Albert Brooks’ mordant on-screen neuroticism has lifted his films and characters to comedic heights, with “Defending Your Life,” “Lost in America” and his Oscar-nominated turn in “Broadcast News” among the prime examples.
But it’s difficult to find evidence of personal torment during an interview prompted by Brooks’ guest role on Showtime’s “Weeds.” He’s relaxed, congenial and wears no furrowed brow, looking younger than any true worrywart has a right to.
“I’ll be honest with you,” offers Brooks, 60, in that familiar, rhythmically whiny cadence that can presage a riff, or a meltdown. “I’ve always felt that the word ‘neurotic’ was really ‘Jew.’ ... It’s a legal way of saying, ‘That Jew over there,’” he said, with a mild chuckle.
He’s on a roll: “I thought of it years ago, when someone said, ‘You dirty neurotic. Get the hell out of here.’ Then there was the sign at the Los Angeles Country Club: ‘No neurotics allowed.’ I knew what that meant.”
Brooks, who is Jewish, is busting up now and it’s impossible not to do the same. He’s an ex-comic who still revels in leaving ’em laughing, even when he’s got an audience of one.
Brooks’ reputation, as recently and lovingly detailed in “Comedy at the Edge,” Richard Zoglin’s book on groundbreaking 1970s comedians, is of a brilliant standup whose departure from the field left a void.
It’s a talent Brooks acknowledges but when he pursued to get what he really wanted. Watch “Weeds,” which features him in a four-episode arc starting with Monday’s season premiere (10 p.m. EDT), and you see where his heart lies.
An actor, he says, “is all I wanted to be.”
‘He’s a fusty curmudgeon’“Weeds” marks Brooks’ first return to series TV since he made short films for the inaugural 1975-76 season of “Saturday Night Live,” excepting a handful of voice-over turns on “The Simpsons.” (He also had voice roles in “The Simpsons” movie and in “Finding Nemo.”)
As Lenny Botwin, father-in-law of single mom and pot merchant Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker), Brooks is a key part of the drama’s relocation from suburbia to the fictional Southern California border town of Ren Mar.
His work on “Weeds” was as satisfying as being in a fine independent film, Brooks said. He’s a fan of the show’s writing and the cast, especially Parker (“at the top of her game; everything she does is interesting”) and Justin Kirk, who plays brother-in-law Andy Botwin.
And, he said, the role of the grizzled Lenny was a welcome change.
“He’s not the part I normally play,” he says. “He’s a gambler, a guy who never made anything of his life and hates his son. He’s a fusty curmudgeon. If you isolated the part and said, ‘Is this going to be a movie, or on Showtime?’ it doesn’t matter because the part is great.”
He’d like to find such roles on the big screen as well, but current fare doesn’t lend itself to that possibility. Studios are too busy cultivating projects that pass what Brooks calls the “14-year-old/Korea test.”
“This is a generalization, because there are always good movies that pop up, but for the most part movies need to appeal to very young people and to foreign people, and that’s not a dynamite combination for smart, intellectual comedy,” he said.
Comedy for adultsWhich is exactly what writer-director Brooks traffics in; not blockbusters but films with distinctly singular themes that have the added bonus of showcasing familiar actors in new, sometimes startling ways (think Debbie Reynolds as the overbearing parent in 1996’s “Mother”).
Besides 1991’s “Defending Your Life,” in which he and Meryl Streep explore a Brooksian vision of the afterlife, and 1985’s “Lost in America,” a skewering of yuppiedom, there’s his latest, “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” (2005).
His big-screen directorial debut was 1979’s “Real Life,” a prescient take on then-nascent reality TV — PBS, of all things, was the groundbreaker in 1973 with its “An American Family” documentary series. In “Real Life,” a filmmaker (played by Brooks, who wrote the script with Harry Shearer and Monica Johnson) persuades a family to let him record their daily life and ends up a home-wrecker, literally; he burns their house down for a big finish.
His movies often tap into the zeitgeist or even foreshadow it, and his comedy was the same. One Brooks routine recounted in Zoglin’s book is “Rewriting the National Anthem,” in which open auditions are held for average Americans to warble their proposed replacement.
“American Idol” come to mind?
“I was friends with (singer-songwriter) Harry Nilsson, who said the job of the artist is to get way ahead and sort of scout,” Brooks said. “It’s like Davy Crockett.”
“Not all entertainment does that,” he continued. “And, by the way, the entertainment that makes the most money is entertainment that doesn’t do that. Somebody said to me, ‘You’re always ahead of your time.’ I said, ‘Go to the bank. There’s no window there for that.’”
His next film project?
“I’m going to think of something done 10 years ago,” he jokes.
Obsession comes easyBrooks said he enjoys the luxury of working in a movie without being responsible for it as a director. But the pull of a story idea, once born, often won’t let go. He turned down “Big” after his “Broadcast News” role because “Defending Your Life” had begun gestating.
He admits to routinely letting obsession take hold.
“So much so that when my wife and I bought a new mattress a number of years ago — and I’m not proud of this — but I think I knew more about mattresses than the guys at Sit ‘n Sleep,” Brooks said. “I went to a mattress store and in four minutes the salesman was afraid of me.”
The comic patter flows so easily in conversation it provokes the idea that he might someday want to give standup another try. He abruptly exited the game in the mid-‘70s, with his many appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show and two comedy albums, “Comedy Minus One” from 1973 and “A Star Is Bought” from 1975, serving as evidence of his artistry.
Turns out that his buddy, Richard Lewis, has suggested that Brooks stroll in sometime and share one of Lewis’ gigs.
But Lewis “is another guy more worried about life than I am,” Brooks said, then imagines how their pairing would be billed: “Spend an extra-neurotic evening. Or, as we call them, Orthodox neurotics!”
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