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Albert Brooks finds humor in everyday life: 'I never told jokes'

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Comedian, actor and filmmaker Albert Brooks is the subject of a new HBO documentary directed by his longtime friend Rob Reiner. It's titled "Albert Brooks: Defending My Life." Today, we're going to listen to our interview with Brooks, who our critic at large, John Powers, once called the funniest man in America and our leading satirist of middle-class self-indulgence. Brooks has written, directed and starred in the films "Real Life," "Modern Romance," "Lost In America" and "Defending Your Life." He started his career as a stand-up comic, and in addition to making his own films, he co-starred as an insecure journalist in "Broadcast News" and as a campaign worker in "Taxi Driver." More recently, he appeared in HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Playing himself in the episode, he decides that after going to so many funerals where wonderful things are said about the deceased, he wants to have his own funeral before he dies. Here he is stopping by his friend Larry David's house. Larry is there with his sidekick Leon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM")

ALBERT BROOKS: (As self) Listen, I just stopped by to pick up a photo of you, me and Marty Short taken at Lincoln Center that I want for the memorial. Can I borrow it?

LARRY DAVID: (As self) Sure.

BROOKS: (As self) That's all.

DAVID: (As self) Yeah, yeah. It's in there.

BROOKS: (As self) Thank you.

DAVID: (As self) His memorial.

BROOKS: (As self) Yeah. That's it. And I love this.

DAVID: (As self) Hey, what's the dress code for the event?

BROOKS: (As self) Like any funeral, the dress code is a dark suit.

J B SMOOVE: (As Leon Black) Can I bring Mary?

BROOKS: (As self) Yeah. Is she a fan? Has she seen any of my movies?

SMOOVE: (As Leon Black) I'll be honest, AB, I haven't even seen any of your [expletive] movies.

BROOKS: (As self) OK. Well, there's two on Netflix if you want to watch them before you come.

MOSLEY: Terry spoke with Albert Brooks in 1996 when his film "Mother" was released. He plays a middle-aged man in the early stages of divorce. He knows he's screwed up, and he blames his insecurities on his hypercritical mother, played by the late, great Debbie Reynolds. In an attempt to understand what went wrong in his relationship with his mother, he moves back in with her. And as soon as he walks in the door, he knows he's in trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOTHER")

DEBBIE REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) Want something to eat?

BROOKS: (As John Henderson) No.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) I made some salad, and I have some meatloaf.

BROOKS: (As John Henderson) I don't eat meat.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) Oh, right. That's Jeff who loves it.

BROOKS: (As John Henderson) I'll have some salad.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) Well, don't have salad just for my sake.

BROOKS: (As John Henderson) No, no. I'll have it.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) Are you sure you want salad?

BROOKS: (As John Henderson) Yes, I want salad.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) And not just for my sake?

BROOKS: (As John Henderson) Mother, don't get into this food stuff now, please. Just give me a little salad.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) Oh, I know what I could do. I could scrape the top off the meatloaf.

BROOKS: (As John Henderson) What would that do?

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) Well, it wouldn't be as much meat then.

BROOKS: (As John Henderson) But it's still meat. What difference does it make how much you have?

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) You really don't like meat, huh?

BROOKS: (As John Henderson) No, Mother. I don't like eating cows.

REYNOLDS: (As Beatrice Henderson) Oh, honey, everything comes from a cow. Everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: The classic Jewish mother in a lot of American fiction and movies is the critical, domineering, overprotective mother. The mother in your movie is critical, but she doesn't care quite enough about the son. So she's...

BROOKS: Yes.

GROSS: ...Not domineering and overprotective. The...

BROOKS: No, nor...

GROSS: ...Son almost wishes that she was.

BROOKS: Right. Nor do I think this is a Jewish mother, because the Jewish mother is too - has, you know, such a cliche of exactly what you say, and I don't - I wasn't out to make it a particular religion. I think that, you know, there are two kinds of mothers on the planet, no matter what religion or who they are. And that's either the mothers that think everything their children do are perfect or the other kind. And this is about the other kind. They can be Catholics, Protestants, Jews or atheists. It's just the idea that, you know, they're critical. However, the real mothers, the mothers that I have met, once the children leave, they don't want them back. Who would want them back? Do you ever see a bird when the other birds leave the nest? They tear down the nest and find a tree and don't tell the other birds where that tree is. So it's, you know, the idea that they want children back is - it's silly to me. And that's the cliche part. Being critical isn't.

GROSS: So is your mother really critical?

BROOKS: Well, she's, you know, loving, but she's - it's - and I wouldn't even call it critical. My mother has always sort of been puzzled why I'm who I am. And I think one of the reasons is, is that if my mother and I, if there was one thing we didn't share, it probably was she didn't get my sense of humor. You know, a sense of humor is a very personal thing. And you can love a child and still have no idea why other people are laughing at them. So I think that my mother was always sort of - I mean, I know from doing - I must have done 50 "Tonight Shows" when, you know, Carson was hosting, and the audience would laugh their head off, and my mother and I would always have the same conversation after every show, which was basically I would say, did you see it? And she would say, oh, honey, it was wonderful. What did Johnny think?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And I would say, well, he liked it, but did you like it? No, of course, honey, but Johnny liked it? You know, so that was going to be my autobiography title - "What Did Johnny Think?"

GROSS: Now there's some very funny things about food in the new movie. You know, your character comes back to the mother's house, and she saves a lot of food in the freezer where...

BROOKS: Yes.

GROSS: ...It's guaranteed to taste really bad after a while.

BROOKS: Yes.

GROSS: And she buys all those horrible store brands. In the movie, it's sweet...

BROOKS: Yes.

GROSS: ...Teeth sherbet.

BROOKS: Yes. I made that up...

GROSS: Oh, it's...

BROOKS: ...But obviously, there...

GROSS: ...Perfect, though.

BROOKS: Yes.

GROSS: So was this a problem at your home, too...

BROOKS: Yes that's...

GROSS: ...That your mother would...

BROOKS: That part...

GROSS: ...Buy all the cheap brands?

BROOKS: That part is - my mother could - we could afford anything, but she just didn't believe that there was, you know, like Debbie says in the movie, honey, there's no difference. The man in the store told me it's just the label. I think that my mother probably has said that to me. I really think that somewhere in the back of her mind, she felt that all food came from the same vat in Chicago and they just, you know, put on a different label somewhere.

GROSS: Did you ever go...

BROOKS: We had...

GROSS: ...To the - yeah, go ahead.

BROOKS: I'm saying, I mean, we had brands of food I never - they looked like the real thing. I mean, like, the cookies had, you know, they were black with white in the middle, but it was like, you know, Soreos (ph). It was one letter off.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And, you know, there's a thing that I love in this movie. This sherbet that's been in the freezer for about 16 years and you can't even see it anymore. And I say to, you know, my mother in the movie, I say, look at this crap that sits on the top, and she has named it. She says, oh, no, honey, you look under the protective ice.

GROSS: I love the protective ice.

BROOKS: I said, you've named this stuff? I can't believe it. But my mother still, like, to this day, my mother has this Neapolitan ice cream. There aren't three colors anymore. It's just one color it's blended into. I don't know what that color is, even, but the chocolate and vanilla and strawberry have long ago stopped being divided. They just are, like, a light yellow.

GROSS: The roles that you write for yourself are often characters that are very self-absorbed and very selfish in their own way and don't see their own flaws.

BROOKS: That's a new twist.

GROSS: That's - (laughter).

BROOKS: I'm just trying to think if I agree with that. I don't know if that's necessarily true about being selfish. I think they're...

GROSS: Well, "Modern Romance," it's true.

BROOKS: Oh, "Modern Romance" - well, "Modern Romance" wasn't so much selfish. I mean, there's a guy trapped in a relationship that, you know, that he shouldn't be in, and he's desperately trying to hang on for dear life. I mean, it's not like, you know, if he were in control, if he actually was with somebody that, you know, he was supposed to be with, I don't think he would be selfish. He's only selfish because she's - you know, she's - has no - really shouldn't be with him. And I think he senses that...

GROSS: Right.

BROOKS: ...And gets panicked, you know?

GROSS: I guess what I'm trying to ask is do you want to play characters that are completely lovable or that, you know, you love them, you identify with them, but then you also stand back a little bit and say, but wait a minute, he's going too far with this, or he's too self-absorbed.

BROOKS: What - were you - are you asking me do I want to?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. When you're creating the character.

BROOKS: I'll tell you, you know, I think it's very dangerous if you start to write characters where you say, I want to be loved. I think the thing that you do is you tell a story, and when you create a story, the character needs to be faithful to that story. I mean, let's take "Modern Romance." Here was an obsessive relationship. A guy's in the wrong relationship and drives this woman crazy. There would be no way to tell that story and make that character lovable. I mean, you couldn't - then you just shouldn't make that movie.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

BROOKS: So I sort of, like, you know, figure out what story I want to tell. And then the characters need to, you know, be appropriate to the story.

GROSS: In some of your early work as a comic, back when you were doing stand-up, and in some of your really early movie work, you made fun of a certain showbiz kind of comedy.

BROOKS: Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm wondering - you must have grown up with that. Your father was a comic.

BROOKS: Yeah. Well, my father died when I was 11, but I still, you know, remember that it was OK to, you know, be funny. And I watched somebody do it for a living, even though he pretty much was out of it by the time I was born. I used to listen - he was a radio comedian. He went under the name of Parkyakarkus, and he was a Greek dialect comedian. And that's the character he played. And even though he was off the air when I was born, we used to have these huge - you know, those big 16-inch records of all the radio shows. And I would listen to it. And I sort of was able to see into show business early, you know? Somehow I got it that it might not be exactly what you think it is.

GROSS: How did your father, who I assume was Jewish - his name was Einstein - how did he get to play a Greek dialect comic?

BROOKS: Well, he played - you know, during the '40s when he was on the air, I think being an immigrant coming to America was a very popular thing. And I don't know how exactly or where - I know he was born in Boston and he worked in the advertising business, and I think he just did this character for fun. And then Eddie Cantor heard him once at a dinner and actually, I think, thought he was really Greek and said - talked to him slowly like he wouldn't understand him - (imitating Cantor) would you like to come to New York and be on my show? And my father said, you can talk faster, I'm born in America. And I don't know why he came up with that, but I think the idea of the poor immigrant who comes to America was something that, you know, obviously, he could - he liked.

GROSS: When you started doing comedy, your comedy was - it came out of who you were as a real person.

BROOKS: Yeah.

GROSS: And a lot of your monologues were pretty autobiographical.

BROOKS: Right, I never told jokes. I don't think I've ever told a joke in my life. I never, you know...

GROSS: Right, so this more autobiographical approach was really different from where your father was coming from...

BROOKS: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...Where he didn't even play his own ethnic group, let alone talk about his life.

BROOKS: Absolutely, and that's exactly right. Yeah.

GROSS: Did you feel like you had any models for what you wanted to do, a more autobiographical approach?

BROOKS: No, I'll tell you, when I was very young, I remember watching Jack Benny and thinking that this man figured it all out. Jack Benny really never told jokes. I mean, look what he did, he would stare and people would laugh. And his persona was so clear. It was so - the audience understood it so well that he really - you know, he was amazing. He was the world's great minimalist.

GROSS: Is that what you were trying for, to do very little and have it be very effective?

BROOKS: Or just sort of - you know, those old guys used to play themselves. This is not a new thing. Jerry Seinfeld and stuff, this is one of the original things that radio and television did. George Burns and Jack Benny and Fred Allen, it was their lives we were laughing at. So I think it was - you know, it just showed you that you didn't have to stand up there and say, my wife is fat. There were other things to do.

But actually, the kind of comedy I did I really didn't see before I did it. So I didn't have a role model in that somebody was making fun of the - I sort of was making fun of the institutions that were still going on. When I first started, you know, I tried out everything I ever did on national television. There weren't any clubs to even go to if I wanted to. So it was interesting because I sort of would think up things in my house and drive down to NBC and do them on "The Dean Martin Show." And at that point, if you were funny, all people would say to you is, when are you going to Vegas?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And, you know, that's all they associated it with. And I tried to sort of change that, just at least for myself, I mean, not, you know, in any great sense that I'm going to change the world. But I just sort of - I remember I always would say, when people would say are you funny, yes, but I'm, you know - but it's not - but I'm trying to be real, too. I mean, I was trying to give dignity to this idea of doing stand-up because it had none. Everyone who ever, you know, heard that you did comedy just thought that you were just sitting there with a big cigar and opening for Frank Sinatra.

MOSLEY: Albert Brooks speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON TRIO'S "YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Albert Brooks, who is the subject of a new documentary on HBO. Early in his career, he did stand-up on TV variety shows like Dean Martin and Merv Griffin. His contemporaries thought he was funny, but on the variety shows, he played to a predominantly older audience that often didn't know what to make of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BROOKS: Well, the first thing I ever did was a ventriloquist act called Danny and Dave, which was basically the world's worst ventriloquist. He was introduced as, you know, a real ventriloquist. And his mouth moved more than the dummy. And the dummy used to drink water while he would sing. And, you know, I would do all of those ventriloquist tricks where I would try to smoke a cigarette. And, you know, I just threw the dummy on the floor to get him out of my hands so I could smoke. And, you know, many people laughed. And a couple of people in the very beginning said, that's the worst ventriloquist I've ever seen.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: So - and this happened in my first movie. When I did "Real Life," I played a character called Albert Brooks. And, you know, here was a man named Albert Brooks who set up this whole thing as a realistic experiment of filming a family and trying to make it a sociological experiment. And I would say half the reviews I got in America were real. I still remember - you know, I remember - I'm not sure if it was Rex Reed or somebody who said, why in God's name would a studio give this man money to do such an important experiment? And, you know, I was stunned. I always thought everybody got - you know, figured everything out, but they didn't. And so it just took years to sort of, you know, maybe make a few people realize that this was thought of and it wasn't just a bad act.

GROSS: Well, it was kind of like the whole world was on your mother's wavelength and not quite getting the jokes.

BROOKS: Yes - not the whole world but a lot of people. And you're exactly right. Yeah.

GROSS: So you went from one scene to another. You went from the TV variety shows, which had an older audience, and then you went to opening for rock acts like...

BROOKS: That's right.

GROSS: ...Neil Diamond and Richie Havens. So it's one extreme to another.

BROOKS: Exactly. I did - you know, I sort of had a whole reversal thing because, like, everybody else does clubs and then gets on television. I did about five years of television before I ever performed in front of a live concert audience. I actually remember the first time I ever performed was in Mississippi with Neil Diamond, and I had just done in the previous year - when Merv Griffin was on CBS, I had done, like, 15 of his shows. And I remember trying to put together bits of a Merv Griffin show to do as a half-hour in front of a live audience. I didn't even have the transitions in my mind yet of talking to a group of people because I was so used to these bits. And it was very - sometimes it was fun. But opening for rock acts in the early '70s - I wouldn't wish that on anybody.

GROSS: Why not?

BROOKS: Well, it was way before comedy was in or even, you know, popular in any regard. You know, comedy sort of didn't start to get this popularity until, I guess, with the '80s. And let's face it. These people took a lot of drugs and went to see - you know, they wanted to hear the loudest music they could hear. And I think there's an old Chinese adage that says 16 sleeping pills does not make for a good comedy audience. You know, they took a lot of these downers and would sit there. And they were waiting for, you know, Sly and the Family Stone, and the disc jockey had to come out and tell them I was there.

GROSS: And you were going to come on and talk about things that made you...

BROOKS: Stop right there.

GROSS: ...Neurotic and insecure. Yeah.

BROOKS: Stop. It doesn't matter. It's called talk about.

GROSS: Right. Right.

BROOKS: It's not the human voice they were waiting to hear. They wanted to hear these amplifiers turned up to a billion decibels. They wanted to be hurt, you know? So I - oh, gee. I had some very rough experiences trying to get people to listen. I remember once I did open for Sly, and it was in Tacoma, Wash. And this - the show was at 8 o'clock. And they - my phone rang at 7:30 in the hotel, and - actually a motel, a little, teeny room there. And it was Sly - you know, Sly and the Family Stone - it was his manager. And at that time, it wasn't a secret. Sly was, you know, experimenting with Colombia's most famous product. And I don't mean the studio.

And so the guy said to me - he said, let me ask you something, Albert. How long do you do? I said, well, you know, normally a half-hour. But I'm a little worried about this audience - maybe 20 minutes. He said - you know, and now we're in Tacoma. He said, what's the longest you can do? I said, well, I don't know. Why? Well, Sly called, and he's in Cincinnati. He had missed the plane. I said, what? He's in Cincinnati. I said, well, you know, what are you talking about? I got to do 3 1/2 hours. Well, actually, it would be longer because he can't get a plane until 7. I said, look. You got the wrong guy here. I don't know if I should even go on. So I actually did go on. And I remember somebody threw a beer can and cut my leg. And I was...

GROSS: Oh, geez.

BROOKS: I got angry at the audience. I started to yell at them and said, he's not even here. And I'm going to go on Johnny Carson and tell them that you're horrible and - as if they would all stop and go, ooh. Anyway, I just got out of town quickly. I ran off the stage. It was not fun.

MOSLEY: Albert Brooks speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. He's the subject of a new HBO documentary called "Albert Brooks: Defending My Life." We'll have more after a break. And Justin Chang reviews the new film "May December," starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO TAKE YOU HIGHER")

SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) Music's getting longer, too. I want to, I want to, I want to take you higher. I want to take you higher. Baby, baby, baby, light my fire.

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with comedian, actor, director and screenwriter Albert Brooks. He's the subject of a new documentary on HBO. When we left off, they were talking about his early career as a stand-up comic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Since we were talking about some of your early comedy, I thought we'd play something from your first comedy album, which has been reissued on Rhino Records.

BROOKS: Yeah.

GROSS: And I think my...

BROOKS: What are you going to play?

GROSS: Well, I think my favorite sketch on here is "Rewriting The National Anthem."

BROOKS: Oh.

GROSS: And the premise of this is that nobody goes around singing the national anthem anymore, so we should hold open auditions and find a new national anthem.

BROOKS: Yes.

GROSS: What inspired the sketch?

BROOKS: Well, the national anthem is, you know, one of the silliest songs ever written. I don't think there's an American alive who knows the words. And I just sort of figured that it would - like the introduction says on the record, it would be a funny idea if people had to come to Washington and sit down at a piano and write and, you know, try to sell the country on a new one. So I played various people coming up with songs. And I sort of, you know, had a guy there who was supposed to moderate the whole thing and tell him yes or no.

GROSS: Why don't we hear it?

BROOKS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROOKS: (As Dan) Dan Allen (ph). Denver, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: (As Dan) Three thousand miles from coast to coast, every citizen has reason to boast. Thank you, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: (As Bob) Can the lights be changed at all? All right, it's not important.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: (As Bob) Before I sing my song, I should tell you a bit about myself. My name is Mr. Robert "Bob" Harmon (ph) and I currently live and work in the very exciting city of Las Vegas, Nev.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: (As Bob) I'm an entertainer. And, you know, Vegas is a great place, an exciting place. But originally, I'm from a much quieter place, a place up north, out west, a place I call Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: (As Bob) What a great place it is. In one 30-square-mile radius there's more to do than almost anywhere in the world. There's hunting and fishing and boating and camping.

(As character) Get on with it.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: (As Bob) I am, that's how I get into the act. It's got beautiful waterfalls and gorgeous trees, but, you know, it's part of a bigger place. It's part of a country. Can you guess which country it is?

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: (As Bob) No, it's not Denmark or Poland or Sweden or Rome...

(SOUNDBITE OF THUD)

BROOKS: (As character) Get on with it.

(As Bob) It's a lovely place I call home. I'm proud to say I've got a country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROOKS: (As Bob, singing) Got a country.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: (As Bob) I'll spell it - A, M, E, R, I, C, A.

(As character) Get off the stage.

(As Bob) Thank you.

GROSS: That's Albert Brooks from his first comedy record, "Comedy Minus One," which has been reissued on Rhino Records. Now, hearing all those really inspired anthem satires that you came up with made me think that you must actually know something about music.

BROOKS: Yes. Well, I...

GROSS: That's you at the piano, isn't it?

BROOKS: Yes. And, yes, I play piano. And I think that music and - well, first of all, music and comedy are very, very similar because, you know, there's that word timing. And I think that in essence, comedy is a form of music. When you're making people laugh, there are stopping and starting and louder and softer and all the things that music have. I know that when I'm working on a motion picture, one of the earliest things I do is I sort of think of what kind of music should be in this particular motion picture. It helps me write. So I've always been musical. I taught myself to play the piano when I was, you know, in college.

GROSS: How did you decide to go from comedy to movies?

BROOKS: Well, really, all I ever wanted to be was an actor. I never wanted to do comedy. I went to Carnegie Mellon and I studied acting, and at 19 years old, I came back to Los Angeles and saw that I couldn't get any acting roles to save my life. There weren't that many roles for 19-year-olds anyway, and Richard Dreyfuss was getting all of them. So there were, you know, some people in my life who convinced me that if I did stand-up, I could get all the work in the world and that would get me acting. And it really didn't work that way. It just got me more stand-up.

So when - in 1974, late '74, NBC decided that they wanted to - well, actually, a little bit before then, I had written an article for Esquire called "Albert Brooks' Famous School For Comedians." And there was a public television show on at that time called "The Great American Dream Machine" that would do various - they would do film segments. And I turned that into, I guess, what would be the first infomercial. And again, people thought it was real. I pretended that this comedy school existed and told everybody that they could be funny, and I took them on a tour of the school.

But it was my first short film, and it was very successful, and it showed me that I could sort of translate my comedy to film. Then when NBC wanted to start - they actually wanted to, you know, do a "Tonight Show" on Saturday night, I was offered that as my own show. And I didn't want to do that anymore, I wanted to get into film. So they said to me, well, we would like you associated with this. At this time, they hadn't - there were no prime-time players, nobody was even on board.

So in turn for coming on first and doing publicity and allowing them to use my name, I made an agreement to make six short movies for the first year of "Saturday Night." And that was the greatest course you could imagine. Penelope Spheeris, who now, you know, is a well-known director, she produced these shorts. And I - in a space of eight months, I was able to write and direct and edit. And, you know, it was like juggling plates. I would be writing the third one, editing the second one, casting the fourth one. You know, I was just really able to learn a tremendous amount. And from then on, I never really, you know, got out of it. I made my first feature, "Real Life," and in that same year I got my first acting job, which was "Taxi Driver."

GROSS: Yes, and your role in - (laughter) what a great film to get started in.

BROOKS: Wow, isn't it?

GROSS: Did you realize how lucky you were when you got that role?

BROOKS: Well, not until the president was shot, no.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: Then I thought, oh, my God, this is historic (laughter). No, I mean, I realized that Marty Scorsese was, you know, a great guy to have a chance to - yes. I was able to figure that out, but I never - who would ever know that that would turn out to be, you know, what a legendary movie?

GROSS: Well, in "Taxi Driver," you play a campaign worker who...

BROOKS: Yes.

GROSS: ...On the presidential campaign who works with Cybill Shepherd. And so...

BROOKS: Yes. And, you know...

GROSS: Yeah.

BROOKS: There's a funny story with that...

GROSS: Oh. Tell it.

BROOKS: ...Because, well, Paul Schrader - that part wasn't written. So Marty Scorsese hired me and said, you know, maybe you could figure out that part, and, you know, we could figure out the lines and everything. And so we worked on it. And what you see on the movie was sort of, like, developed in a hotel room. I just sort of worked on things, and he would tape it, and that's what would appear in the script. And when it was all over, Paul Schrader, the writer, said, you know, I want to thank you. That was the only character I really didn't know. And I said, really? I said, you knew Travis Bickle and Harvey Keitel and all of the pimps and hookers, but a simple guy who works in an office you couldn't figure out. So it was really a great experience.

GROSS: There's a scene where Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, the taxi driver, is hanging around the campaign headquarters, you know, just eyeing Cybill Shepherd, who he really wants to pick up. And he comes in and tries to talk with her, and your character chases him out.

BROOKS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you come up with a way to do that and the lines to use and stuff?

BROOKS: Well, De Niro did something interesting because in those days, he was, you know, very method, way before the restaurants, you know? He wouldn't ever even talk to me. So that moment of uncomfortableness was extra real. And, of course, I thought it was just, you know, about method acting. Then at the cast party, he wouldn't talk to me, either. So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: You know, he probably just - he just didn't want to talk to me. But seriously, he wouldn't let me know him. I was trying to make conversation and say, so, you having, you know, fun doing this? And he would just walk away. So at that moment where I had to come up and figure out how to throw him out, it was extra tense because I didn't know who the hell I was dealing with.

GROSS: Well, tell us how you and your character of - as this very kind of, like, middle-class campaign worker who isn't a very physical person, deals with De Niro, who's this really threatening, marginal figure, shadowy figure walking in.

BROOKS: Well, he uses the police. He keeps saying, there's police across the street. I'm going to call the police. I don't think he could do this alone, so that's really the only way he would do it. This guy I played is not going to get in a fistfight with the guy that Robert De Niro played. I mean, immediately De Niro goes into this karate position, and, you know, he's playing the world's most frightening man anyway. So all my guy is doing is, there's police across the street. I'm calling police. I'm calling police - you know, getting police in there a lot.

MOSLEY: Albert Brooks speaking with Terry Gross in 1996 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BLUME'S "THEME FROM TAXI DRIVER (REPRISE)")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Albert Brooks, who is the subject of a new documentary on HBO. He's made his own comic films and co-starred in the films "Broadcast News" and "Taxi Driver."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST))

GROSS: Now, after your role in "Taxi Driver," which direction did you want to head in - the role of playing actors in - of being an actor in other people's movies, playing characters who weren't necessarily like you at all or going in the direction of making your own movies and writing characters that were very close to your personality and directing it yourself?

BROOKS: I think if I was - if I think if offers started to come in six a week, I probably would have just pursued acting only. I mean, I still - you know, I love to do that. But they didn't. So it forced me into writing. And once you're going to write, then you have to, you know, do the whole deal because you can't - writing is the blueprint. And if you're going to - if I thought there was a director I could hand my stuff to and go home and go to sleep, I would. You know, part of me is a lazy guy. But I think that you need to - if you don't do it yourself, especially in comedy, you'll never get it right. The nuances will be wrong. The casting will be bad. And so once I decided that I could sit down and write these movie scripts, the rest was just something that, you know, I had to do.

GROSS: There's a line that you're really quite famous for from "Broadcast News" in which your character says, wouldn't this be a wonderful world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? Did you write that line?

BROOKS: No. Jim Brooks wrote that line.

GROSS: It seems like you should have written it.

BROOKS: Well...

GROSS: Well...

BROOKS: I'm not taking credit for it.

GROSS: Right. Right. Did that ring true to you?

BROOKS: You know, not really. I mean, I understand what you're saying. But, you know, I don't know. I don't feel that that's me necessarily, you know? I play these characters. I'll tell you something. I once did a bit on television that I only did once, and it was on "The Tonight Show." And actually, Johnny was sick, and Joey Bishop hosted. And the fact that Joey Bishop did meant it was never repeated. And all I did was - it was about five years into my career. And I came out, and I sat down in a chair, and I talked to the audience for three minutes without getting a laugh about life and the philosophy of life. And I said, basically, I'm five years into my career, and I have no more material left.

And I said, don't think I couldn't fool you because I could. I mean, what do you think - I couldn't get a laugh? I could take down my pants and get a laugh, but that's not who I am. What - you don't think I could? And I wound up taking down my pants. I took off my shirt. I put eggs all over my head. I kept saying, you know, but that's not - I'm not going to really do that. And when I was finished, I sat there with no clothes and 16 pounds of food dripping from my face. And I looked right in the camera, and I said, but this isn't the real me. And then I took an 8-by-10 out of my shorts, and I said, this is the real me. I have a half-brother, and somebody called him up. His name is Charles Einstein. He was a very famous sports writer. And somebody called him up after this and said, is your half-brother insane? They said, is he insane? And my half-brother said, no. And you know why? Because he went to the market and bought all that stuff. And, you know, that's really...

GROSS: Right, right, right.

BROOKS: Right. I know all these things aren't - this is what I do. It's what I prepare to do. So I don't think that I'm literally those people.

GROSS: But there must be a reason, though, why you gravitate toward playing or writing characters who are somehow motivated by their neurosis.

BROOKS: Well, because I think that, you know, I never believed John Wayne. I just think that movies are so fake, and I just - listen. If an alien landed on Earth and went to our cinema, boy, wouldn't they be confused? They would think we're all police.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: And I just - you don't need me to do that. There's enough people to do that. So I just sort of, you know, am anti-that. And anti-that are people who's - who are exposed, who are vulnerable and maybe, you know, a bit screwed up or whatever it is you want to call it. I just think there - I think it makes for more interesting, certainly more real and certainly funnier characters.

GROSS: In several of your movies, your characters have been divorced, or the relationship gets really rocky. Do you ever wish that you were married with children? Is that something you've wanted and haven't been able to get? Or is that something you never quite saw for yourself anyways?

BROOKS: Well, I have somebody in my life right now.

GROSS: Good.

BROOKS: And if things go the way I hope it will go, that all finally might happen. So, you know, talk to me in a year. I just - you know, here's the thing, I never wanted to do this wrong. I know one thing about myself - I would be a bad divorced person.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BROOKS: I would really - if I had to drive and visit my child and leave, I would have a heart attack. I just know that I couldn't do that. So I was willing to let that not happen than happen wrong. And by the way, I'm not saying that if it did happen, I wouldn't fail at it. But at least you know when you're going into something, you know that deep down place where you think you've got a chance or you don't. So I've waited very patiently. You know, I'm the third little pig. I've always felt that that's who I was. And I've been building this brick house. And I'm telling you right now I am not letting the other two pigs in.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: I'm sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: I just figured if the other two pigs were listening, they're going to be pissed.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSLEY: Albert Brooks spoke with Terry Gross in 1996. He's the subject of a new HBO documentary, "Albert Brooks: Defending My Life." And by the way, Brooks got married in 1997, and he and his wife have two children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROOKS: (As character) All right. Please be quiet. Ladies, gentlemen, we have a lot of - we got to get through it very - please be quiet. Very quickly, sit down at the piano. State your name, where you're from. Play your song. All right? Don't give us any - please be quiet. Don't give us any titles. We'll call them all the anthem. If we like it, we'll get your title from you later. OK? State your name, where you're from. Play your song. We'll stop you when we've heard enough. Let's go quickly. You're first.

(As character) First? Ted Rutherford, Dallas, Texas. (Playing piano, singing) Hey, world. Look at us. We're the greatest. We're the...

(As character) Thank you very much.

MOSLEY: Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "May December," directed by Todd Haynes. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "25 YEARS OF ROOTABAGAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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