Born into show business—his father literally died on stage at a Friar's Club roast for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and his brother is Bob Einstein, a.k.a. "Super Dave" Osbourne—Albert Brooks is among the most innovative and respected comedians of his generation. As a stand-up, he made a name for himself on the talk-show circuit, appearing on The Steve Allen Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and others before settling in for a semi-regular stint on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After producing two groundbreaking comedy albums (Comedy Minus One and A Star Is Bought) and several short films for the nascent Saturday Night Live, Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in his first feature, 1979's Real Life, a prescient black comedy that anticipated the current reality-show craze. Though never a prolific filmmaker, Brooks makes up in quality what he lacks in quantity: His subsequent works include Modern Romance, Lost In America, Defending Your Life, Mother, and The Muse.
He's also made several prominent appearances as an actor, appearing in Taxi Driver, Out Of Sight, Finding Nemo, and—in an Oscar-nominated supporting role—James L. Brooks' Broadcast News. Brooks' latest effort, Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World, was dropped by its original studio, which balked at the title. But its story about an American comic (Brooks) sent on a government mission to India and Pakistan to see what makes Muslims laugh is a lighthearted, self-deprecating treat. Brooks recently spoke to The A.V. Club about comedy after 9/11, premièring Looking For Comedy at the Dubai International Film Festival, the former and current state of stand-up comedy, and how it's okay to bomb.
The A.V. Club: How did you arrive at the idea for Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World?
Albert Brooks: It was a slow process, because after 9/11, just when it came time for me to make another comedy movie, no one was doing anything comedy-wise in movies about this new world we were living in. And I felt that if I couldn't do it, I didn't want to do anything else. I said to somebody, "It's like if a 9.0 earthquake happened in Los Angeles, and then you made a movie about Los Angeles and you didn't include it." So to make a movie about some other subject just didn't feel right to me. I felt like this was the subject that had to be dealt with. Of course, you couldn't do anything [about the post-9/11 world] in a comedy for a year or so after. You didn't even know if there were going to be more attacks. You didn't even know what was gonna happen. And then somewhere around the end of 2002, I started trying to figure out how I could even make a comedy that deals with any of this. How? I started to think about it then, and so it formulated over the next year.
AVC: Was it hard to find room for comedy in a situation that inspires such passions from both sides?
AB: Yes, believe me. But you know, there's no road map. You can't say, "Well, Jeff did this, I think I'll just tweak that idea." Obviously, I knew I wasn't gonna make fun of the religion or anything. That would be insane even if you wanted to make fun of it, which I didn't, and, you know, you have to be very, very careful. First of all, even to shoot in India, you have to get permission from the government, or they wouldn't have even let me in there. I was sort of tiptoeing around the fact that I might wind up causing an issue between [India] and Pakistan—actually, the [government official] laughed at that. He had other issues he didn't want. He told me that they didn't allow Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom to be shot there, and I asked why, and he said because they had a scene where they ate monkey brains. And even though I show that there are cows everywhere, if I had a scene where you stop and the car won't pass a cow, I don't think they'd let you do that. They're tired of that. Certain things like religious beliefs or cultural clichés, they don't want perpetuated. So the issues I was dealing with, they seemed to be all right with.
AVC: So the resistance comes from outside the Muslim world?
AB: It's interesting, because the Muslim world is a very large world. There are Arab Muslims, and Pakistan is all a Muslim nation, and even though India is primarily Hindu, the irony is, the minority population places it as the second-largest Muslim population in the world. So when you're in India, you meet many Muslim people, and they have their own relationships with the Sikhs and the Hindus. There's sort of a thing going on there. The Hindus, the guys on the crew, were whispering Sikh jokes—"How come Sikhs don't play poker?" You know, stuff like that. But primarily, because I had to get permission from [the Indian] government, the issues were more about the traditions that they were worried about, that India was worried about. But I'm the central buffoon in the movie. I'm willing to make fun of myself in all aspects, from being a Jew to being in movies that… you know… for being in The In-Laws, I'll just say that. [Laughs.] So I think as long as you're willing to do that, really, then things become okay in a strange way.
AVC: The film seems similar to Real Life, Lost In America, and Mother, in that they're about these grand experiments that ultimately fail.
AB: Well, interesting that you say that. But Mother was more of a success. Because Mother, at least you found out who the mother was, and you had some sort of closure to this—"I get it, I know why she's jealous." But you're right. Real Life, Lost In America, and Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World have that same sort of grand experiment gone haywire.
AVC: It gives the films a self-deprecating quality that makes them more approachable as well, at least in Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World.
AB: Yes, it does. I know in Lost In America, there were many people who liked the movie, and many people who said to me, "You know, I sorta wished I could have seen what it would have been like if the characters had bought a cabin and lived there for a year." Well, okay, that's well and good. But my character had to go and eat shit, I'm sorry. Real Life, I remember Rex Reed, who I don't even think knew who I was in Real Life, and of course hated it. It's one of the reviews that I will never forget as long as I live, because it was so insane. He said, "Why would Paramount Pictures give this man the money to do such an important experiment?" And I thought "Wow." It was really one of those things where, "Gee, I guess a lot of people have no idea what I'm doing. This is wild. I'm starting from way behind the pack." On this movie, there were people who said, "Well, what did you find?" Well, you gotta see the movie. It's not finding, it's looking.
AVC: How did the film play for a Muslim audience?
AB: Oh, man. Listen, I'm telling you, [premièring the film at the Dubai International Film Festival] was the greatest comedy experience I've ever had, bar none. I was panicked. I didn't know what to expect. I didn't want to go. There was no part of me that was okay about this, but I went, and it was one of those things in life where it's just… Sometimes you're worried about a test for cancer, and you've got cancer. Things don't always turn out so good. But there were two sold-out shows. I went to the opening, and I heard the second show went exactly the same.
Right before the show started, the lights went down, and I'm tapped on the shoulder, and the Minister of Information, of Culture, this sheik, has come in from Abu Dhabi, surprising everyone with his entourage. There are 14 men in their white robes, and they clear the little balcony out. And he's up there, and they say, "He wants to meet you." So my wife and I go there, but the movie's started, so they just say, "Sit down!" So we watched the whole movie sitting behind him and his group. The laughter's welling up from the first floor, and he's digging it. And I know the Jewish jokes I have coming up. I actually asked somebody, "If a sheik walks out, do they have to walk out with him? Is that part of the custom? Are the average people allowed to stay if a sheik decides he doesn't like it?" "Oh, dear, don't worry, they're not gonna notice the balcony." He didn't walk out. The audience was getting things that Chicago, New York audiences don't even get. So it had a whole different thing going for it.
They're all worried, too. The people on this planet that are trying to live their life, that aren't trying to destroy things, are in the 99.9-percent majority. And the destroyers are destroying everywhere. They're doing it here, they're trying to do it there. People are nervous about it, so they seemed very happy to be laughing at anything, because the few movies that are coming out in general about this subject are all very serious movies, or they're about the terrorist with the heart of gold, or the guy who changes his mind at the last minute. I wish suicide bombers would change their minds at the last minute. I haven't read about that. They seemed really thankful that someone was willing to do it, especially an American. And more than that, they were laughing at stuff. I've got this line in the movie where I'm just talking to my wife about landing at the New Delhi airport. I say, "Nobody was there to pick us up, they stuffed Abbott and Costello and me into a big cab"—that got a big laugh. I'm thinking, "Abbott and Costello? Why? How did that happen?" She said, "Honey, everyone's so proud of you, even my mother." "Honey, your mother thinks a Muslim is a fabric." Thirty seconds—you didn't hear any lines after that. Roar. The sheik… [Imitates laughter.] I swear to God, it made me hopeful, just hopeful that a good laugh is going to go down anywhere, providing that you don't go into that territory where they don't want you to, which is the religion, and I didn't. It was never my intention to. I don't know if that would have been okay, if I chose to do that.
AVC: Even the few comedies that have gone after subject matter like this have taken a hard satirical angle. But this film has a conciliatory nature. There's something kind of welcoming about it.
AB: Yes. There are a couple of lines in the movie that I really, really, really like, because they're just different. I like when we're crossing the border into Pakistan and I say, "Why doesn't the guy just kill me in this car, I don't want to go with this guy," and the Jon Tenney character says, "I dunno, I think they're comics, not terrorists." It's just a sentence you've never heard before. And the idea of somebody who wants to be a stand-up comedian who normally looks like the guy who wants to kill you… I just like fusing those two. It's just funny to me that maybe show business can win out. That maybe the desire to do stand-up can overwhelm someone's desire to blow us up. It makes me laugh.
AVC: There's kind of a key moment in the film where you say, "It's okay to bomb." It figures into the plot, but it also sounds like the hard-won philosophy of someone who's been in the comedy business for a long time.
AB: Yes. When I started out, I tried out all my stuff on national television. There were no comedy clubs, but even if there were, I don't think I would have gone to them. I used to do stuff in the bathroom, and then I'd drive down to NBC and do it on The Golddiggers with Dean Martin. And some things the audience would laugh at, and some things they wouldn't, and it never was the judge of what I thought was successful. Many of the things that didn't get laughs, I did four years later when I was known a little bit better, and then they got laughs. And I always felt, in a weird way, that if you only judged comedy on the immediate laughter that you're getting when you're doing it, you're being unfair. Let's say you have trout and you don't like it. Do you never have it again in your whole life, or do you let another chef do it, or do you try it again two years later? It's just not a one-time-only, "this gets one chance and then it must be thrown to the garbage heap." It is an art form, and can change night to night.
And by the way, there are such things as bad audiences. I've heard people say, "There are no bad audiences," but that's just not true. There are people who just shouldn't be together in a room, who produce a really bad audience. Drunks, people who don't want to be there… and that's no reason to judge a piece forever. So I think that comedy can and should be done as many times as the comedian wants to do it, and I don't even know that laughter should be the main consideration. It should be how it feels coming out of him, if he feels it's a good bit. I was talking to this interviewer in New York. We were just talking in general about the restrictions of modern-day show business, and I haven't done stand-up in a long time, but I said to him, I felt very lucky that I was not starting as a stand-up now, because even in the comedy clubs, there are guards at the gate going, "I don't think that's funny." And he said, "My God. You don't know! I do stand-up on the side. There's a club in New York, and they're focus-grouping my five minutes." And I just, man, I'm telling you—I don't know how you get a Sam Kinison out of that world. I don't know where Bill Hicks comes from. I don't know how anyone special can go anywhere, because the guards are right in the very embryonic stage. To me, the whole point of comedy is to just go fucking crazy and try things that are as wild as your brain can think of—and do 'em again if they don't work. Do 'em again! Believe me, the audience comes to you.
AVC: Is there a place, as a talented stand-up, to do that? Is the art of the comedy album still alive?
AB: I don't know. I just read where somebody got high on the Billboard charts with one. I forget who it was. It's not like it used to be, certainly. Comedy albums used to be everything. Anybody who wanted to be a comedian, you listened to them 'til they just fell apart. But I don't think it's what it used to be. I don't know that it's dead. What I'm more afraid of is, there'll always be somebody who gets through, but what you don't want to do is make it so restrictive that people who are starting are just looking for ways to get past the guards, because then they'll automatically censor themselves, and they won't allow their mind to go there. If you want to go out and pee on the stage and you think that's funny, you've got to find a place where you can do that. The only difference is that 25 years ago, nobody was on the side of the stage. You could go pee. Right now, someone's going, "What're you going to do? And you're going to take down your zipper why? You're not going to do that." And that's what I think makes young comedians go, "Look, man, I don't want to have a hassle. I'll just do what I think I can get done." And that's sort of like the chicken and the egg. It starts to change on its own, because people know the obstacle course and are running it.
AVC: You're famous for your appearances on talk shows—Carson, Sullivan, etc. Has the game changed there as well?
AB: Yes, the game's definitely changed. I had done a lot of variety shows before I got to Johnny Carson, so I didn't start on The Tonight Show. I used to do Ed Sullivan, which had an audience of 35 million people. But I got more recognition for doing Johnny Carson, because it was more the people that I lived with. You'd go to the market the next day, everybody would have watched The Tonight Show. So it felt more important. But the main difference is that The Tonight Show was the only game in town, and the only thing on television where a good appearance would give somebody a stand-up-comedy career. And I don't know now that a good appearance at 12:20 on Jay Leno can do that. I don't know the smaller club circuit well enough. Maybe that is what you need. But I'm saying you could make a good living as a stand-up with one home run on The Tonight Show. I think there's so much to watch now that getting the focus is hard. There's so much at 11:30 on television that maybe not enough people even know from a Letterman appearance. And Johnny Carson also was a comedy-maker. It was one of the things he did. You know, I love Letterman, I love those guys, but I don't think that's what the Letterman show is known for. It's known for its comedy, not necessarily the comedians that are coming on it.
AVC: Do you miss having original material and appearing for no particular reason except to present it?
AB: Well I'm doing Letterman next week [Note: "Next week = "last week." It was funny. —ed.], and what makes me happy about it is, I've got a bit planned that has nothing to do with the movie. If I do that, it keeps it fresh for me.
AVC: Yeah, the problem is that if people are on, it's for some sort of promotional purpose.
AB: It always is. That's why you go on. It's funny. I haven't done Leno often, but I'm always surprised when I'm on there that it's comfortable for me. He's very nice to me, and it feels comfortable. I'm only a couple miles away. I don't know why I don't go around more and just screw around. I'm sure he'd like it, but I just don't. I dunno, I just sort of got out of that mindset.
AVC: So do you get a certain amount of latitude when you act in other people's movies? Your character in Broadcast News, especially, feels like one of your creations.
AB: To give [director James L.] Brooks credit, I think once he knew I was going to play that part, he sort of wrote it and I played it, but that was his gig. And maybe he liked and could use what I was in a really great way. That's what happens in a movie, if you write for an actor and it all works. You sort of utilize what the actor can really do, even if it's something the actor hasn't done before. In this case, a worried guy who was a downer. But I wasn't ad-libbing on the set. I was acting in a part that he created. But since I came onto the project early, I did have some input into it. Take the sweating scene, for example. [In Broadcast News, Brooks' character, Aaron Altman, gets a chance to guest anchor the nightly news, but develops a serious case of flop sweat under the lights. —ed.] Initially, when Jim was writing it, he knew that Aaron Altman had to fail, but he didn't know how. And this was 1986, not too long after CNN got off the ground. There was a guy on CNN late at night who was sweating like a fountain. And I called Jim—it was like a quarter to 12—and I said, "Jim! Jim!" So he turned it on, "Oh my God!" I saw it, I told him, and he put it in. In that case, it was great, because I already had the part and I was able to sort of keep my eye open. So for those reasons, sometimes it can help, but he wrote that, I didn't.
Other times I'm given more latitude, like on Taxi Driver, where there was no part written. It was funny, because [screenwriter] Paul Schrader said to me at the wrap party, "That was the only character I really didn't understand." I said, "Jesus, you understood everybody who rapes and murders, and this guy just works in an office. That's the guy you didn't get?" Martin Scorsese didn't ad-lib that on the set. He rehearsed and taped it all in a hotel room, so you played around until you figured something out, and that would go into the script, and that would be what you shot, so you're not making it up on the cameras there.
AVC: Are your Simpsons appearances all improvised?
AB: That, I make up. They want me to make up as many lines as I can. That's sort of the fun of doing it. I come up with every line I can think of for that.
AVC: When you write a movie, do you have certain actors in mind? It feels like the casting is really particular.
AB: The casting's always particular. This movie, I didn't because I didn't know that [supporting actress] Sheetal Sheth existed, and I was hoping someone existed who could do that. I knew I wanted my character to have an assistant who was an Indian woman, and I really looked far and wide. I considered a couple of Bollywood actresses who live in India, but they're impossible to pin down. They do 11 movies a month, and you can't even get one on the phone. So my casting director and I became the current authority in Los Angeles on Indians who live in America, American-born South Asians. I like to write for somebody, but most of the times, the actor or actress I had in mind isn't able to do it. In Mother, my first choice was Doris Day, and I couldn't make that happen. Debbie [Reynolds] worked out great. But it actually is easier to write with an actor in mind, because as you're writing, you can start doing the tailoring.
AVC: What about Meryl Streep in Defending Your Life?
AB: I didn't know she would play that. That was an accident. She was friends with Carrie Fisher at the time, maybe still is, and I was friends with Carrie Fisher at the time, and I had just written this movie. I don't know if I had approached anybody. This was 1990, and I was thinking maybe Farrah Fawcett or something. And so Meryl Streep came up to me at this party and said, "So, what are you working on?" I said, "Oh, I just wrote this movie." And she said, "Is there a part for me?" And I went "Hey-ha-ha-ha," and then I drove home and I went, "Hey, you know, yeah!"
AVC: She's so relaxed in that film.
AB: Is she? I'm proud of that.
AVC: Did that require any coaxing on your part—
AVC: —or was it a surprise?
AB: Once she said she wanted to do it, she just wanted to do it, and it was my job as a director to have her put nothing on. I spent time with her at these parties. I didn't know she even laughed. I only knew her from the movies, and it was one serious thing after another. You know, you see Sophie's Choice and Out Of Africa, and you don't think of a person who's going to sit and chuckle with you. But when I saw this person at a party, I'm going, "That's the person I want in the movie." That was my goal throughout the shoot. "Just be the party person, just relax, just relax." And she did it great.
AVC: How much of the way you conceptualized Judgment City was a reflection of life on Earth, and how much was your understanding of what a celestial waystation must be like?
AB: Well, the whole point of making Defending Your Life was to take the Heaven out of dying. That's what I wanted to do. Because all these other movies that I'd ever seen always have clouds and Heaven and it's about Heaven, and I didn't want to make it about Heaven. And I think in the most simplistic way, I sort of figured, "Well, if Earth looks like this, maybe everything looks like this. Maybe we're not just creating this out of pure imagination." Almost like dying is a business, and that's sort of what Judgment City was. And it just became an efficient place, only you had the few deathly perks, like being able to eat all you want.
AVC: It's what presumably makes people comfortable.
AB: That's right. It would be to take the shock away as much as possible. Now where you go after that, I didn't bother to explain. That, I wasn't so sure of.
AVC: The film is also grappling with how we're supposed to be living. How do you feel it addresses that?
AB: Well, I really do believe, more than anything, that fear is the great issue of all of our lives. I think all of the horrible things are done out of some form of fear mixed in with religion. You know, those two create a lot of issues that people have to deal with. We seem to, as a species, be very afraid, and I just sort of imagined, "What would that be like, if you removed that? How would you function?" I'm not saying you don't keep enough so if a lion's chasing you, you run, but do you need to be afraid going for a job interview? What does that do for you?
AVC: Or releasing a movie with the title Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World.
AB: You bet. You bet.