as Aaron, we’ve been in his position of not getting what we want. It always seems unfair, especially when there’s a person right there at work who does get that thing. At the height of his success, Albert Brooks embodied that sentiment better than just about anyone. Other comics did neurotic or brainy, but he’s a master at the art of disappointment. It’s only fitting, then, that he was never as big as some of his peers, whether we’re talking awards or box office or stature or just general level of stardom. Part of why we love Brooks is that his career mirrored the trajectory of so many of his great characters. He’s doomed to be perpetually underrated — or, at least, underrated in our minds — yet massively loved by everyone who’s a fan of his work. We don’t just adore him — we see ourselves in him.

One reason Brooks, who turned 73 this summer, is so revered — especially by comedy nerds — is that his work always felt a little too smart for the room. Humor comes in all forms, but there’s something especially savory about the kind that doesn’t pander — the kind that actually forces you to work a little to fully understand it. You feel bright for getting it, like you’re part of an exclusive club. But there’s also a downside to that intellectual approach, which is that the comic might never entirely connect with a larger audience. That, of course, can also be appealing: Your comedy always feels like an acquired taste.

Brooks started in stand-up, and from the beginning he marked his territory as a guy whose material would challenge you a little. In 1999, he told an origin story of sorts that encapsulates just about everything you need to know about the man: “[O]ne of the first things I ever did was The Dean Martin Summer Show. The producer, after seeing one spot, gave me eight shows, and said to me, ‘Do you have material?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and I really didn’t, and he said, ‘Okay, you’ll start in four weeks.’ And I went home and figured out what kind of a comedian I would be, and I came back and I showed him my stuff, and he said to me, ‘You know what? If you do this kind of material, you’re going to have trouble your whole life, because you’re 10 feet above the audience.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about — this is all I know how to do,’ and he took this long pause and he said, ‘Okay, that was all I wanted to hear. Go do it.’ You just do what you know. Some people are right in the mainstream from the get-go. They don’t ever have a problem with that, that’s just who they are.”

Around the same time that Steve Martin was getting going, Brooks similarly questioned precisely what comedy was. What did we expect from a funnyman? What was the job of the guy on stage? But where Martin was more surreal and postmodern (and deeply silly), Brooks clinically dissected the very apparatus of stand-up, showing us all the moving pieces so that we understood how flimsy they were. Which is why, in the early 1970s, he did a bit where he played a ventriloquist. It was hilarious because Brooks’ showbiz-y character Dave was, in fact, a terrible ventriloquist. The joke was realizing that you weren’t going to get the building blocks of comedy that were normally integral to this scenario. The joke was experiencing the disappointment of not being entertained.

Brooks was a successful stand-up — his 1975 record A Star Is Bought was nominated for a comedy Grammy, losing to Richard Pryor’s Is It Something I Said? — but he never had the sort of meteoric stardom that other smart comics of his era enjoyed. When author Richard Zoglin reached out to different significant comedians of the period for his 2008 book Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, Brooks initially demurred, telling Zoglin, “I just don’t want to be a paragraph in a book about George Carlin.” That’s a very Brooks-ian way of looking at his stand-up legacy. He was very funny and very influential — but, in the end, people would think of Martin or Pryor or Carlin first.

In some ways, those early years set the tone for his career — always a bit underappreciated, never quite breaking through to the masses, constantly terrific. Long before the Lonely Island made short films a staple of the modern Saturday Night Live, Brooks did a few funny little movies for the show in 1975 and 1976 during its earliest days when Lorne Michaels was still trying to figure out what the hell kind of program it was going to be. “I sort of felt that I was the first stage of the rocket that went to the moon,” Brooks joked many years later of the experience that, by all accounts, he didn’t entirely love. “I provided a service. I helped to get them off the ground. And about two miles up, I was thrown into the ocean.”

But those SNL shorts, which often starred Brooks, helped establish the onscreen persona he’d soon develop for his feature filmmaking debut, that of the overconfident Hollywood insider. (This, of course, was in contrast to his actual big-screen debut, in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, as a nerdy campaign strategist who seems to have a thing for gorgeous coworker Cybill Shepherd, which will never, ever go anywhere. Typical Brooks.) 

Real Life was so ahead of its time in so many ways that it’s hard now to understand how prescient it was. Most overtly, the 1979 comedy predicted the reality-television landscape we now inhabit. (The setup: A documentary filmmaker decides to chronicle one seemingly ordinary family’s ups and downs in order to capture “real” American life.) But within that premise were several other innovations. For one thing, the filmmaker was played by Brooks, who ostensibly was portraying “Albert Brooks” — a heightened, ego-driven version of himself — which paved the way for sitcoms like Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm (and indie comedies such as Being John Malkovich) in which famous people subverted or exaggerated their personas. Plus, Real Life was a mockumentary before the format became popular thanks to This Is Spinal Tap. (Interestingly, Tap costar Harry Shearer worked on the Real Life script.) And the movie was actually a sendup of An American Family, an acclaimed 1973 PBS series that had done the same thing as “Albert Brooks” attempts in his “documentary.”  

Granted, spoofs and mockumentaries had existed before Real Life — Woody Allen, a filmmaker and comic to whom Brooks would often get compared, got there first — but Brooks hit on something elemental about the perpetual dissatisfaction of American life. The family “Brooks” chronicles, the Yeagers, are unhappy, and “Brooks” himself is miserable because his ambitious idea isn’t working out. (Why can’t these damn Yeagers be more interesting?) And so “Brooks” is forced to manufacture some drama for the cameras. Real Life is a very funny movie about all the pointless energy we put into pretending we’re doing great.

That sense of ingrained dissatisfaction is even stronger in 1981’s Modern Romance, which I still think is Brooks’ best movie. If Real Life’s title is a bit of a misnomer, that’s also true of his followup, considering that Robert (Brooks) and Mary (Kathryn Harrold) aren’t very representative of most contemporary couples. Unfortunately for her, their relationship is imperiled by the simple fact that Robert is chronically unhappy and indecisive. He doesn’t know if he should stay with her, but he’s afraid of being alone — and he definitely can’t live with the idea of her being with someone else. That romantic limbo — which is never resolved (as we discover in a tartly funny closing crawl that explains what became of Robert and Mary after their supposed happy ending) — articulates as well as any film I can name the dilemma of being in a relationship that provides no bliss either in it or out of it.

Not surprisingly, Modern Romance wasn’t exactly a date-night favorite — or a movie the studio particularly loved. “We had a test screening and it didn’t go well,” Brooks once recalled. “The [studio heads] were angry. It was like I had shot a child. They called me in and read me the cards. ‘He’s got a good-looking girlfriend, a fast car — what’s his problem?’ They wanted to add a scene in which my character goes to a psychiatrist and explains what’s bothering him. But I honestly didn’t know what was bothering him.” The key to Brooks’ genius is that his characters shouldn’t be bothered by anything, which only bothers them more. 

Critics will often compliment his films by praising his shrewd depiction of “neurotic” men, and while that’s certainly a crucial element to his work, it’s always seemed more accurate to say that he taps into the quiet desperation that we all feel but dare not express. His movies are less about angst than they are about totally unwarranted ennui. Brooks’ characters live in the Greatest Country in the World™ and usually work in high-status professions — Real Life’s Robert is a film editor, which sets the stage for one of the funniest making-a-movie sequences of all time — and they’re still disappointed by their lot in life. They’d be pathetic if they didn’t represent how most of us feel 97 percent of the time.

For 1985’s Lost in America, Brooks perfected his vision of the entitled, ineffectual 1980s guy who was very, very flummoxed by the fact that his education and career and pretty wife hadn’t unlocked the promise of the American dream. Mad he didn’t get a plumb promotion, David (Brooks) quits in a fit of misplaced self-righteousness and then convinces Linda (Julie Hagerty) to ditch her job, too. They’ll drop out of society and find out what it means to “really” live. After all, doesn’t David deserve to be happy? He’s done everything right in life, so everything ought to work out for him.

But disappointment (and cosmic comeuppance) await David on the open road, most painfully when his wife destroys their retirement plan by gambling away their nest egg one disastrous night at the tables in Vegas while he’s asleep in bed. People who love Lost in America know the sequence well — especially David’s memorable, futile “The Desert Inn has heart” negotiation with the unmoved casino manager (Garry Marshall) that soon follows. But for me, what’s always been most powerful is his absolute eruption at Linda right afterward. The typical Brooks character is a bit wimpy and flustered, but here David vindictively tears into his wife. It’s obviously a very funny scene, but it also speaks to the raw sense of betrayal that David (and lots of Brooks protagonists) feel. It’s bad enough that the world is against David — now his own wife has sabotaged him, too. Just watch how he explodes when she suggests what the “fair thing” would be to do now that they’re destitute.

The scene is a marvel because it’s the angry outpouring of the impotent frustration that’s always seething inside his characters. David had a plan — everything was going to work out perfectly and he was going to show all the dumb people at his stupid old job that he’s so much smarter than them — and than his goddamn wife went and blew it to smithereens. I always gasp a little when I watch this moment because I recognize the very real indignation at its heart. Usually, Brooks’ thwarted men are lovable, even when they’re clearly in the wrong. But here, David lashes out brutally and unforgivably — yes, Linda did something terrible, but the meanness of his response is downright cruel. And yet, at the same time, it’s hard to miss a certain amount of self-satisfaction — almost a bit of dark joy — in his belittling fury. Unwittingly, she’s helped validate his belief that nothing’s fair and everyone is conspiring to destroy him.

None of Brooks’ films were sizable hits, none of them earned Oscar nominations. But speaking for myself, and maybe for other Brooks fans, there was something profoundly reassuring about that. Much like his characters, Brooks has had to struggle professionally, and while that’s still a pretty privileged struggle, it was always a fight to get his movie made.

Twenty years after Real Life came out, he was asked why it seemed to take so long between films. “Well, there would have been more if I could have gotten the financing easier,” Brooks responded. “Out of those 20 years, a good eight were spent raising the money! I knew that as soon as I put the words ‘The End’ on a script, I would have to go through all these minefields that I hate more than the world. … It’s hard to go through the humiliation of 20 people saying no before one person says yes.”

There was one last great triumph, 1991’s Defending Your Life, which might be the one film during this period in which disappointment didn’t reign supreme. Brooks played Daniel, a passive, unimpressive L.A. adman who dies and goes to Judgment City, where all souls are judged before it’s determined if they’re ascending to Heaven or sent back to Earth to start over. Daniel falls in love with the wonderful, generous Julia (Meryl Streep), who is definitely on her way to Heaven. It’s a superbly Brooks-ian conceit: Julia is morally and spiritually too good for Daniel, and they’re destined to wind up in very different places. (In Broadcast News, which was written and directed by James L. Brooks, no relation, Brooks’ character may lose the girl to the better-looking man. Meanwhile, in Defending Your Life he’s in a romantic triangle with Paradise. His characters always get the short end of the stick.)

Like his earlier films, Defending Your Life got great reviews and did okay box office. Years later, when The Good Place, which had a similar premise, premiered on NBC, the general public vaguely remembered Brooks’ film, but not really. If they had, they would have recalled that, for once, his protagonist finds a happy ending and doesn’t let his lot in life determine what’s going to happen to him. It’s Brooks’ most hopeful film, but it didn’t much change his commercial fortunes. Since 1991, he’s only directed three other movies — the solid Mother and then the underwhelming The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World — with no new works in the last 15 years.

As a stand-up, he was never the biggest. As a filmmaker, he was perceived as being in the shadow of Woody Allen, whose movies were lavished with praise and Oscars. (Talking to Playboy around the release of The Muse, Brooks said, “I think Woody Allen’s a genius. Certainly, when starting out, I used his name in more studio meetings than anybody — ‘It’s like what Woody Allen does.’ Of course, I stopped that after his ninth film in a row didn’t make any money.’”) But what’s great about loving Albert Brooks is knowing that, hey, he’s doing good. Way better than good, actually. His 2011 novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happened to America was acclaimed. He’s been part of the lucrative Finding Nemo franchise in which he, natch, plays a fish who is prepared for disaster at any moment. (It’s very amusing to think there is a whole generation of kids who are just now about to learn who Marlin was before Pixar.) 

And, in a larger sense, it feels like Brooks is culturally finally getting his props. In 2017, Lost in America was added to the Criterion Collection, and last month Hereditary filmmaker Ari Aster wrote an impassioned essay about his lifelong devotion to Brooks’ movies, saying, “There’s never been an artist like Brooks … and these films are true wonders, all of them treasured in knowing circles but none given their due in their own time.” Go to any Albert Brooks clip on YouTube, and invariably you’ll see in the comments multiple people mentioning how “underrated” Brooks is. He’s so constantly described as underrated and underappreciated that you’d think, at some point, that he’d be properly rated and appreciated. 

But that’s part of why we who adore Albert Brooks hold him so dear. Some comedians are so popular that it doesn’t feel like your acknowledgement of their greatness is particularly needed or insightful. (Hot Take: Jerry Seinfeld is funny.) But because Brooks never really crossed over into the mainstream — because he never captured the zeitgeist or became a household name — you can feel like you discovered Albert Brooks. It’s just like his old ventriloquist routine — the pleasure comes from knowing that you get the joke, and that a lot of other people won’t.

I started off by talking about Broadcast News. It was the only time he was ever nominated for an Oscar, and that was for Best Supporting Actor in a film he didn’t make. But even then plays into the Albert Brooks brand — he was honored for being in someone else’s film, while he labored to get his own off the ground. He didn’t win, of course, losing to Sean Connery in The Untouchables. But had he prepared a speech?

“God, if I ever win I might still use it,” he told Playboy. “I was going to say thank you and everything, and then I was going to say, ‘You know, they keep warning all the nominees to keep it short because there are six billion people watching all over the world, and I understand that, and I just hate to use this platform for anything personal, but — I lost a green sports jacket in the Copenhagen airport. If anyone has found it, please call.’”

Once again, he’d probably have been 10 feet above most of the audience with that joke. But, god, how the rest of us would have laughed.