Albert Brooks began his career as a stand-up comic, specializing in the kinds of elaborate, self-aware comedic pieces that would later inspire the performances of Steve Martin and Zach Galifianakis. He parlayed appearances on Johnny Carson into meaty movie roles in Taxi Driver and Broadcast News, all the while carving out his own niche of neurotic comedy in his films Defending Your Life, The Muse, and Modern Romance. Now Brooks has penned his first novel, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, a dark-humor imagining of what goes down after a 9.1 earthquake hits Los Angeles. We spoke with Brooks ahead of today’s release about being labeled a “comedian,” the persistence of Jewish jokes, and what he really thinks of his Twitter followers.
Usually when a comedian writes his first book, it’s a memoir or a book of essays. What made you decide on a novel?
I know you’re always branded as one thing, and I guess I’ve been in comedy my whole life — but I never viewed myself as a comedian. I just like making people laugh, and buried in that I like to bring up topics and start discussions. I’ve done that with humor, but I guess I think of a comedian as a guy with a cigar doing the second show in Vegas. It took many, many years for the word comedian to even have respectability. It used to be derogatory — the bottom of the show-business totem pole.
Do you mind that the book is being labeled a comedic novel?
They can call it anything they want if it’s in a positive sentence. They can call it “the world’s most interesting cookbook.” I’ll take it!
The book has some pretty funny moments, but it’s also dark.
That’s my favorite thing to write — I like darkness couched in a few smiles. It’s my challenge even in my movies. What’s interesting about books that take place in the future, even twenty years in the future, is that many of them are black or white: It’s either a utopia or it’s misery. The real truth is that there’s going to be both things in any future, just like there is now. You can still have a funny moment in a situation where a city has been leveled in an earthquake.
It’s nice to see that in your future Jewish jokes remain.
I don’t think that will change as long as there are Jews and as long as those Jews are in the minority. I think the jokes are coming out for that reason. It’s almost like, “Let us sit at the table, we’re cute.”
Was the writing process more or less stressful than writing a screenplay?
Less, because I did it on spec. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it. I took no money and had no deadline. I started to write this book and in the back of my mind was, if I hated it in four months, I would’ve put it in a drawer and you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. Nobody knew about it.
In my screenplays — from the very beginning I’ve always used tape. I talk my screenplays. And then have somebody transcribe them. Then, I take a pen and go from there. The book I did on a computer. [In a screenplay,] I can write a million ways that you go over and get a cup of coffee. But if I’m writing a novel, I have to make that exactly how I want it to sound, because that’s all you’re gonna read.
So when you talk out screenplays, do you do different voices for each character?
Yes. Exactly that.
There’s gotta be some blackmail that could be squeezed out of those tapes.
I’ll tell ya what: You break into my house and get ’em and then we’ll talk. I’ve got a very big dog that’s sitting on top of them.
Are there certain films of yours that you think have held up better than others?
I don’t become judge and jury of my own work because that’s impossible to do. And by the way, there’s no definitive time at which you say, “Okay, time’s up, what’s held up?” As the world changes, lots of things that you talk about go in and out of fashion. Last week I’m watching this HBO thing called Cinema Verite, and my wife said to me, “Didn’t you make that movie?” Here it is, 30 years later.
What’d you think of it, considering it’s so directly related to your film Real Life?
I don’t know. What am I supposed to say? It was okay. I don’t know.
Do you pay attention to reality TV?
I think we need another name. I don’t think “reality TV” is correct anymore. You know as well as I do that you’re seeing a hybrid of scripted, non-scripted, phony-real. Until they literally show you CIA spy footage of human beings living, I don’t think we can use the name “reality TV.”
You joined Twitter very recently. How have you been enjoying it?
It’s funny. I used to call friends if I thought of something funny and I’d tell one person on the phone. Now I’ll just tweet it. And I like the responses.
I’d imagine you get a bajillion responses.
Yeah, but you read ’em fast and sometimes they’re funny. If you do this for long enough, the same people come up with the same responses. It’s like you get hecklers from nightclubs. The same person since I started has been responding with, “Oh you could do better than that, you old fart.” It makes me laugh. It’s like, this is the guy who made me stop doing stand-up, and now he’s appearing on my tweet stream. They’re frightening. If you tweet something day or night, they respond in one second. Because why are you reading my tweet at midnight and then at eight in the morning? What’s wrong with you? What kind of life are you missing that you’re doing this? And by the way, I can only imagine they’re doing this to 1,400 other people. So that person is a modern-day serial killer.