Near the end of “Defending My Life,” the superb HBO documentary tribute to actor/director/auteur genius, Albert Brooks, the tributee (is that even a word?) recalls how a famous Hollywood agent once lectured him: “Why do you always take the hard road?”
Looking at director Rob Reiner, who is interviewing him, a slightly stunned Brooks says, “You think I see two roads? If I saw an easy road, I’d have a house there.”
Luckily for us, he never did.
Brooks, one of the most brilliantly original comic minds ever, was an early architect of snark. Actually, he was snark before there was snark. He started out in the late 1960s, applying his unique sense of irony to such established old-time comic staples as mimes and ventriloquists. He once appeared as an elephant trainer whose elephant hadn’t shown up. He does the act anyway – with a frog instead.
Some of his bits you have to see to believe how funny they are. How funny they’ve always been. Brooks has been kidding around a long time. With everyone from Johnny Cash to Johnny Carson (over 30 appearances, including one in which he shares a joint on-air with Johnny and Ed McMahon…in the ‘80s). Sonny and Cher, Helen Reddy, Merv Griffin, Brooks did ‘em all. His originality and daring are breathtaking. He simply assumes an audience will go along with him, even on an afternoon talk show sandwiched between soap operas.
And then there are the movies, beginning with “Real Life,” an eerily prescient take on reality shows (It came out in 1979). And “Modern Romance,” an exploration of an on-again/off-again relationship. And “Lost in America,” which Judd Apatow admiringly calls the Jupiter of Brooks’ comedy (“It has all the gravitational pull,” Apatow explains).
My Jupiter, so to speak, is “Defending Your Life,” from which Reiner’s documentary takes its name. It’s a comedy/romance set in the afterlife, co-starring Meryl Streep and Rip Torn. The Meryl Streep????? Yep. They met at a party at Carrie Fisher’s, and the Oscar-winner wondered if there was a part for her in his next movie.
But then, Streep is hardly the only A-Lister in love with Brooks. Along with Reiner, who’s known the star since high school, the roll call of admirers includes Apatow, Steven Spielberg, Jon Stewart, Larry David, Sharon Stone, Tiffany Haddish, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman (who confesses he’d rather have had Brooks’ career than his own).
And speaking of careers, Lorne Michaels might not have had one without Brooks. In 1974, when he was in talks with NBC about a late-night live comedy show (that would be “SNL”), Michaels wanted Brooks to host it. The comic suggested the show should have rotating guest hosts instead. And voila…
The film isn’t perfect. It’s all adulation, all the time. One wonders why certain stars (say, Streep) don’t appear. A treasured co-writer named Monica Johnson is mentioned but not explained. And there’s no attempt, really, to delve any deeper into why Brooks is so damn, well, Brooks. The closest, perhaps, anyone comes is Chris Rock who notes, “He’s so good, you can’t steal, and if you did, you wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
Happily, Brooks’ old pal Reiner knew what to do with some of it. If you aren’t already familiar with Brooks, this is an excellent introduction. If you do, “Defending My Life” is a delicious celebration of one of the funniest people on the planet. On one of his Carson appearances, Brooks solemnly confesses, “I’m joking tonight for a little boy in a hospital in northern California.”
If that doesn’t make you laugh…well…that little boy might not make it…
“Defending My Life” can be viewed on Netflix.