A few years ago in From the Archives, we did a deep dive and examined Albert Brooks’s early short films, and reminded ourselves at how creative and unique a talent the man is. Throughout these shorts we were shown a laundry list of creative ideas, jokes that still hold up today, and satire that is just as sharp now as it was in the seventies. Today we’re going to examine Albert’s two incredibly innovative albums and we’ll find that even with the video component removed, these qualities still apply. Each album features a uniquely audio premise, and one was nominated for a Grammy and hasn’t been reissued since it’s initial vinyl release. Buckle up and prepare yourselves for 1973’s Comedy Minus One, and 1975’s A Star is Bought.
Comedy Minus One
Between the two, Comedy Minus One is probably the more conventional album, if you could say that of either of them. Half of the album is made up of Brooks’s standup routine. In these sections we hear Albert performing in front of a live audience at The Troubador in Los Angeles. This laughter, Albert assures us at the beginning of the record, has not been altered or enhanced in any way at all. And in case you don’t believe him, he has brought in a notary public to swear that the laughter is authentic. In these standup portions, Albert talks with audience about the act of recording and not identifying your own laughter so you can hear it back later.
This section is as close as we get, as an audience, to getting to know who Albert Brooks is as a person and not as a performing character. So much of what he has done as a performer has been beneath the veneer of a character or an elaborate premise, so hearing him tell jokes about his experiences as Neil Diamond and Richie Havens’ opening act feels rather personal, despite the fact that it’s a finely constructed standup chunk. His material might seem familiar today to anyone who has heard a standup on a podcast talking about opening for a music act, but even in spite of that, hearing him talk about someone yelling “Kentucky Woman!” at him in the middle of his set is mightily entertaining.
The standup material is sandwiched between a number of sketches. Although, to be honest, I’m actually not sure if the Kooky Krazy Kalls® are scripted. In each of these, Albert calls a local store and makes a request that he seems to think is a joke but is in actuality a pretty reasonable request like ordering 10 parakeets from a pet store or attempting to charter an airplane to Australia from a charter airline. He disguises his voice and struggles to suppress his laughter as he enters into transactions under the guise of a prank.
The centerpiece of the album is a piece that’s very fun as an idea, but not all that fun to listen to if you’re driving to work. “Comedy Minus One,” as introduced by Albert, is a rare chance for us to team up with Brooks and perform in one of the “great rooms,” the Royal Hotel’s Majestic Room. Printed inside the gatefold album is a script, allowing the listener to say their lines along with Albert. Brooks plays the straight man and you get all the laughs as you perform a Vaudeville-style sketch called “The Auto Mechanic.” And if that weren’t enough, classic comedian Georgie Jessel (best known today, perhaps, as the inspiration for the voice of Futurama’s Dr. Zoidberg) also stops in to check on his car, allowing you to perform with not one, but two comedy legends.
Comedy Minus One, the album, is a truly unique album, and despite it’s separate components, hangs together very well as an album. What’s even more impressive is that it came out when Brooks was only 26. But as innovative and ambitions as this album was, it pales in comparison to…
A Star is Bought
Nominated for a Grammy in 1976, A Star is Bought is a concept album with a concept that is very strong and results in a lot of fun. Albert has decided that rather than put all of his “exposure eggs into one radio basket,” he’s going to create an album that can be played on every type of radio station. Each track adopts a wildly different style to help meet that goal. Between each track is a short explanation for what you’re about to hear, presented in a documentary format. For example, country star Linda Ronstadt tells us that the advice she gave Albert for country music was to deals “directly and honestly with real human emotions.” Unfortunately, Albert doesn’t feel real human emotions, except for patriotism.
“Phone Call to Americans” is a spoken word piece which Albert performs with a Southern twang in which he speaks directly to Americans and tries to inspire them to be great. “Americans can put a man on the moon, yet we still forget our trash day… We play the Star Spangled Banner at ball games, but still one team always loses.” Coming out the year of the Bicentennial, the radio was chock full of patriotic schlock in this vein. What wasn’t on the radio all the much in the mid-seventies were novelty records. That’s not going to stop Albert, though.
Perhaps my favorite track on the record, “Party From Outer Space” is a novelty record in which he performs a sketch in which all the biggest stars are at a party in outer space and Albert is interviewing them. The joke would be that he would ask them questions, and they would respond in the form of clips from their hit records. As the prologue informs us, however, his legal team informed him that this would be cost prohibitive, so instead, Albert records his own hit records and samples them. What results is a strange montage in which Albert approaches a number of different partygoers who reply in song with very specific lyrics. For example, Lassie who sings, “I’m having a great time, thanks,” or Abraham Lincoln who sings, “Ooooooo! I just met Lassie!”
To go through every track on here would be a fool’s errand. There’s too much good stuff in here. Albert conducts a call-in show for the talk radio stations. For classical stations, he realizes there’s no good way to make money off of that, so he performs the long-lost lyrics to Bolero. There’s a blues song performed with Albert King called “The Englishman-German-Jew Blues,” in which King performs a classic blues song and Brooks tells a joke, as they interrupt one another to stick to their traditional performing styles. Side two closes with a pitch-perfect parody of old-time radio in which a recording of an episode of “The Albert Brooks Show” from 1943 is played. According to his recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF, Harry Shearer attempted to get Jack Benny to make a guest appearance on this track but Benny insisted that he no longer does radio and refused to listen as they explained that this was not actually for radio. But even without Benny, this track is an amazing recreation of early comedy shows, particularly Benny’s, right down to the now un-PC valet, although in Albert’s case it’s a Japanese man named Sam, who when waking Albert causes him to exclaim “The Japanese have invaded!”
Even the packaging is funny. A Star is Bought came with a “signed” 8x10 of Brooks which you were to then place inside the faux frame on the front of your album. The cover advertises this fact with small print that reads, “Insert to complete cover!*” Follow the asterisk down and you see the text, “*IMPORTANT: Insertion of photo requires no special instructions.” No matter what medium he operates in, Brooks’s comedy fills the space, using every trick available to him. Though they’ll require some work in order to hear it, I can promise you, it’s worth the effort.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title and will be premiering new episodes next month!