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BGS: The Comedian Who Loved Himself

Mull

Here’s some comedy for you from Paul Slansky, a regular contributor to The New Yorker. His work has also appeared in, among dozens of publications, The New York Observer, Spy, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Newsweek, Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and The Soho NewsHe lives in Santa Monica, California.

This story on Martin Mull was originally published in The New Times, January 1978. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission. 

By Paul Slanksy

Martin Mull’s manager has forgotten to make a reservation, so we stand in the entrance to the Universal commissary waiting for an empty table while stars like Lily Tomlin and Sly Stallone march past us to immediate seating. “I guess I’ll have to do some speed eating,” he says.” “Just run my fingers over the food.” Ten minutes into our wait, a departing couple approaches and hands Mull their lunch checks and a $10 bill. He politely explains that he is not the cashier. “When I met Martin Mull he was accepting cash and checks at the Universal commissary,” he says wryly. “There’s your opening line.”

Through six years as a singer of loony tunes that found inspiration in the mundane (“Dancing in the Nude,” “Noses Run in My Family”) and earned him a diminutive but devoted following, Martin Mull maintained a mighty sense of self. If no one showed up at his gigs, it was their loss, not his. Out of a combination of defensiveness and egomania, he created a stage persona that exuded a smug arrogance totally out of proportion to the degree of success he had achieved—a character superficially similar to, but significantly smarter than, the one Steve Martin is currently overexposing. So when he was offered a part in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a show that exalted the banal, he certainly wasn’t about to let his total lack of acting experience stand in the way.

In the role of wife-beating PR man Garth Gimble, Mull developed one of the most odious characters since Cagney smashed a grapefruit in Mae Clark’s face in Public Enemy. The damage Garth inflicted on his wife, Patty, was psychically as well as physically brutal: for Christmas he gave her a mop and pail—early, so she’d have plenty of time to use them. When a shirt button came off, Garth insisted that Patty fix it before she left for work. While she was sewing, he strolled out of the bedroom fully dressed. “You wore another shirt!” she said, to which he ad-libbed condescendingly, “A topless executive, Patty? I think that’s years away!” When Garth was impaled on an aluminum Christmas tree, he was mourned by no one but Mull fans.

Six months later Mull was back, hosting Norman Lear’s talk-show parody, Fernwood 2-Night, as twin brother Barth Gimble, a small-time hustler who had fled Miami on a morals charge, then pointed out that he has “a pretty darn good case of entrapment.” Barth Gimble was the perfect comic symbol for the seventies, a con man who revealed his ignorance even as he thought he was being incredibly hip. Here he is coming on to a nubile youngster who has been the spankee in a demonstration of corporeal punishment:

B: You have quite a talent there, Debbie. You know, we have “Rocket to Stardom” here on the show. Would you wanna be on that?

D: Well, the only thing I know how to do is sing our school song.

B: Sing! Perfect, you can come back and sing your school song. I love it.

D: It’s in Latin.

B: OK. Latin music. You guys know Latin music, huh? (The band goes into a samba.) That’s the stuff.

In the space of one year, Martin Mull brought to life two personalities who could be put into any situation and react true to character.

Martin Mull is almost famous. In the last few months he has done Merv, Dinah, Tom Snyder, the Rock Awards, Wonder Woman and Hollywood Squares. He is currently playing a disc jockey who gets laid on the air for in his first film, FM. (An appearance in Oh, God!, in which he briefly stepped in for John Denver—whom he has called “the Poland of music”—was cut from the final print.)

He is also finishing up work on his new album, I Haven’t the Vegas Idea, and a best-of collection, No Hits, Four Errors, has just been released. Next month he begins taping 13 more weeks of Fernwood 2-Night for an early-April air date. Time said he has the best sense of timing “since Jack Benny passed age 39.” Playboy wants him for the interview. So when, as he wolfed down his shrimp cocktail and beer before rushing back to the FM set, I told him that a random sample of 20 Californians turned up only five who knew who he was—plus one who thought he was “that guy who says ‘Excuse me,’ with the arrow in his head”— Martin Mull laughed. “That’s terrific,” he said. “When I walked into the house last night, everyone knew me.”

“Martin always had the demeanor of a star,” says his manager, Larry Bresner. “He’d go out and buy $200 shoes when he couldn’t pay the rent.”

“We don’t take on a lot of performances,” he continues. “You can only handle so much, and you’re really not interested in handling somebody who can’t go to the full limit of their potential, because it’s not fun. You book them into 50 dates a year and it’s boring. With Marty, there’s no such thing as boring. I’ve never met anybody that’s got a brain that’s full of more ideas. The man could be the number-one advertising executive in the country.” (When Earth Shoes recently asked him to do an ad for them, Mull came up with “Shoes: Fetish or Necessity?”)

“Martin is one of a kind,” says Al Burton, one of Norman Lear’s creative supervisors who caught Mull’s show at the Roxy in Los Angeles and signed him for Mary Hartman. “He has this unique hateful quality while still being an appealing performer.”

“Martin was a joy to work with,” he adds. “He is one of the quickest-thinking wits since the old days of wits. The nuances that he got out of those lines were incredible. I know very few actors who can make a written word sound as if it’s ad-libbed. I like Steve Martin, but I don’t think I would have gone after him the way I went after Martin Mull.”

In fact, Martin and Mull are good friends and have worked together on several projects. “There was a time when Martin and Steve seemed to osmose off of each other a little,” says comedy writer Harry Shearer, whose credits include Fernwood 2-Night. “I think Steve picked up a little of Martin’s arrogance, and I don’t know what Martin picked up from Steve—three or four good lines probably. With Steve it’s so obvious that he’s putting it on, but with Martin it’s a lot closer to home. You can never quite be sure whether he’s doing a character or whether that’s the guy, which is interesting.”

Eugenie Ross-Leming, co-producer of Forever Fernwood, is another Mull fan. “The Garth character was so grim that it was really hard on Martin,” she says. “The real tribute was that he carried it off.” How he did it, though, she’s not sure. “I don’t know, maybe Martin’s past is incredibly sordid and warped—we can hope.”

Martin Mull was born in Chicago in 1943 and grew up in Ohio towns not unlike Fernwood. “Up until the age of 16, I was the same as Taft,” he says. In 1959 the family moved to Connecticut, where Martin was the star place-kicker for the New Canaan High football team. He went on to become an honor student at the Rhode Island School of Design and receive a Master’s degree in painting in 1967. That same year, he made his acting debut before the Providence draft board.

Slicking his hair back with Vaseline and sporting a lumberjack shirt several sizes too small, Mull prepared a lunch of carrots, celery and a tuna fish sandwich. Each carrot stick and celery strip was individually wrapped in aluminum foil, as was the lump of tuna fish and each slice of bread. He carried it in an oversized grocery bag with his name scribbled all over. He claimed membership in every Communist group he’d ever heard of. After his hearing test, he pretended to be locked in the booth. When the psychiatrist asked him what he thought of the draft, Mull, chewing on his hand all the while, said, “Well, actually, I think it’s sort of chilly in here. Would you mind closing the window?” The Army brought on the hook.

By this time Mull’s interests were divided between art and music. He joined a conceptual-art group whose most notorious project was Flush with the Walls (Or, I’ll Be Art in a Minute), a 1971 exhibition in the men’s room of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

“We wanted to have a show at the museum,” he says. “But generally you had to be dead to be chosen. This was a price we didn’t really want to pay. So at 8 p.m. sharp, six of us, women as well as men, went in there and put up our work with masking tape while there were still people in there using it. In a matter of minutes we had over 300 people in the men’s room, including film crews for the 11 o’clock news. It was a terrific success.”

The following year, The Umbrellas of Pitchburg (mais oui serve vous) was sponsored by the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art. The show consisted of hors d’oeuvres in the shapes of great works of 20th-century art, such as “Picasso on Rye,” which were eaten by the guests. (One doggie bag remained for years in the Institute’s freezer.)

Mull continued to produce his Fantasia-esque paintings, and was making some money—”I priced them very much like merchandise,” he says. “It wouldn’t be $500, it would be $499.99.”—but his career as a musician began to take up more of his time. In his senior year at RISD, Mull had formed a group called Soup, a band remembered less for its musical abilities than for its demented stage show. Mull, in a chef’s hat, was Captain Soup; the other costumes ranged from pajamas to a giant cigarette carton. The group recorded one unmemorable album before disbanding.

After getting his degree, Mull moved to Boston, where he lived in a basement apartment while working at a small recording studio. He was writing songs and thinking seriously about performing. When he married artist Kristin Johnson in 1970 (they are currently getting a divorce), he quit his job, collected unemployment and hired a manager with a special talent for securing nonpaying bookings.

“We had no money,” Kristin recalls. “Martin had to take public transportation to the gigs carrying his guitar, and not get paid, and play to an empty house. But he has a very large ego, and that sustained him for a long time.”

His songs would take a bizarre premise (What if I married a midget?) and extrapolate the logical results (“Walking hand and ankle/she’s got her arm around my sock”). They were strange but basically sweet—when he poked fun at something, it was good-natured. But when he began performing, another character developed between the songs, a character from which Barth and Gimble is a direct descendent. “I first started making music during the folk music scare of the sixties,” he says, “and I always felt that messages should be sent by Western Union, not by music. I would get in front of the audience and try to play these little alternative songs, and they’d look at me like I was half-baked. So I realized I’d have to introduce the tunes, and my tongue sort of went into my cheek, because that’s who I am. And out of that, certain things got great laughs and cumulatively built into an act.”

The laughs came at the audience’s expense. If they couldn’t appreciate a song like “Partly Marion” (“She was only 17/when she cut them off in the washing machine/she just reached for the wringer/and zap went the fingers/it was no consolation that they come off so clean”), it was their fault.

“Initially it was defensive,” he says. “I’d been told for years by my folks that I could not sing, and that’s quite a lot, to go on stage doing something you’ve been told you cannot do.”

He signed a contract with Capricorn Records and was soon on the road more that he was home. Then came Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture. “Standing up there in front of a stack of amps wasn’t really satisfying,” he says. “And when I’d sit around my living room and play with some friends, that did seem satisfying. I thought, ‘Maybe the catalyst here is furniture,’ so I figured, why not try it? It made me feel more at home, which would make the audience feel more at home. So I brought my home. It was literally my real furniture.” When he couldn’t schlep his own things, he rented old tables, chairs and lamps from local Salvation Armies.

The Mulls were then living in New York on Riverside Drive, and Martin’s career began putting a strain on the marriage. “He demanded an audience no matter where he was,” says Kristin. “Even if it was just me and him. It was, ‘Listen to this, no, wait, listen to this, what do you think of this?’ If there were more people, eventually we’d just be sitting around listening to Martin’s tunes. At one point I told him, ‘Martin, we’re living in a two-bedroom apartment and you’ve got a six-bedroom ego. I feel crowded.’ But I think that’s why he’s where he is now, because he’s so proud of what he does.”

Mull recorded four albums for Capricorn, and although he became close to the president of the company, Phil Walden, Mull claims the label had no idea how to market them. (“They were putting them out in fields and hoping people would find them,” he says) He had one near-hit, a single called “Dueling Tubas,” the Deliverance theme hilariously rendered by out-of-tune tubas. He was working steadily at colleges and clubs like the Boarding House—San Francisco and Boston have always been his best markets. But he wasn’t making any money, until he signed with Rollins & Joffe, the firm which also manages Woody Allen and Robert Klein.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojqrd7FeXmg

“At that time he was traveling around with tap-dancers, a band, horns, craziness,” recalls Larry Bresner. “We could always get him work, but if he was getting paid $2,000, it cost him $4,000 to do it. We insisted on getting rid of everybody in the band. That wasn’t Martin Mull. Martin Mull was what he did sitting in a chair. The whole key was being able to expose him on a mass level.”

Mass level equals television. Mull did a couple of Cher shows and was offered the position of band leader on Saturday Night. “At that point, I didn’t feel it was quite enough for me to do, to sit there and say two or three lines a night,” he says, and turned it down. That may be one reason he has never been asked to host the show; another is more obvious.

A few years ago, Mull went to see the National Lampoon Show in New York. He sat right up front and talked with his friend, Peter Boyle, throughout the performance. When he went backstage afterward to congratulate the cast (which included John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray), Murray went berserk. He grabbed Mull around the neck and tried to choke him, screaming, “I’LL KILL HIM, I’LL KILL THAT FUCKER, HE TALKED THROUGH THE WHOLE THING, I HATE HIM!”

“As I recall, Bill had to be restrained by John Belushi,” says Michael O’Donoghue, who worked with Mull on an aborted project titled Lincoln: The Man, the Car and the Tunnel. “When Martin left the dressing room, Billy kept screaming after him, ‘Medium talent! Medium talent!’ Of such things show business legends are made.”

“I feel very bad about that show,” says Mull. “I’d had a bit to drink” (he doesn’t smoke grass), “and quite frankly, it was more amusing at that point to talk to Peter, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. I confess to having been extremely rude, though not quite as rude as Bill Murray trying to strangle me afterward.”

Then came Mary Hartman. “I thought they hired me because I was a comedian,” Mull says. “I was kind of surprised when all of a sudden we got all this Virginia Woolfish high drama. I didn’t like the character at all. I don’t care for violence, and wife beating is particularly repugnant to me, so it was quite hard.”

When Garth was killed off, the plan was to bring Mull back as a twin brother later in the season. But Al Burton saw him as the ideal host for Fernwood 2-Night. Norman Lear, however, had never seen Mull’s stage act, so a special night at the Roxy was arranged. In the middle of his act, Martin stopped and said, “Well, Norman, do I have the job?” He did.

Fernwood 2-Night was the perfect vehicle for Mull; he had been playing Barth Gimble since the first time he appeared on stage. The character incorporated some of the most basic comic schticks: the classic Gleason/Carney relationship between Barth and Jerry Hubbard (brilliantly played by Fred Willard, of the Ace Trucking Company), the exaggerated exasperation of Jack Benny, and the disgusted stare of Oliver Hardy, as lifted by Johnny Carson. (How long can it be before Mull is perceived as the obvious successor to Carson?)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-iSmlRXTfE

“Martin was the one who realized that the show had to be more real,” says Harry Shearer, “as opposed to just raiding the files of topics taboo for TV. There was one meeting where one of Norman Lear’s vice-presidential flunkies said, ‘This reality shit is OK for Andy Warhol, but we’re doing TV.’ That was what he was up against.”

“What we didn’t do, that a lot of television does do,” says Mull proudly, “is we didn’t say to ourselves, ‘Whoops, we’re missing the dumb-belt contingent, we better make sure we have more tits and ass, or more fart jokes.’ Occasionally I thought I would get extremely antsy because I thought some of the acts were a little bit toward a Gong Show kind of thing, and to me, you don’t have to have a grandmother who plays the tuba and tap-dances at the same time—that’s not funny to me, because it’s a reach. To me, just having a grandmother, period, come on and talk about her grandchildren and show photos is much funnier. It’s not as obvious.”

What is obvious is the appeal of the concept to Mull. Like his songs, the show started with one absurd premise—what if the town of Fernwood decided to produce its own talk show—and took the idea to its limits.

So if you’ll beg my pardon

I’m goin’ out and start a garden

It’ll just be small potatoes

Just some lettuce and tomatoes

And if either one comes up, we’ll joint the Grange

What say you and I get normal for a change.

Martin Mull’s garden is a small sod lawn that cost only $38. (“It’s just back from the cleaners,” he says.) It is in back of the modest Malibu house he shares with his new love, Fernwood costume designer Sandra Baker, her two children and two dogs; the beach is a few hundred feet away. He clearly enjoys being normal for a change.

It’s 80 degrees out in the yard, but Martin is wearing brown pants, a green turtleneck and a tan jacket with a “Bah! Humbug!” button, in preparation for a photo shoot for the cover of the Christmas issue of Ampersand, a college monthly.

“Did you hear about the three Polacks who froze to death at a drive-in?” he asks. “They went to see Closed for the Season.”

His manager calls to discuss a possible book deal. “If it works out,” he says, “I’ll be limited to books, records, TV, movies, live performances and art.”

Martin is not above poking fun at himself—the cover of his latest album for ABC, I’m Everyone I’ve Ever Loved, shows him reclining on a couch gazing lovingly into a hand mirror, surrounded by signed photographs of himself. He is trying to get his stage persona more in sync with his private one, which he observes, “would not totally remove the smug arrogance.”

He is excited about the return of Fernwood 2-Night, mainly because the show allows him so much creative freedom. “I’m lucky,” he says. “The stuff that makes me happy has enough in common with enough people that it can become a commodity. There are a lot of people who, given compete license, can have the time of their life and have the communication of a rock.”

The Norman Lear organization is talking about a network sit-com after Fernwood runs its course. “I would have to have enough control over the thing that it wouldn’t compromise me,” he says. “I’m still very young, I’m still looking forward to making money, as opposed to trying to maintain some sort of lifestyle by selling out.” His managers want him to come up with a screenplay that he could direct and star in.

“What I really want to do with my life,” he says, “is take Sandra and the family to the south of France, fins a little château, set up the easel and paint.”

Martin Mull is a lucky man. He is getting paid for being funny, which is like a “normal” person getting paid for breathing. He is at last getting the recognition which, in his own words, he has so desperately deserved. He is unlikely to be spoiled by success—he’s been ready for it for too long.

Two women come by to shoot the photo. He walks over to the outdoor fireplace. “I could be hanging up a pair of panty hose and hoping that Santa fills ‘em with the proper item,” he suggests. They ask for a quote about Christmas. “I’m very hard to buy for,” Martin says. “Do you want a list of things? I think I should publish my sizes. Just a simple Christmas, and if all I receive is a Mercedes-Benz 280SL, hey, I was with my folks.


[Collages by Martin Mull]

BGS: Every Kid Should Have an Albert

A Star Is Bought

Albert Brooks’ second album, A Star is Bought, is the best comedy record most of you have probably never heart. It was never released on CD and it’s not available on ITunes. And that’s a shame because the record—which was made in collaboration with Harry Shearer—is one of the finest comedy albums ever made. Never mind that it was nominated for a Grammy or that it was in many ways a precursor to faux-documentary style of This Is Spinal Tap, it Albert in top form. You know, hilarious.

According to Paul Slansky, who wrote “Everybody Should Have an Albert” for The Village Voice in March 1979, Brooks owns the rights to A Star is Bought, he just isn’t motivated to re-release it. What would get Brooks to reconsider, I wonder?

C’mon, Albert: Please.

As for Slansky, his profiles, essays, and humor pieces have appeared in The New Yorker (where his political and cultural quizzes have been a frequent feature for the past dozen years), the legendary Spy magazine, and, among dozens of other publications, The New York ObserverThe New York TimesNewsweek,The New RepublicRolling StonePlayboy, and Esquire (where he co-ordinated the annual Dubious Achievements Awards feature throughout the 1980s). He is the author of six books, including My Bad: The Apology Anthology (2006),Idiots, Hypocrites, Demagogues and More Idiots: Five Decades of Political Infamy (2008), Slansky also edited Carrie Fisher’s first book, Postcards From the Edge (1987), and her most recent, Shockaholic (2011).  He is currently working with legendary producer Norman Lear on his memoir.

He knows funny when he sees it which is why he was a beauty fit to write about Albert. This story appears here with the author’s permission.

“Everybody Should Have an Albert”

By Paul Slansky

On February 4, 1974, Albert Brooks walked on the stage of the Tonight Show for the 22nd time. His past performances had included some of the funniest bits ever seen on the show: an impressionist whose imitation of various celebrities all sounded like Ed Sullivan; a mime who came out in whiteface and proceeded to describe, with a French accent, his every action (“Now I am walking down ze stairs, now I am petting ze dog”); and an elephant trainer whose elephant was sick, forcing him to substitute a frog.

But this time Brooks’s normally genial face wore a troubled expression. He explained that his appearance on the show was an unfortunate mistake, that he had only come because his manager insisted it was time to do another Carson show. “Let’s just talk philosophy for a minute,” he said earnestly. “A lot of us have a game plan. We don’t want to give too much of ourselves too quickly because, you know, then it’s all gone. Here I am, five years into my career, and my game plan is all off. I have no material left. While you folks were having turkey dinner last week, I was down to my last bit.”

This was no laughing matter, as the silent audience clearly recognized. There hadbeen those rumors of a recent breakdown on stage in a Boston nightclub, and didn’t Johnny always call him “Crazy Albert Brooks?” God, was the guy about to crack up on national television? A few uneasy coughs broke the silence.

He then went through a scornful recitation of all the things he could do if he wanted to settle for cheap laughs. Sure, he could get a laugh by dropping his pants, he said, dropping them and getting an enormous (and relieved) one. Sure, he could break people up smashing eggs on his head, but who couldn’t? Sure, he could draw a funny face on his chest…

A few minutes later, with his pants around his ankles, whipped cream and eggs dripping from his head, a cake on his face, and a face on his chest, he stared into the camera and said, “This isn’t the real me.” He pulled an 8×10 glossy out of his shorts, declared, “This is the real me!” and stalked offstage a la Jimmy Durante. The audience responded with a solid minute of applause.

***

So whatever happened to Albert Brooks? Three years ago it looked like he was going to make it big. His short films were appearing on Saturday Night Live. He made his motion picture debut as the pushy campaign worker in Taxi Driver. His second album, A Star is Bought, received a Grammy nomination, and Timecalled him “the smartest, most audacious comic talent since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.” Enormous success seemed within his grasp, if only he would reach for it. Instead, he dropped out of sight.

He has spent the past three years working on Real Life, his first feature film which Paramount is distributing. Real Life is the most original American comedy in recent memory. Brooks wrote the film, with comedy writers Harry Shearer and Monica Johnson. He raised the money for it—under $1 million—from a man who didn’t even read the script. He directed it and spent six months in the editing room with it, designed the print ad and created the TV and radio spots. In short, total control.

“When he was younger,” says Harry Shearer, “he really sat down and mapped out five-year plans—he was like a communist government. One of the ways Albert is smarter than most of the people in the business is that he’s held out for total control over the things that are important to him.”

Brooks called Real Life “a staged documentary comedy.“ In it, he plays a comedian named Albert Brooks, who joins forces with a scientific research institute and a major Hollywood studio to make a film about a year in the lives of a typical American family. (Remember the Louds?) Wall cameras sensitive to body heat, and portable devices worn over the heads of the film crew will capture every moment’s bit of activity.

The Yeagers of Phoenix, Arizona, are chosen: veterinarian Warren, his first wife Jeanette, and their two children. Unsurprisingly, their lives immediately begin to fall apart under the scrutiny. Their first dinner sets the mood, with Warren and Jeanette arguing about her menstrual cramps while cameramen diligently circle the table.

Things get worse. Jeanette visits her gynecologist, whom Albert recognizes as a baby broker exposed on 60 Minutes. Warren loses a patient—a horse. Jeanette’s grandmother dies, and Warren talks about the dead horse during her funeral service. Finally, an article about the family appears in a local newspaper, and they are besieged by TV cameras whenever they leave the house. Throughout the family’s ordeal Brooks reassures them, even as he manipulates them to ensure the success of the project. (When Jeanette says her children are afraid to go to school, Brooks counters, “That’s normal, trust me.”)

The Yeagers are victims, not villains. Their irrational desire for celebrity—and Brooks’s—is the result of society’s celebration of it as the only goal worth attaining. Real Life operates on so many levels and takes on so many subjects, with such attention to detail, that it demands to be seen more than once. Brooks’s cynicism is aimed at our affectations, not our aspirations, and he trusts his audience to join him in acknowledging—and enjoying—the utter silliness of it all.

“Albert is a national treasure,” says Charles Grodin, who plays Warren Yeager in the film. “I’m delighted that we’re alive at the same time. I’d like to see him have everything. He’s so damn good, you just have to feel that way.”

***

When I call Albert Brooks to set up a meeting for the following day, he suggests getting together immediately. Unfortunately, my tape recorder has a dead battery, and I don’t want to sit down with him without it.

“Maybe I should just jot down some of the things I might say,” he says. “Okay, I’ll tell you what. I’ll bring a tape recorder, I’ll bring batteries, I’ll even bring cassettes. What size shirt do you wear?” Twenty minutes later, he walks into the El Padrino Room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with a recorder and a cassette of Emmy Lou Harris’s Elite Hotel. “It’s the only tape I could find,” he says. “You’ve got 40 minutes.”

We begin by discussing the genesis of some of his early routines, including the out-of-material bit. “It was time to do another Carson show,” he says, “and I really didn’t have anything to do. So I thought, this is interesting, maybe I can get something out of this. Most of my bits come from what’s really there. You turn it into entertainment by making it a little more interesting.”

He points to a horse behind our table. “Sometimes I like to make up names for the horses of famous people,” he says. “Like if Burt Bachrach had a horse, what would he call it? Maybe, ‘Where’s Angie?’ If we stop now, you get the rest of Emmy Lou’s album, you know.”

The waiter brings my drink, and a chef’s salad and iced coffee for Albert, who says that he might be going to Hawaii for a vacation in a few days. “Maybe I shouldn’t see you again before you go,” I say. “Then I’ll have to go to Hawaii to finish the piece.”

“Will your editors pay for it?” he asks. “Because if they will, here’s what we’ll do. When you get to Hawaii, there’ll be a message waiting for you saying I’ve gone on to Japan. Then we’ll go to China, and…” He stops himself. “What am I talking about?” he practically moans. “I’ll never leave. I’ve been talking about a vacation for five years, I just never leave. It’s sick, it’s not healthy.” He suddenly brightens. “You know what I’ve always wanted to do? I’ve always wanted to put a lung in a suitcase and send it through an airport security check. In effect, the guard would be looking at an X-ray of a lung.

Aside from Albert’s comic instinct, the most striking thing about him is his confidence in it. His jokes are delivered as casually as they occur to him. It’s clear that if he thinks something is funny, he goes with it—getting a laugh is a pleasant but nonessential bonus.

Ill leave the tip,” Albert says loudly when the check arrives. “Not really. That was just for the tape recorder.”

***

Two days later, I arrive at Albert’s Hollywood office intending to observe an average day in his real life, but he has other plans: a trip to Magic Mountain to ride Colossus, this year’s World’s Largest Roller Coaster.

Albert calls Magic Mountain, lowering his voice in an approximation of the sort of simpleton who doesn’t find the very notion of such hype ludicrous: “Hullo, uh, I’m not going to be coming up there, but if I were, what time does Colossus open? And how long is the wait? Thank you.” He hangs up and laughs. “She said, ‘It opens at 3 and there’s a two-hour wait. Let everybody go on and then it’ll clear out and you’ll go later in the evening.’ She’s planning our evening! ‘You’ll have dinner here, you’ll buy bumper stickers, we got a hotel room for you…’ Let’s go.”

An hour later, we pay $17 at the admission gate, stop to buy Sno-Cones, and join the line about a quarter-mile from the ride. “It’s amazing how this place generates absolutely no excitement of its own,” Albert says. “The frightening thing would be if they said we could never leave here. Aside from all the things you’d never be able to do again, you’d have to eat every meal here.”

Two young girls walk by wearing Fonzie T-shirts. “I bet half the kids in this park know the name Freddie Silverman,” Albert says. “What other era could you live in where kids know the name of a head of programming?

“But I can’t think of any time I’d rather be living in, because of the technology. It’s just amazing.” (Few of his friends understand his fascination with technology, which is much in evidence in Real Life. But Harry Shearer, who shares the obsession, has an explanation: “Albert is basically an optimist, and if you want to be optimistic about the future, technology is the only refuge you’ve got.”)

“Catalina was the last place in the country to get a phone system that didn’t need operators,” Albert continues. “Everyone in town used to know each other through the operator, and now that way of life is gone, just gone,” he says wistfully, then interrupts himself. “Who cares? I wanna go on Colossus!” He breaks into a Bob Hope parody: “Now I don’t wanna say that it was a long wait, but the kid in front of me learned to read on the line. I don’t wanna say I was scared, but… you finish it.”

An hour after getting on line, we pass under the Colossus sign, and Albert begins his countdown “Six minutes, six minutes! Four minutes!” Albert screams and waves his hands in the air as our car plunges along the tracks, but the ride is unworthy of its hype. “Weightless 11 times, they said—I only counted four,” he says as we walk down the ramp. “Three good drops, no good banks. If we’d waited two hours, I would have been disappointed.”

We stop at a souvenir stand to buy buttons that proclaim I RODE IT! “We rode it,” Albert says, “but only because you wanted to know what my average day was like. I do it every day. See what my button says, I RODE IT A MILLION TIMES!”

Looking for a place to get a salad, we pass a gift shop with a rack of dresses near the doorway. “Who buys clothes here?” Albert wonders. “Hey, that’s nice, where’d you get it?’ ‘Magic Mountain.’”

The salad hunt proves futile. “I didn’t really want one anyway,” Albert says as we leave the park. “I wanted to get the button that came with it—I ATE SALAD AT MAGIC MOUNTAIN.”

***

“Every kid should have an Albert,” says comedy writer Monica Johnson. “He’s the kind of person you’d want to be locked in jail with. You know, you don’t have a game, you don’t have any cigarettes, what could be better than having Albert Brooks in there?”

Harry Einstein (better known as Parkyakarkus, a Greek-dialect radio comedian), finally couldn’t resist the joke—he named his fourth son Albert. “My father was very sick around the time I was born,” says Albert, sitting in the living room of his rented Benedict Canyon home and leafing through a bound volume of Parkyakarkus’s radio scripts. “The doctors thought he wouldn’t live.

“He did recover, but I don’t remember him as very active. I do remember lots of schtick around the dinner table. Generally he and my brothers and I were all laughing at the same thing my mother did not find funny, whatever that was.

“I guess I was the class clown—with a name like Albert Einstein, you don’t hide in the back. I’d read the school bulletin to the class and I’d add activities and make stuff up. It was good, a good 10 minutes every morning.”

When Harry Einstein died in 1958, 11-year-old Albert, who had grown up around Hollywood comedians, already had a reputation among them as a budding comic genius. A few years later, when Johnny Carson asked Carl Reiner to name the funniest men he knew, Mel Brooks and a high school kid named Albert Einstein were the two that he mentioned.

In the summer of 1965, after graduating from Beverly Hills High, Albert went to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to perform in summer stock. “Albert wanted to be a serious actor,” says Rob Reiner, a close friend since high school. “He went to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh for its drama department and he was talking about doing all this dramatic theater. We’d say, ‘Albert, you’re funny. What you do best is make people laugh.’ He fought that for the longest time, and finally he started doing it and liking it.” He left college after three years, took the name of Brooks (“It sounded good with Albert,” he says) and returned to Los Angeles to start his career.

The traditional comedy formats became his targets. The first bit he came up with was “Danny and Dave,” an inept ventriloquist act that he performed on the syndicated Steve Allen Show in 1968. The Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, and Ed Sullivan shows followed, and other offers were coming in, but even then Albert was wary of losing control of his life.

“If I’d wanted to be a big star, I could have done the dummy bit 40 times, and everyone in the country would have known me,” he says. “But I didn’t want to be known as the guy with the dummy, so I forced myself to keep coming up with new stuff.”

In February 1971 Esquire ran an article called “Albert Brook’s Famous School for Comedians,” a take-off on all those correspondence schools that promise to turn you into another Van Gogh if you can trace the outline of your hand. The article—which Albert later turned into a short film for PBS’s Great American Dream Machine—presented the faculty (Joe Garagiola and Totie Fields, among others), key campus sites (the Don DeFont Mall) and the curriculum, which included courses in dialect, the double take, and the importance of choosing a disease to help eradicate. At the end came a comedy talent test which the reader could to take to see if he qualified for enrollment. A sample question:

Take my wife ______.

A. for instance.
B. I’ll be along later.
C. please.

The magazine received over 200 serious inquires about the school.

***

He did his first Tonight Show in mid-1972, and quickly became a Carson favorite. Instead of adopting bizarre, negative personae that would exploit the audience’s hostilities, Albert performed as himself, using his feelings rather than disguising them and talking as if the audience were sitting in his living room. So sure was he of his instincts that he didn’t even audition his new material for friends. “I tried out all my stuff on national television,” he says. “After doing two years of TV, I felt confident enough to put together a live bit.”

Albert spent three years on the road, headlining in small clubs and opening for rock stars like Neil Diamond in larger halls. The anxiety and boredom created by doing the same material night after night finally got to him during a tour to promote his first album, Comedy Minus One, and a gig at Paul’s Mall in Boston was literally the end of the road. “I was just real tired,” he says, “and the record wasn’t even in the stores. I remember doing an interview with a disc jockey who said to me, ‘Jonathan Winters went crazy, you think that’s ever gonna happen to you?’ I said, ‘I think it’s happening right now.’” In the middle of the one-week engagement, he flew back to L.A.

Around this time, he began going out with Linda Ronstadt, a relationship that lasted two years. “I was going with Linda just before big things started happening for her,” he says. “We lived together for almost a year. We liked each other because at that time we had the exact same fear of performing—whatever that fear was, we shared it.”

(Albert is reluctant to discuss his personal life, but Penelope Spheeris, who produced Real Life, says, “Albert’s women are usually real serious. His love affairs are always like The Tempest.”)

By the end of 1975, his films were appearing regularly on Saturday Night, ostensibly the ideal vehicle to catapult him to stardom. Unfortunately, the relationship was not a smooth one.

“Albert, to put it in its mildest form, is sometimes intolerant of other people’s problems,” says producer Lorne Michaels. “We couldn’t edit, we couldn’t have audience laughter on the soundtrack. He had complete creative control. I had asked him for three-to-five-minute films, he got me up to five-to-seven minutes, and eventually they came in at 10. And you couldn’t say they were too long, because he would say, ‘They’re brilliant.’”

Well, they were. “The Impossible Truth” featured an interview with a blind cab driver: “Damn right, I still drive. What should I do, sit home and collect welfare?” Another film had Albert fulfilling a lifelong dream—performing heart surgery. (“I pray it doesn’t hurt, I pray it doesn’t hurt,” says the patient as Albert, who has forgotten the anesthesia, prepares to make the first incision.)

But the best of the lot was “Super Season,” an elaborately filmed parody of network promotion spots previewing scenes from three “new” shows: Black Vet (a black Vietnam veteran takes up practice as a veterinarian in a small southern town); Medical Season (“But it’s unnecessary. This man does not need surgery,” a doctor says as a patient is wheeled into the operating room. Replies his colleague: “It’s too late. He’s already paid for it and we’ve already spent the money.”); andThe Three of Us, a sitcom about a man living with two women—a premise which apparently was not too ridiculous for ABC, which built a real series around it two years later.

When the six-film contract expired, neither party was inclined to renew. “Viewer mail rated my films the least popular part of the show,” says Albert. “The Muppets were the audience favorites.”

Instead of becoming a superstar, he went to work on Real Life. “The groundhog came out today, laughed, and scratched ‘See Real Life’ in the dirt,” he says. “That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”

***

“You rode the ride, now hear the commercial,” Albert says, as an ad for Colossus comes on the radio of his Honda Civic. A Mercedes with a RUNNERS MAKE BETTER LOVERS bumper sticker on its trunk moves in front of us as we drive to a Japanese restaurant for sushi, Albert’s favorite food.

“Wouldn’t it be great if cars came equipped with screens like that thing they have in Times Square that spells out the news? He asks. “You could punch out your own instant messages: WILL THE SMALL RED CAR WITH THE UGLY DRIVER PLEASE STAY A LITTLE FURTHER BEHIND?”

“Night Fever” comes on the radio. “A few months ago, you literally could not turn on the radio without hearing this,” he says. “If someone put a gun to your head and said, ‘Find the Bee Gees in 30 seconds,’ you could do it.”

What about his plans for the future? “I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” Albert says. “I haven’t started writing another film yet. I want to see what the climate is like for Real Life before I decide.

“It only makes me anxious when I think ahead. I mean, some things you have to plan, but if you think far enough ahead, you’re dead. Hey, that sounds like a slogan. Let’s put in on the bumper.”

***

Everything is material for Albert Brooks—a lawn sprinkler watering an area of grass the size of a paper plate, a squashed coyote on the side of the road that “might just be taking a nap,” the president of the United States saying that “as far as sovereignty goes, I have no hang-ups about it.” His comedic vision encompasses everything he sees. Nothing is wasted, not even a pit stop to buy cassettes for the drive up to Magic Mountain, as I realize days later while transcribing my tapes.

There’s Albert, talking about why he doesn’t smoke or drink, describing how uncomfortable he felt the time he leased a Cadillac, saying he’ll wait in the car while I get the cassettes.

And then there’s this: “You’re in the record store now, Paul, so this’ll be a surprise for you, because right now you’re buying tapes and we’re going to Magic Mountain. What’s going to happen is that I intend to kill you at Magic Mountain. This will happen right before we go on the ride. I’m only doing it to get new movie ideas, ‘cause, you know, I owe it to the people. Bye bye.”

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver