When Reality was a Joke: The Making of Albert Brooks’ Real Life

By Tom Teicholz

Today, reality TV is a genre for which they award Emmys, from which careers are born, love is found, and fortunes are made. Reality TV represents a huge share of the television industry, and we accept that these shows are cast, produced, and edited to enhance their drama. Yet if we see humor in the self-seriousness of the participants and delight in the outrageousness of their antics, if we see the irony in the genre’s ability to produce stars (and even presidential candidates!) and acknowledge it as part of “show business” — then we’d do well to recall that these insights have already been abundantly elucidated in Albert Brooks’ prescient 1979 debut feature film, Real Life.

Brooks realized, long before anyone else, that cameras filming real people’s lives would not only affect and change their subjects, but would also affect those making the film. Brooks understood that, in the end, any production was inevitably show biz, and that show biz is a beast which must be fed and whose gravity, like a black hole, sucks up every imaginable cliché and past convention. In other words, this was a subject ripe for the comic intervention of Brooks, whose style was avant-garde and cerebral and rooted in the deconstruction of the creative process and the exploding of classic comedic tropes. Brooks was meta before meta was cool.

Real Life made clear what has now become fact: people in Hollywood have no conception of reality, but every confidence that they know how to deliver a fake version of it.

The son of comedian Harry Einstein (who performed as Parkyakarkus) and actress/singer Thelma Leeds, Brooks grew up in a Beverly Hills steeped in showbiz — his father died when Albert was eleven, after appearing at a Friars Club Roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. By his twenties, Brooks had established himself as a comic performer in his own right, appearing on many TV variety programs, from The Dean Martin Show and The Ed Sullivan Show to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Brooks didn’t tell jokes; instead, he crafted original bits that he never repeated, like the mime who couldn’t stop talking, or the inept ventriloquist. In one of his performances, he played a comedian who has run out of material and refuses to debase himself by getting an easy laugh (pulling down his pants, getting a pie in the face) — but which he does even as he says he won’t. Brooks even did a standup comedy tour opening for rock acts.

In 1971, Esquire featured Brooks’ humor piece, Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians, which was predictive of comedy schools like The Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade — two organizations that would soon emerge and spread the notion that comedy can be taught. As Brooks recently recalled, “The scary thing about that is [Esquire] got maybe 5,000 replies. People just had no idea that this was a joke.”

The producer of PBS’s The Great American Dream Machine asked him to turn his Esquire piece into a short film that was “like an infomercial,” Brooks said. “That was the first time I ever picked up a camera and I thought, ‘If I point it here and I say that, it should be funny,’ and it worked. It was a very successful film for them.”

In the meantime, Dick Ebersol, then director of weekend late night programming at NBC, and Lorne Michaels, a Canadian-born comedian who had written for Laugh In, approached Brooks about doing a comedy program, which would be called The Albert Brooks Show, and would air live from New York at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday nights.

Brooks wasn’t interested. He didn’t believe a live show could be funnier than a taped one, and he didn’t see any novelty in it, as Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan had been doing live for years. As he told Bill Zehme in an interview for Playboy in 1999, “I was just too wiped out as a performer to put myself through that live stress. I didn’t really even consider moving to New York to go through all that rigmarole. They came back to me three times and, finally — to chicken out, actually — I said, ‘You shouldn’t have a permanent host, anyway. Every show has one host; you should get a different host every week.’”

Ebersol and Michaels would go on to hire a young cast of Second City performers, many of whom had appeared in National Lampoon Lemmings and the National Lampoon Radio Hour. But none of them had Brooks’ name recognition. So, in order to secure Brooks’ participation, Ebersol and Michaels agreed to let him make six short films from Los Angeles, giving him not only complete editorial control but ownership of the films as well.

Each of the six short films Brooks wrote and directed was brilliant in its own way, with Brooks appearing in most. There was a film about Brooks performing heart surgery (but forgetting that anesthesia needed to be supplied). And there was a “Fall Preview” of three fictitious forthcoming TV programs: Medical Season, The Three of Us, and Black Vet. Medical Season was a reality show that promised viewers, “Real stories, real people, real action and reality was never like this!” Aired in 1975, the film demonstrated that in Brooks was already thinking about the comedy inherent in reality shows.

Around that time, David Geffen — whose record label Asylum produced Brooks’ second comedy album A Star is Bought — left Asylum for Warner Brothers Motion Pictures. “He said, ‘Come over and make a movie,’” recalled Brooks. “I came over, and Monica Johnson and Harry Shearer and I, we got an office.”

Brooks found inspiration for his movie in two places. He had seen An American Family, the PBS documentary about the Loud family, generally considered the first “reality” television program; and then he read a quote by Margaret Mead about the power of a documentary like American Family. Mead called it “as new and significant as the invention of drama or the novel […] a new way in which people can learn to look at life, by seeing the real life of others interpreted by the camera.”

Brooks brought it to his co-writers and announced, “We’re going to do this.” They started writing the film and Brooks grew confident that he could direct it. “It had all the elements I knew I could do,” he said.

Then one day at Warner Brothers, Brooks passed David Geffen in the hall. Brooks recalls Geffen asking him how his movie was going. “We’re doing another idea but I really like it,” Brooks replied, to which Geffen asked him to hurry up. Brooks didn’t know that Geffen was on his way out.

Brooks still had a script, but now that Geffen was gone he needed to find a new financial backer. Norman Epstein, who was Linda Ronstadt’s manager at the time, suggested Jonathan Kovler, then owner of the Chicago Bulls, who was Epstein’s cousin.

“I had a meeting with him,” Brooks recounted. “He was at LaCosta, and I actually sat with him in a steam room and pitched him.” Kovler agreed to finance the film for $500,000 on the condition that Brooks pay any overages. “Believe me,” Brooks said, “the movie would’ve ended at whatever scene the $500,000 [ran out].”

Real Life opens with Brooks attending a community meeting in Phoenix to announce his project. Brooks plays a Hollywood entertainer and filmmaker named Albert Brooks, whose narcissism is matched only by his optimism, and who imagines he can get anyone to do his bidding — all for his own aggrandizement. “It’s a Hollywood Albert Brooks,” Brooks explained. “It’s Albert Brooks, the celebrity. It’s the same Albert Brooks I did on A Star Is Bought, the comedy album. It’s the Hollywood guy.”

Brooks is dressed in a bright red western-style shirt with a red neckerchief — a visual gag of how a person in Hollywood might think people in Arizona dress and which, in fact, looks more Hollywood than Arizona. Brooks explained that his character was “this Hollywood phony,” who imagined that wearing outlandish western garb would make folks in Phoenix like him.

Brooks was the first of his contemporary comedians to play an eponymous lead character. Since then, a number of actors and celebrities, such Kareen Abdul Jabbar in Airplane or Neil Patrick Harris in the Harold and Kumar series, have played themselves, and a generation of stand-ups such as Garry Schandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and, more recently, Amy Schumer, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer play versions of themselves on screen. But Brooks was there first.

In the opening of Real Life, Brooks touts the ensuing one-year project’s affiliation with a think tank, “The National Institute of Human Behavior in Boulder, Colorado“ which harks back to his SNL “Audience Research Institute” short. Brooks discusses the selection of the family — supposedly chosen through scientific methods — and reveals he made the decision because he didn’t want to spend winter in Wisconsin.

Here too, using science to validate inane notions, Brooks was also ahead of his time. Or as he put it recently: “That certainly has become way more popular: fake validity.”

In the film, Brooks has high ambitions for the reality film project. As he later brags to the family, “You’re going to be on Jonas Salk’s coffee table.” This notion of Brooks’ comedy having altruistic goals which could lead him to a Nobel Prize is a notion he would return to and elaborate on many years later, in his 2005 film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.

At the meeting Brooks breaks into song, backed by Mort Lindsay and the Merv Griffin Show orchestra, further evidence that Brooks’ is a creature of Hollywood invention. Brooks then rushes off to the airport to meet the family, at which point we learn that Brooks has sent them on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Hawaii. He and his attendant camera crew greet them at the airport with leis, as if they had landed in Honolulu not Phoenix. We’re only a few minutes into Brooks’ filming of ‘reality,’ but already everything is staged.

As Brooks explained recently, “As soon as you let cameras into people’s life, there’s no more reality. It doesn’t exist. That’s the whole point of the movie.” This point is underscored when the family arrives at their home and is welcomed by the assembled crew, who cheers, creating the type of scene that has become a staple of reality shows from Extreme Home Makeover to The Bachelor and Bachelorette.

Brooks is similarly spot-on about the role technology will play in filming reality programs. He explains that he has outfitted the rooms with Japanese wall cameras which are activated by body heat, as well as portable filming units (which look like diving bell helmets) called the Ettinauer 226XL. In one of the film’s most quoted lines, Brooks says about the cameras: “Only six of these cameras were ever made. Only five of them ever worked. We had four of those.” The multiple cameras in the rooms and the camera angles they produce are very much the stuff of today’s reality television, while the Ettinauer cameras look very much like the ones James Cameron invented to film underwater.

Charles Grodin’s performance as Warren Yeager, the family patriarch, is pitch perfect. Brooks chose Grodin based on watching him in an early — and similarly notorious — reality-based program. “I remember watching Charles Grodin on Candid Camera,” Brooks said, “and he was the most natural guy in the world. He could fool those people. What professional could pass for a natural guy?”

Yeager is a veterinarian who is eager to make the film to promote his practice. However, as Brooks films him in his surgery, Yeager kills a horse by over-sedating it.

“I loved that scene,” Brooks said. “We were able to get a horse. It was not a show horse; it was a very old horse. The horse was fine, but they put him out. There was only one person, a real vet, who could do that in California, and he was in the scene. He was that old guy behind the mask, and he allowed it and did it. It still makes me laugh.”

Yeager tells Brooks he doesn’t want that scene to be in the film and Brooks tries to convince him that it shows him in a favorable light. Brooks tells him, “You did great … People make mistakes all the time … To err is human, to film divine.” In a subsequent scene Yeager says, “What’s going to happen when the kids go to school and their friends say ‘Did your Dad really kill that horse?’” Phony is as phony does.

Brooks’ comedy was ahead of its time in other important ways. As Brooks films the first family dinner, Yaeger’s wife, Jeannette, played by Frances Lee McCain, starts talking about her menstrual cramps, which, when addressed onscreen today by writers such as Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey, and others, is considered revolutionary — four decades after Brooks.

Brooks also foresaw the symbiotic relationship that would develop between reality “stars” and the media, and how news would become big business. In Real Life, a local reporter barges into the Yeager’s home because he feels this story could go “national.” The media — in a scene that foreshadowed today’s co-dependent relationship between entertainment-oriented, on-air personalities and reality stars — follow the family down the street, trying to get reactions from them.

Real Life is filled with great lines, such as one where Jeannette is ready to drive off and she tells Brooks, “I need to be alone.” Brooks responds, “Okay. Can I come with you?” Or the time when Brooks tells one of the academic researchers: “I think we’re very much alike. See, that’s why we can get into these debates. I think you’d be surprised at how much alike we really are.” The researcher replies by telling him, “I’d be more than surprised. I’d be suicidal.” Or when Brooks, at wit’s end, exclaims, “Why did I pick reality? I don’t know anything about it.” Of course! Then there’s the phrase from the movie that has become part of our vernacular: “Movie Jail,” an expression Brooks came up with for the scene where he tries to justify manufacturing an ending to his reality film. Brooks says, “There’s no law that says we can’t start real and end fake. What are they going to do, put me in movie jail?”

As much as anything else, Brooks recalls the pressure he was under. One day, three quarters of the way into shooting, Brooks became convinced that he would not be able to finish the film without going over budget and he had to decide whether to complete the movie or give up. He was sitting by himself at lunch, trying to choose what to do, when Grodin walked over to him and said, “Albert, I’ve got to leave at 4:00,” which no one can do on a movie set. Brooks thought it was “really funny.” And somehow that made the moment pass and Brooks proceeded to finish the movie, under budget. For which he gives credit to his Producer, Penelope Spheeris. “Penelope was great,” Brooks said. “It was down and dirty and there was no one better at figuring out how to get shortcuts.”

And invariably, life imitates art imitating life as Brooks’ character faces the prospect of the film shutting down: the studio is pulling the plug, the consultants are quitting, and the Yeager family is signing releases as what was meant to be a year’s project has lasted just a few months. Brooks loses his mind. He decides to save the film by manufacturing an ending, and to ensure its success he will steal a plot device from a successful film. He first considers Star Wars, then Jaws — films whose lasting impact on the film industry Brooks could only have guessed.

Ultimately, however, he decides to steal from a story that is based in reality: the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind. Brooks literally and metaphorically burns his house down.

Brooks brought his meta-driven humor to every aspect of Real Life. The music for Real Life was composed by Mort Lindsay, who appears in the film, and was indeed the bandleader on the then-popular Merv Griffin Show. “There are scenes that never made it into the movie.” Brooks said recently. “I filmed a whole scene where it was me and Mort trying to write themes to the people. Mort said: ‘What do you think of that?’ I said, ‘She’s much meaner than that, Mort.’ So Mort goes: ‘What about this?’”

The film also features the voice of Jennings Lang, a well-known Hollywood film and TV executive, as the head of the studio that’s financing Brooks’ movie. “I always liked the way he talked,” Brooks explained. “He’s got the best voice in the world. He had the script, but that wasn’t going well, so I recorded a conversation. What we did was talk for three hours about the movie business. I’d say, ‘Jennings, what about when you first started?’ [And he’d answer,] ‘Fuck, Albert! Who gives a shit!?’ It took me two weeks to edit that conversation. Which I’ve done many times since.”

One of the arguments the movie exec makes is that no couple is going to pay for a babysitter, movie tickets, dinner, and parking to see “reality” without big name stars. True enough; since Real Life debuted, the Hollywood business model has increasingly turned to brand name action franchises, with visual effects best seen on a large screen (and preferably in Imax and/or 3D at a premium ticket price). On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that even Brooks could have predicted the extent to which reality stars would become so newsworthy, that reality TV contests would grow to such popularity, or that TV shows would become so binge-worthy that couples would prefer to stay home and watch TV than pay for a babysitter and movie tickets. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what happened. Maybe Real Life predicted it all.

Once Brooks finished the film, he still had to sell it. They held screenings. “This was so early that you didn’t have to do cards,” Brooks said. “You would just do screenings […] Before the internet, everything was safe. I would show all my movies up until The Muse, I guess. It never got out.”

The screenings were successful and Paramount ultimately paid $850,000. That allowed Kovler to be repaid at a profit, and Brooks, Spheeris and others — after three years’ work — split the remainder.

Brooks’ deal with Paramount was that they couldn’t test the film (to test they would have paid more but Brooks said no). Barry Diller, who ran Paramount at the time, wanted to open the film in small cities and lead up to NY. Brooks knew that the film would succeed or fail based on the NY critics. He convinced Diller to open the movie there. Brooks promised to do whatever publicity he could, saying, “I’ll go on Johnny Carson. Whatever I could pull out of my hat, which was a small hat.”

On March 2, 1979, Janet Maslin reviewed Real Life in The New York Times. She called it “very witty.” Brooks, she wrote, “is never without his absolute insincerity and irrational good cheer. Real Life is full of delightful nonsense, a very funny account of one man’s crusade to capture all the truth and wisdom that money can buy.” The film was launched.

Paul Slansky, an editor for the since defunct New Times Magazine who had seen a preview of the movie, described it as, “One of the funniest brilliant movies I’d ever seen. It was unlike anything else. I had no idea how prescient it would be. A seminal movie.”

For the week after that review, the movie was deemed a success.

However, as distribution spread beyond New York and Los Angeles, the movie did not have the same appeal to the general populace. Still, the movie had a tremendous impact on Brooks’ career and, yes, his own real life. First and foremost, Real Life established Brooks as a credible motion picture writer, director, and actor, which led to his subsequent filmic existential comedies, such as Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, and Mother.

Slansky, who became friends with Brooks, believes Real Life established Brooks as a visionary. “He sees things in ways we don’t. It’s not for nothing that his name is Albert Einstein. There’s something almost mathematical about Albert’s humor. It’s so exactly right. Like this is the way you phrase this to make it funny. He just sees these things.”

When Brooks made Real Life, reality TV was still a joke. Almost forty years later, Real Life is all that much funnier, and Brooks’ achievement is all the more gob-smacking because the film’s absurdity now has the ring of truth. As scrolling through the day’s headlines, or the evening’s or weekend’s onscreen entertainment makes abundantly clear, what Brooks took as comic has now become our own reality.

It appears the joke’s on us.

 

 

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