Albert Brooks is among the most inventive practitioners of motion picture comedy, as well as one of its most incisive commentators on contemporary life. Brooks began his career as a stand-up comic and went on to become an award-winning actor, writer, and filmmaker.
OK, attribution-wise, we got that off the albertbrooks.com web site, but it’s all true—plus he made a series of short films, gems they were, for television’s Saturday Night Liveback when that show was shocking and new, and he wrote and directed Lost in America andDefending Your Life, for chrissakes. But the thing we were most worried about just before our 20-minute press opportunity at the modern and classy Ritz Carlton Georgetown in support of his new movie, Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World (a fictional humorous account of, well, just that), was whether or not we should shake his hand when we met, because it’s cold and flu season, and who knows with these show-business people if they have any phobias or are just grossed out from handshaking all day. And, to be honest, we were experiencing a bit of a rhinovirus incursion, personally, and then the only rule the sharp-dressed person who guided us to Mr. Brooks’ interview room laid down before opening the door was, “He doesn’t do hand shakes,” so when we walked into the room, we bowed, explaining we agreed with Donald Trump on the whole handshaking business. And after a brief desultory discussion on not shaking hands, concluding with Mr. Brooks’ remark that after filming his latest project in India, the custom of a slight bow with hands pressed together, fingertips up, was a good way to go—“I think it’s probably, overall, in flu season and everything, it makes a lot more sense”—we lurched into our interview.
City Paper: What is the irritating question, the most offensive question you could ask somebody like you?
Albert Brooks: [Narrows eyes, leans forward] Oh, those questions you’re gonna ask me?
CP: No no no, I’m not gonna ask you those questions—I’m just, like, what is that kind of question for you? Generally of a personal nature?
AB: I’m trying to think. I haven’t had any irritating questions in the last couple of days so I haven’t got a fresh one. Sometimes people like to be [slows and deepens voice], “Were you disappointed your last movie didn’t do as well?” You know those people who come in with a negative sort of light. That kind of thing is, you know, how do you answer?
CP: If you do a movie and it didn’t do so well, sometimes on talk shows movie stars make jokes about it. I think the window of opportunity for that is much smaller now because of DVD—they don’t want to cast aspersions on it now because there’s a whole DVD-release thing.
AB: I think that happens so rare. Bruce Willis might have made fun of Hudson Hawk, because he had to over years and years, but you’re exactly right, there is no doing well or not doing well. They’re trying to sell their movie in six other mediums, so no oneÂ’s going to sort of bad-mouth their own work.
CP: Does anything puzzle you about comedy right now, for instance, I don’t get Adam Sandler. He’s got this machine now.
AB: Well, it’s a good question, but I wouldn’t use the word “puzzled.” I would say that there are things about comedy, and I’ve seen it happening for a long time, and it seems to be really taking hold forever. Comedy in the movies, for the most part, is teenage male-driven, so there’s a couple of things that are converging that I don’t think make for the heyday of movie comedies. I thought that the whole purpose of breaking up these conglomerates and not letting them own theaters, and, you know, when MGM and Louis B. Mayer ruled the world, it seems to be coming back to that. So two or three giant companies sort of owneverything. You go to a party, you have an extra drink, you insult the wrong guy, you don’t work. So there’s giant companies that sell other kinds of things besides entertainment, and entertainment is just a small part of what they do—they’re not in the business to try anything—so the experimentation, trying to reach to a smaller, or hipper, or any kind of an audience is just not in the business plan. So that, in combination with foreign [markets] being very important to getting their revenue back, especially with comedy—if I present you with an idea and you, in your brain you’re looking at me and thinking, Would anyone in Korea get this?, we’re already gonna have to eliminate a lot of stuff that you might like but the guy in Korea won’t.
CP: Won’t that be a problem with this film, that it isn’t gonna play in Korea?
AB: That’s out of my control. My only job on this film was to see if I could get it made. An individual made it—Steve Bing—the studio is just distributing it. They didn’t make it, nor would any studio have made this movie. It’s just not in their radar to make this kind of movie, and most movies that are getting any sort of attention, the smaller movies, are all made by small groups of wealthy people who seem to still want to do that.
AB: Yeah, patrons, and I’m almost afraid the patron list is getting short, because it’s a bad business. You really gotta have enough money where it’s important for you to do something and then have somebody come up to you at a party and say, [smiling] “God damn, youÂ’re great, thanks for making that, man.” That’s gotta mean something to you. Nobody goes into the movie business trying to get rich. The people that get rich in the movie business are the studios that can stay in it for 50, 75 years and build up these libraries. I saw this fascinating chart—it’s funny we’re not talking about the film—but it’s interesting. I saw this chart about how the business really works and that movies, when they’re first released in theaters, almost always lose money because it costs so much to get them there. So much advertising, so much cost for prints, and then the theater gets a cut, and you’re not gonna see anything from there.
CP: But eventually there won’t be prints to distribute.
AB: No, it’ll be digital. I still think the advertising is expensive. It costs a lot of money to let people know about things. My movie, currently there’s no plan for TV ads, which sort of breaks my heart. They’re gonna do newspaper and whatever I can do. But I can’t control that.
CP: You can go on David Letterman.
AB: Yeah, yeah, but that’s one time—if you go to the kitchen, you miss me talking about the movie, but that’s out of my control. All I can do is make the movie, and in this case I was able to make exactly the movie I wanted to. Nobody made me do anything or cast people I didn’t want to cast, or any Hollywood bullshit.
CP: Fred Thompson.
AB: Yeah, I wanted him. He never was willing to play his own name before, so this was a big deal—and I admire him for it, because he just had to trust me. He likes me, but he didn’t know if I was going to pull a Michael Moore, was this gonna be two hours of bashing the Republican Party. I said, “No, Fred, it’s not that.”
CP: At this point I’ve lost track of whether or not heÂ’s in government or in film.
AB: You know why? Because he had to walk John Roberts through Congress, so he came back into government for a while. He actually has a line [in the movie] that makes certain people laugh—“Well, actually I am acting now, but because of my liaison with the show-business community . . . ” So it was sort of life imitating art, there he is on Fox talking about how to get Roberts through the Senate.
CP: So the only other celebrity I’ve ever met besides you is Jermaine Jackson. I didn’t have a lot of good questions for him either.
AB: That’s funny. Well, it looks like you’ve got the makings of a book. [laughs] We had our world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival. You said Jermaine Jackson, and I thought of Michael Jackson, who lives in Bahrain, but I’ll tell you something, after the reception I got in Dubai, I’m looking at apartments there. They liked me. So any place on Earth that likes me, I’m looking at the weather and is it a nice place to live.
CP: The weather’s very nice in Dubai.
AB: A little hot in the summer. Do you have another question about the business? I like talking about how shitty the business is.
CP: You’re a famous comedian, actor, moviemaker. I see you on TV, you’ve made classic comedies. We assume at this point you’re not really in it for the money, you’re in it because there are things you wanna do. There are certain things you do to get paid—you did a movie with Michael Douglas or whatever, you know?
AB: Yes, I haven’t done enough of those jobs to get paid. There are people, and I won’t mention their name, who do way more than that and seem to come off OK, but I don’t know. Maybe in a way it’s sort of a nice thing, but I find that people who like me, like my sense of humor, almost take it more personally and [say], “Well, why are you giving your stamp of approval to that?”
CP: See, I would say you should do more stuff like that, because it's always good to see you in a movie.
AB: Well, I can announce it then—Cheaper by the Dozen 4: Me and Jenna Elfman.