Hollywood’s Greatest Year: The Prophetic Genius of ‘Real Life,’ Albert Brooks’ Debut Comedy

Part of our film-by-film flashback to the cinematic glory of 1979

Rich Cohen
Mar 26 · 8 min read
Albert Brooks in “Real Life.” © Paramount Pictures.

Cineplex ’79 is a new column from Rich Cohen, who is out to prove that 1979 was the greatest year in movie history, with a periodic look back at the best of the bunch. Previously: The China Syndrome.


My brother rented Real Life, then left the tape for me to find — like a case of beer, or an issue of Hustler. I slid it into the Magnavox (remember how those chunky tapes would lower when you pressed play, descending like a casket into the cold earth?), sat back, and let myself be remade.

This was Albert Brooks’ first film, a faux documentary. Released in March 1979, Real Life preceded and influenced This Is Spinal Tap and The Office and anticipated the monstrosity of reality TV. In it, Brooks plays a documentary filmmaker seeking to chronicle a year in the life of a perfect American family — the Yeagers of Phoenix, Arizona — while at the same time casting an eye on the process itself, like “a movie in a movie in a movie in a movie in a movie,” Brooks explains.

It’s Inception meets Documentary Now!

The movie taught me at least two things: One, that being funny is more important than anything, even relationships. And two, that everything on TV is TV.

For me, finding that videotape was a small-scale version of Lenin stumbling across Das Kapital. When I finished my first viewing, I was no longer the same person I had been at the start. Everything looked different, made a new kind of sense. The movie taught me at least two things: One, that being funny is more important than anything, even relationships. And two, that everything on TV is TV.

Real Life movie poster. © Paramount Pictures.

Real Life was Brooks’ first movie, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s still his best. He was like an athlete who has a transcendent rookie season — though followed by a career of solid play, it can never quite be matched. It was a miracle, made by the artist but also by the time and place: America, 1979. Think of a white Dodge van with a sunset painted on the side barreling down an empty road. That was the mood — cynical and cool, certain only of uncertainty and doubt, keyed for the hypocrisies and unintentional comedy of beer and laxative commercials. Real Life would make a good double feature with The China Syndrome, which also came out in 1979, the greatest year ever for movies. Both are about how news gets made — what is shown and what is hidden, and how the artifice is constructed.

Brooks spent the first part of his career taking apart that artifice, something he could do because he was comedy royalty. His father, Harry, who died when Albert was 11, had been a radio star, known from regular appearances on the Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson shows, where he played a Greek restaurateur named Parkyakarkus (say it slowly). Harry expired in true Borscht Belt fashion: He did nearly 10 solid minutes at a Friars Club roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, went back to his table, then sat down and died, falling into the lap of Milton Berle, who shouted, “Is there a doctor in the house,” which got a big laugh, everyone believing it was all part of the bit. Brooks is a pseudonym, by the way—Albert’s birth name is Einstein, meaning his father named him Albert Einstein, which is the kind of funny that only hits you on the way home. Albert’s older brother (one of them) was Bob Einstein, aka Super Dave, aka Marty Funkhouser of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the man with the planet’s best deadpan. (He died this January at age 76.) Bob’s cameo as a sneaker salesman in Brooks’ second feature, Modern Romance, may be the funniest scene in his entire oeuvre.

Brooks, who now and then did stand-up, once said he spent most of his time playing in the living rooms of friends — it was a joke, but it happened to be true. He got famous in a word-of-mouth way — like a legend, or a rumor — performing in houses around Beverly Hills, where he was spotted by showbiz fathers. That’s how Carl Reiner came to know Brooks — Albert Brooks and Rob Reiner were pals; as I said, you see that influence in This Is Spinal Tap. The early routines were dry and sardonic. Brooks has a nearly Gen X sensibility; he was Letterman before Letterman, goofing with showbiz conventions, some of them pure Friars Club, meaning he was, in a sense, taking apart his father’s legacy. A case in point was his most famous bit — he did it on The Flip Wilson Show — the bad ventriloquist. In it, Brooks sang while the dummy drank water.

By his mid-twenties, Brooks was an underground hit, which is probably why, when putting together Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels initially asked him to be the show’s permanent host. Brooks, not wanting to move to New York or take on the grind of a weekly show, turned Michaels down, though he did agree to make short films for the broadcast. A number of these appeared in SNL’s first season. One promoted a few possible replacements for “midseason replacement shows” — if the shows made to replace failed network shows went on to fail themselves, you might see these instead. (Here Brooks was, from the start, deconstructing television.) They included The Three of Us, a sitcom that seemed to anticipate Three’s Company, centered around a man’s attempt to get not one but two women into bed. Another featured a black military veteran working as a veterinarian in a small Southern town. It was called Black Vet.

Real Life, which was an outgrowth of these shorts, is an extended riff on An American Family, a so-called cinema verité documentary series. Airing on PBS in 1973, it depicted an actual family, the Louds of Santa Barbara, California: Bill and Pat and their five children. Meant to chronicle the Louds’ day-to-day life, the show — perhaps due to the stress of the filmmakers’ unblinking eye — caught its dissolution instead. Halfway through the season, Pat asks Bill to move out. She is then seen, in seemingly “private” conversation, telling her brother and sister-in-law about Bill’s philandering. Lance Loud, the eldest son, eventually came out as gay on the show — a first for prime-time TV. “He was shown wearing blue lipstick, and, after moving to the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, introducing his mother to a world of transvestites and hustlers,” the New York Times reported.

Lance found a place in the Warhol circle after the show aired. His band, the Mumps, played Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, gained a cult following, then failed anyway. There was an overexposed quality to Lance and the others — that’s what reality TV does. He was like a photo that had been left in the sun: golden at the edges, blurred at the center. In 1987, Lance learned he had HIV; he died in 2001, at age 50. The story of the Louds, the 12 hours whittled from 300 hours of film, was said to be the first real-life soap opera — a precursor of the reality TV era that would blossom decades later.

In Real Life (co-written with Monica McGowan Johnson and Harry Shearer), Brooks proposes the next logical step: He will capture the filmmakers as well as their subject. The family patriarch, veterinarian Warren Yeager, is played by Charles Grodin with his usual detached brilliance; Francis Lee McCain (Marty’s grandma in Back to the Future) is his wife, Jeanette.

Brooks, of course, is the director, “Albert Brooks.”

They are followed, at all times, by the crew. “This is as alone as I ever get,” Brooks tells Mrs. Yeager, pointing to a guy in a ridiculously bulky helmet-cam. (Brooks, introducing the camera as a “startling breakthrough in technology,” boasts, “Only six of these cameras were ever made. Only five of them ever worked. We have four of those.”) Then there are the scientists from the National Institute of Human Behavior, meant to lend the project credibility. (With their guidance, Brooks explains, “We not only had a chance at winning an Oscar, but possibly a Nobel Prize, too.”) Then there is the old-fashioned Hollywood exec, voiced by noted producer Jennings Lang (Airport ’77), who calls via speakerphone to offer notes. “I want to leave you with two words,” he says. “James Caan. Is that real enough for you?”

Brooks is a star schmoozing with hicks, trying (and mostly failing) to relate to everyday people. It’s a ferocious satire, and it gets at the contradictions at the heart of reality TV.

Brooks is the film’s star, a curly haired, beefy filmmaker with the sort of cheeky smile that makes his eyes vanish. In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson depicts Brooks as a sort of West Coast Woody Allen, but that’s wrong and really means one thing — Jew. In truth, they are near opposites. Allen is nerdy and small, a product of the great indoors. Brooks is a sun-state Hebrew, big and strong, obsessed with running and dieting — the whole L.A. lifestyle.

Real Life is partly about that Hollywood self-love. Brooks is a star schmoozing with hicks, trying (and mostly failing) to relate to everyday people. It’s a ferocious satire, and it gets at the contradictions at the heart of reality TV. The aim of chronicling real life is a logical impossibility — by observing something, you change it. When you put that new reality on a screen, it bleeds back into the world. What happens to the Yeagers is what happens to all of us when our lives are broadcast. (Ask the Louds, or any former cast member from The Real World.)

I won’t go into detail — see the movie — but suffice it to say the tale ends in turmoil. Brooks, having lost his funding and seeking a way to finish his movie, decides to burn down the Yeager’s house. So, in the end, you have the story of a filmmaker, a family, their house, and a fire. Now, I will tell you what these things stand for: The filmmaker is the media; the studio executive is the old men who deride the younger generation; the family is the American people; and their house is the nation, consumed by flames as the cameraman films from the lawn.

Written by

Author bestselling books on gangsters, Chicago Cubs and Bears, the Rolling Stones. New book is “The Last Pirate of New York.” Co-Creator of HBO’s Vinyl.

Cineplex ’79
Cineplex ’79
Cineplex ’79

About this Column

Cineplex ’79

Cineplex ’79 is a new column from Rich Cohen, who is out to prove that 1979 was the greatest year in movie history, with a periodic look back at the best of the bunch.

Cineplex ’79 is a new column from Rich Cohen, who is out to prove that 1979 was the greatest year in movie history, with a periodic look back at the best of the bunch.

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