Albert Brooks, Rob Reiner on Friendship, HBO Doc 'Defending My Life'

Albert Brooks: Defending My Life pays tribute to a pioneer whose irreverent humor has spanned late night TV, comedy albums, features, animated voice work and a novel. But what makes the film sing is the extended rap session between Brooks and his dear friend Rob Reiner, who directed the HBO documentary. The Hollywood legends met as teenagers at Beverly Hills High School, and Reiner structures the film around a lunch in which they swap anecdotes and punchlines about Brooks’ influential career. It’s an energizing way to frame what might otherwise be just another gushy celebrity profile. 

Onscreen, Brooks tells stories about the early days of Saturday Night Live and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, his friendships with Carrie Fisher and Stanley Kubrick, the seven movies he’s written and directed and the marriage that made him a new father in his 50s. Many of today’s wry humorists owe a debt to Brooks, who satirized showbiz tropes and deconstructed standard joke setups long before it was trendy. He’s a thinking person’s comic, and Defending My Life catalogs the ways he pushed pop culture forward. The pair talks with THR about making the film, which is eligible for the Emmy for outstanding documentary or nonfiction special prize, and how the industry has changed. 

Rob, what did it take to persuade Albert to make this documentary?

ROB REINER An enormous amount of money. No. That’s a joke. I’ve got negative dollars, and at this point he’s got the same. I wanted to do this for years. When the film My Dinner With Andre came out, I said, “Albert, come on, we’ll go to a deli and it’ll be My Lunch With Albert.” He never wanted to do it. Time went by, and finally we both thought it could be more than the two of us talking. It would also go into his career, because to me, Albert is a genius. So many young people don’t know him, and I wanted everybody to be able to see what I’ve seen for 60 years now. 

At a party as a teenage

Courtesy of HBO

What was it like to see all these famous comedians and actors gush about you in the film?

ALBERT BROOKS What can I say? I did this one episode on Curb Your Enthusiasm where it was all about a fake funeral so you could hear that stuff while you were still living. It’s thrilling I could even hear it. Obviously, you’re flattered and overwhelmed that people are even taking the time to do it, but the fact that my wife wasn’t the only one who heard it while weeping is a very, very nice thing. 

REINER What really gets to me is that these people look up to Albert. They all recognize that Albert is in a class by himself. Some of them were intimidated when first meeting him. It’s, “Oh, this guy who does stuff that nobody else does — I wonder if he’ll like what I do.” 

BROOKS That’s not something I walk around thinking. When I meet people, I’m always on a level playing field. So when Rob says that, it’s flattering and I sort of blush because I don’t know how I would deal with that. People always say you can get 40 good reviews and one bad review and you’ll know the bad review. It’s the same with meeting people: If you meet some jerk, you’re more likely to remember that than the people who are in love with you. 

Can you feel the way your influence has spread throughout the past 60 years of comedy?

BROOKS I can watch things and say to myself, “Gee, I did that in 1971.” That’s as good as it can get. But let me tell you something: When you have children, all of that disappears. You can think like that until your child is old enough to speak, and then you’re dead to them because you’re an old person. My kids were never going, “Dad, you changed comedy!” But I’m not an idiot. I can watch something that was done three years ago and turn to my wife and say, “I did this bit that was exactly that.” You can feel pride about it, but it’s not a feeling that exists all the time.

REINER The thing about Albert’s comedy that you have to understand is what Chris Rock says so well in the documentary: “It’s so original, you wouldn’t know how to steal it.” You look at great comedians who were groundbreakers, and Albert is one of those. Ernie Kovacs before that. Certain people are signposts. Jonathan Winters begat Robin Williams. And I would say Bo Burnham, who we’ve seen great things from, is a total original, just like Albert is a total original. Now, Albert sets the bar for the next person trying to do something unique. 

With Leeds (left) and his 1996 onscreen mom, Debbie Reynolds.

Courtesy of HBO

Who’s someone who has told you that you influenced them?

BROOKS Andy Kaufman came up to me early in his career and said, “I’m doing this because of you.” He came out onstage, and he certainly was the antithesis to, “Take my wife, please!” He changed the form. 

It has been nearly two decades since you directed a film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which was essentially dumped. After that, did you decide making movies just wasn’t worth it anymore?

BROOKS A number of things happened. It got to a point during those few years where the struggle to raise the money was getting more difficult. Then, when I got energy back, right in front of my very eyes, a new thing started to happen: Movie theaters were taking second place. This world where you would make things and they would be seen on television was so different. One of the things that was most enjoyable about making a movie was, even if you didn’t get a 2,000-theater release, you could create a moment. Now, it’s like when you used to make a comedy album. Unless you drive that thing to a friend’s house, you’ll never hear anybody listen to it. 

REINER If you put it on a streamer, the only pleasure you can get is the pleasure of making something. 

BROOKS I used to stand in the back of a theater. Nobody would know I was there, and you would see the audience completely into it. It’s like, “Goddamn, I wasn’t crazy! I knew this worked!” You have to be willing to let that go. 

Albert Brooks with his mother, Thelma Leeds

Courtesy of HBO

Something similar could be said about many aspects of the careers the two of you forged. Do you miss the old days of late night, before the priority shifted to creating YouTube clips?

BROOKS One hundred percent. I can tell you when it started to change. After the years of Johnny Carson, I went to Letterman. You didn’t need to tell anyone you were on — it was in the zeitgeist: “Who’s on Lettermantonight?” Then Conan came to NBC, and Jimmy Kimmel came to ABC, but that stopped. When I was on Carson, I never had to call anybody. That all went away in the early 2000s. People underestimate how the ability to time-shift what you watch on TV changed everything. I had this experience at lunch today. I was sitting with a friend and wanted to talk about a show, and I said, “Hey, did you see this?’ And they said, “Don’t say anything!”

REINER You can’t talk to anybody about anything because they’re only on season one or only on episode two. We’re not having a shared experience. 

Modern Romance gave you something of a friendship with Stanley Kubrick because he admired the film so much. Did the two of you keep in touch in later years?

BROOKS We spoke quite a bit. When I was writing Lost in America, he wanted to read a draft. He came back with the worst notes you’ve ever heard. But I spoke to him often. He was very nice to me. You want to know what his notes were for Lost in America?

Yes, I do.

BROOKS Stanley Kubrick said, “When [Julie Hagerty] leaves you in the middle of the movie, she should never come back. And then when you go back to New York and take the job, one day, months later, you can round the corner and she’ll be standing there.” I said, “I hear you. But what I’m trying to do is talk about two people who made the biggest mistake of their lives. Really the movie is about eating shit, and I don’t see that ending.” You gotta be afraid to ask your heroes for anything.

REINER Tell that story about how you had to come up with a bit on the Golddiggers show and you went and talked to my dad. 

BROOKS That was a huge life experience because I was coming up with bits weekly, and Rob was still living at home, so I went by his house. He wasn’t there, but [Rob’s father] Carl [Reiner] was there. I said, “I want to show Rob this bit I have to do today,” and Carl said, “Oh, show me.” I did the bit, and Carl said, “I don’t think so. I just don’t see it.” And I couldn’t do anything — it was three o’clock, and I had to be at NBC at 3:30. So I did the bit, and it killed. It was one of those lessons where you go, “Hey, I might know what I’m doing.” I tell that to my daughter, who’s a singer-songwriter. The thing that breaks my heart about young people is the opinions that they are under siege with continuously with social media. I wouldn’t have had a career!

Albert, are you aware of your impact on the work of Ari Aster?

BROOKS I am aware of it because I have become friends with Ari. When Criterion released Defending Your Life, Ari wrote the essay. He’s the first one to tell me what I’ve meant to him, and I was very happy about it because he’s really good. The most thrilling thing is if someone you think is good says to you that you’ve influenced them — as opposed to someone you can’t stand.

This story first appeared in a May standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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