However much you may have laughed over the course of 1973, you didn’t laugh enough if you didn’t catch Albert Brooks. He did concerts, but you would’ve most likely caught him on The Tonight Show, where he portrayed a ventriloquist who poured water over the dummy’s head while keeping up a steady steam of patter; held—and played all the parts of—an audition to find a new National Anthem; hilariously diagrammed a joke and did a simple yet effective reading of the contents of Cool Whip.
One of Brooks’ finest efforts, however, was for educational TV—a short film for the American Dream Machine, called The Albert Brooks Famous School for Comedians, with such classy features as the Jack Klugman Cafeteria and the lesson on the Danny Thomas spit take: “OK, you’re Danny, and your manager Sid just told you he has a great booking for you. You start to take a sip of coffee and you ask, ‘Where?’ Sid says, ‘The Cairo Hilton,’ and you spit the coffee out—Pfththth!” An entire classroom full of practicing spitters. It was inspired.
Brooks is not like Carlin, Klein or Pryor (and certainly not like Cheech and Chong), who bring humor to fairly ordinary situations (though Brooks does that too); Brooks’ strength is in the unexpected twist of an already bent imagination. Just pick up his new (and first) album, called Comedy Minus One on Dunhill. The title track gets its name from the Music Minus One series, where an orchestra plays an opus but a solo instrument, say the clarinet, is missing, so you at home can clarinet along. With Brooks you get half a comedy team on the record, plus an audience; you at home (with script provided) are the other half. And you get all the laughs.
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“My audience has lots of people between 20 and 35, but there are always a few 60-year-olds, and it makes me happier than if everyone was 22.”
Brooks is only 24, but in no way does he identify with any long-haired, dope-curdled countercultural generation.”The underground is made up of people who are least into comedy, and it’s a fickle audience. My audience has lots of people between 20 and 35, but there are always a few 60-year-olds, and it makes me happier than if everyone was 22.” It also makes it difficult to place Brooks within any recognizable comedic context. It seems like he’d rather hang out with George Jessel than George Carlin, yet his humor is light years ahead of—and beyond—the Toastmaster General’s.
“I’ve been doing comedy since I was two,” Brooks said. “You know, kids who make other kids laugh. The sickness had set in! I could make my friends’ parents laugh, I had a sense of what was silly and funny. I studied acting at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh because I figured a good comedian certainly could act.” But he acted only briefly, in summer stock. His first professional gig as a comic was on nationally syndicated TV—The Steve Allen Show, in 1968. He went to the show’s producer and did a sketch about a pickpocket from England who had no skill in his craft but talked really well and ended up undressing a victim. “The producer laughed,” he said, and hired him. After all, Brooks shrugged, “It’s a little hard to laugh at someone and then say, ‘No, we don’t want you.’ “