Show Business: Mr. Ear-Laffs

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There are at least half a hundred incarnations of Albert Brooks, and all of them are funny.

There is the elephant trainer who has lost his elephant and must get through his act using a frog instead. The trainer looms over the little fellow, urging him through his paces with a whip, trying to get the frog to perform such evergreen elephant stunts as Roll Over and Find the Peanut.

Then there is Dave, the hapless ventriloquist who tries to throw his voice while drinking a glass of water and ends up with a gurgling dummy. Or the comedian, running out of material, who demonstrates the techniques he could employ for cheap laughs: revealing funny pictures drawn on his chest or hitting himself in the face with a cake—a pound cake.

These cameos of desperation have been enacted over the past few years, usually on TV shows like Tonight, and have helped Albert Brooks, 28, win a reputation as the smartest, most audacious comic talent since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. Brooks traffics not so much in jokes as wild ideas, bits of madhouse theater. His material offers no snappy punch lines to repeat next day at the office. Brooks makes comic epiphanies out of the giddy, gruesome excesses of popular culture. Like some antic Pirandello, he uses comedy itself as a major object of satire.

Prenatal Work. Brooks' tone is usually foxy and sardonic, but his technique varies according to where and how he is working. He will shape his material specifically for a medium the way a stand-up comedian will tailor a monologue to suit an individual audience. Making a guest appearance on a TV variety show, Brooks will contrive a bit like Dave the ventriloquist that will capitalize on the occasion and parody it at the same time. Says his friend Director Steven Spielberg (Jaws): "Albert is not only the funniest but the most visual humorist working today."

But Brooks has worked equally well in other areas. Once, asked to contribute an article to Esquire, Brooks cooked up a six-page illustrated catalogue for an institution called Albert Brooks' Famous School for Comedians. The curriculum boasted lessons in such niceties of the profession as "Working with a Drummer" and instructions in "an occasional heartfelt sentiment" to use between jokes ("You're a marvelous human" or "He's a real saint"). He received more than 200 applications to the school.

Brooks' fracturing assaults on the gilded traditions of show biz satirize both the medium and its message. His new album, A Star Is Bought—out barely a month and selling briskly enough to have found a berth on the charts—is entirely devoted to scoring big on show business's own unlikely terms. Each of the record's 16 cuts is specifically designed for maximum commercial air play on a different kind of radio station. There is, for instance, a ragingly patriotic lament for country-and-western stations (in which the singer bitterly points out that "we play The Star-Spangled Banner at ball games, but still one team always loses") and for nostalgia stations a vintage 1943 situation comedy called the Albert Brooks Show, complete with station identifications and commercials for war bonds. Since Brooks was born four years later, he calls this final selection "my prenatal work."

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