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Rob Reiner celebrates his friend Albert Brooks in a delightful documentary


This is FRESH AIR. On Saturday, November 11, HBO premieres a new documentary directed by Rob Reiner. It's called "Albert Brooks: Defending My Life." And it's about a subject Reiner knows well. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Rob Reiner and Albert Brooks have been friends since high school. Both had fathers who were comedians, and both made their own marks in comedy as young men on television. Reiner wrote for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," then co-starred on "All In The Family." Albert Brooks did guest spots on dozens of TV variety and talk shows, killed on multiple appearances on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," then wrote and starred in short comedy films made for a new late-night show called "Saturday Night Live." Eventually, both of them made movies. Reiner directed "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Misery" and "The Princess Bride." Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in such classic comedies as "Real Life," "Modern Romance," "Lost In America," "Mother" and "Defending Your Life."

And now, all these decades later, Rob Reiner has directed a biographical documentary about his old friend. Its title is "Albert Brooks: Defending My Life." It premieres on HBO, and it's terrific. The only thing wrong with it is that it's not twice as long. Not that it isn't thorough or doesn't take its time. "Defending My Life" starts out by having Reiner and Brooks sitting in a plush booth at an LA restaurant, just talking casually. It's the ease with which they converse, swapping and sharing stories, admitting very personal details, that makes this such an intimate experience. It's almost like you're eavesdropping. And the conversation is always as interesting as it is unforced.


ROB REINER: We've been friends for, like, almost 60 years, and it's - which is ridiculous in and of itself.

ALBERT BROOKS: That is ridiculous.

REINER: But I'm going to do something to embarrass the hell out of you at the beginning, and then we'll go from there.


REINER: I've always looked up to you. I'm telling you the truth.

BROOKS: Oh, my God.

REINER: I've always looked up to you because to me, there was nobody that did what you could do, you know, with comedy. I just - and I've always been kind of a little bit intimidated.

BROOKS: Oh, my. Look at this.

REINER: But...

BROOKS: It took this to finally hear a compliment.

BIANCULLI: In addition to talking to the subject of his documentary, Rob Reiner also talks to fellow comics, all of whom discuss Albert Brooks with lavish and insightful praise - David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Larry David, Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock - and filmmakers like James L. Brooks, who directed Albert Brooks in "Broadcast News," and Steven Spielberg, who used to film Albert Brooks in eight-millimeter home movies when they were younger just for the fun of it. And then, finally and much too briefly, there are the clips. And before we even get to the movies, Reiner gives us some samples of his friend's outrageously inventive and loony TV appearances.

What Andy Kaufman and Steve Martin did to redefine comedy in the 1970s, Albert Brooks was doing as far back as the late '60s. One insane bit I saw on the Carson show back then and never forgot is sampled here. Brooks sits next to Johnny Carson and unveils his new home comedy kit, where you use the bits of food and spices provided to perform your own celebrity impersonations. He brings Carson's to tears by showing how sniffing a little dash of pepper, then popping a small piece of hot potato into your mouth can lead to a perfect impression of one of the Three Stooges.


JOHNNY CARSON: A hot potato.

BROOKS: A hot potato.

CARSON: Hot potato.

BROOKS: All right. Curly is you take a little bit of pepper. You know, Curly, the great Three Stooge, hard to do - not now. Take a pepper. Put it like that. OK. Now you begin to make a child's train noise. (Imitating train whistle). It was a potato. (Imitating train whistle).


BIANCULLI: Brooks tells wonderful stories about these appearances and about "SNL" and about his films. And even his kids get to tell funny stories, including one about hearing their dad's voice coming out of one of the animated fish in "Finding Nemo." But there's insight here, too, as when Brooks explains his career choices as being something other than choices.


BROOKS: I had a very famous agent, and he said to me, I don't know why you always take the hard road.

REINER: Yeah. Yeah.

BROOKS: And my answer was, you think I see two roads, and I don't.


BROOKS: If there was an easy road, I'd have a house there. I said, what do you think? I get up. I can't wait for the damn trouble I'm going to get into. I said, I don't see - I see one road.

BIANCULLI: In saluting and celebrating his friend Albert Brooks, Rob Reiner has made a delightful documentary, one that makes you want to take a deep dive into the comedy films of Albert Brooks. I urge you to do it and to start with "Lost In America," one of the funniest films I've ever seen, especially when it gets to the part about the hundred-thousand-dollar box.

MOSLEY: David Bianculli is professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the new HBO documentary called "Albert Brooks: Defending My Life." On the next FRESH AIR, Barbra Streisand. In her new memoir, she writes about everything from her mother's constant criticism, her Broadway shows and why she never did more. She also shares why she asked Stephen Sondheim to rewrite lyrics for her and why she stopped performing for many years. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @NPRFreshAir. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULE STYNE'S "OVERTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.