“If you’ve seen Albert work, you still don’t know what he does.” —Johnny Carson describing the comedy of Albert Brooks
Best known for film roles like Broadcast News and Defending Your Life, Albert Brooks is the topic of Defending My Life, an HBO Max documentary by filmmaker and lifelong friend Rob Reiner. Reiner includes several entertaining conversations with Brooks, and plenty of clips of Brooks’s show business entrée as a comedian that began in his teenage years. Bring popcorn.
Though Brooks’s routines were not sophisticated and were even reminiscent of vaudeville, I was still the perfect audience. I howled. But as an overthinker, I wondered what made Brooks so successful when his entire preparation involved watching himself (once) in the mirror. His stage personas included an amateur ventriloquist, a mime who talks nonstop, an escape artist who bungles his getaway, and an elephant trainer who substitutes a toad for the sick elephant that stayed home. Was Brooks cocky? Naïve? Crazy? Or was he driven by youthful confidence and enthusiasm, and an earnest desire to entertain? Yeah, I’m going with that last theory. Not to mention, when Rob Reiner’s father, the legendary Carl Reiner, saw young Brooks’s failed escape act, he roared. And when Carl Reiner thinks you’re funny, you have the legal right to believe in your future in comedy.
Defending My Life reveals Brooks’s long Hollywood history that many of us aren’t fully aware of, since his name tends to be lower profile. Which makes this movie a must-see, even if you’re not a fan. The roster of Brooks’s credits includes actor, screenwriter, director, and the voice of multiple characters in The Simpsons and The Simpsons Movie. He also created a reality TV show. And he wrote a book. Is there anything he can’t do?
We also learn about his relationship with his comedian dad and his theatrical mom, who quit the stage to raise her kids and always resented it. Some of Brooks’s material was inspired by his relationship with his parents, as well as some mental knots he’s still untying.
Big kudos to Brooks and Reiner. Let them take you on an educational journey that’s full of laughs. And just a thought… if Brooks’s opening sketch is not your taste in comedy schtick, just keep watching. You’ll be glad you did.