Albert Brooks and the Rise of ‘New Humor’

As noted in my recent piece on Bob Einstein’s lost classic comedy book, the real comic genius in the Einstein family is little brother Albert, who took to the stage under the name Albert Brooks. A year after Bob’s publishing debut, Albert made an even bigger splash in the print world in the February 1971 issue of Esquire magazine. (Side note: Oh, those truly were the glory days of publishing. The magazine was an astounding 10 1/4-inches wide and 13 1/8-inches tall — too big for my consumer-grade scanner to capture a whole page at once. How did it fit on a newsstand? And many of those enormous pages consist entirely of tiny 9-point type. Apparently, people actually enjoyed reading back then…)

Anyway, for the magazine Brooks created a five-page parody of the Famous Artists School, whose ubiquitous “Draw Me” ads filled the pages of every comic book, men’s magazine, and hobby publication of the day. The “Albert Brooks Famous School For Comedians” featured a typically smarmy Brooks welcoming hopeful students to his shady enterprise. The following pages offered a photographic tour of the “campus,” samples from “The Curriculum” — including a two-page Comedy Talent Test® — and Brooks’ “Komedy Korner®,” which “answers” vital student questions about comedy. (Note also the Register Mark, used extensively throughout the article to impart an air of transparently undeserved authenticity). There is also a “testimonial” from a former student, who unfortunately seems to have learned exactly the kind of broadly shameless humor the Famous School For Comedians teaches.

In the front-of-the-book “Backstage With Esquire” column, editor Lee Eisenberg offered this brief bio of Brooks and explanation of how the piece came about:

“I thought at first in terms of an orthodox profile. It seemed reasonable to think that a man as funny as Albert would probably be weird, or anyhow interesting, in his private life. So I called up his manager and asked. First I learned that Albert has lived all his life in Beverly Hills. “‘Well, what about hobbies or something,’ I asked. “‘Well, he likes to drive his car and listen to his hi-fi.’ “‘Well, how about his early life?’ “‘Well, he went to Carnegie Tech for three years before dropping out.’ “Well, so much for the profile. So I called up Albert and asked if HE had any article ideas, and he did, and Famous School For Comedians is it. Albert came to New York to work it out, and we put our offices at his disposal. He took complete control of the photography, he was exceptionally meticulous and hard to please with written copy. But we hope we gave him what he wanted. “Later he called from the Coast and asked us to rent a billboard in Hollywood to advertise the issue. That we didn’t give him.”

Eisenberg also nicely describes Brooks’ act at the time, noting the “common theme” running throughout:

“On one level, [Brooks takes] existing show-biz routines, the bandleader routine for example, and enlarge them to absurd cliches. I thought this quite ingenious. On another level, though, Albert is a stand-up comic, and the stand-up comic is the oldest orthodox style in show business. I thought I saw in his material some of the so-called “new humor,” in which anything — anything at all — normal and middle-class is automatically funny to the freak mentality. There’s an element of this in Albert.”

Ah, yes, the “freak mentality” — recall it was a time when hippies still roamed the land. Comedy in 1971 was still ruled by performers who had worked in Vaudeville and radio, as had Brooks’ father. George Carlin’s groundbreaking LP AM & FM would not be released until the next year and Saturday Night Live would not begin for several more. (Of course, from its first episode, Brooks was featured regularly on SNL with a series of comic short films.)

The then-23-year-old Brooks was both a legitimate scion of Old Hollywood and heir to the hallowed traditions of Vaudeville, as well as a crusading member of this “new humor.” “Deconstructionist” might be the word Eisenberg was looking for in explaining what Brooks was up to. In his act, and especially in this Esquire piece, Brooks tore apart the tropes of show-biz, all the while performing a classic show-biz-style act. In Famous School For Comedians, Brooks goes so far as to turn then-active old-guard comedians such as Georgie Jessel, George Burns, Martha Raye, Charlie Weaver, and others into punchlines themselves. But Brooks, like his contemporary Billy Crystal, was so much a part of that world that the barbs tended to land gently.

The editor’s introduction to the article itself confirms the middling quality of official humor during the Nixon administration. “The state of American humor is no longer a laughing matter,” it states, going on to bemoan the “good old days of Benchley, Marquis, Lardner and other witty writers,” also name-checking Fred Allen and James Thurber and comparing that stellar lineup with the then-current fixtures: “Regis Philbin, Zsa Zsa Gabor, The Beverly Hillbillies, Jim Nabors, and Merv Griffin.” (Interesting how Regis and Zsa Zsa are still currently in the news.)

That was the context in which Brooks began his subversive uber-showbiz/anti-showbiz creations. “The Albert Brooks Famous School For Comedians” was one of the first shots across the bow from the younger generation of comics announcing that the game was changing. Brooks continued his assault in the same vein with his two record albums, Comedy Minus One and A Star Is Bought. More about those later.

Here now, test yourself against the master. No cheating.

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Albert Brooks and the Rise of ‘New Humor’