Albert Brooks inhabits the same role on The Simpsons that Robert Smigel does on Saturday Night Live and the late, lamented Late Night With Conan O’Brien. He fits perfectly within the show’s universe and mythology but he also has his own private little kingdom within The Simpsons, a rogue’s gallery of scene-stealing guest stars who have burrowed their way into the national consciousness.
I know I can never have brunch without Brooks’ lecherous bowling instructor Jacque’s description of the weekend institution running on repeat inside my Simpsons-damaged psyche: “It’s not quite breakfast, it's not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don't get completely what you would get at breakfast, but you get a good meal.”
I suspect that that line was improvised, as Brooks is understandably one of the few guest stars given free reign to improvise. Unlike Robin Williams, however, just about everything that comes out of Brooks’ mouth is hilarious. I imagine that Brooks played a huge role in shaping classic characters like Jacque and my personal favorite, Hank Scorpio, super-villain, new age boss, dream-maker and all-around dynamic individual.
There was an article about Brooks a few years ago around the time Looking For Comedy in the Muslim World came out and one of Brooks’ friends crowed about how the writer-director-actor—whose comedian father literally died onstage one night while performing at a Friar’s Club roast for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball—would leave insane five minute long answering messages that were funnier than ninety-nine percent of film comedy.
Brooks is perhaps comedy’s biggest perfectionist, an obsessive genius who turns out movies at a rate that makes his friend Stanley Kubrick look prolific. But The Simpsons has thankfully provided a forum for his singular gifts on a semi-regular basis. The writers provide a rough framework for Brooks to work within. He then solos magnificently within those lines.
Today’s episode of The Simpsons, “Call of the Simpsons”, marks Brooks’ very first appearance on the show. True to form, he took what could have been a stock role—a sleazy, overly ingratiating RV dealer—and transformed it into something spectacular.
The episode begins with Homer drooling with envy over neighbor Ned Flanders’ spiffy new pimped-out RV. As I mentioned earlier, some of the Simpsons’ characters behave in awfully uncharacteristic ways in the first season. Considering the paragon of restraint, self-control and humility he would later become, it’s jarring to see Ned tooling around in a flashy status symbol and bragging about how he bought the whole shebang on credit. We’d later learn that Ned has locked out every channel but the religious ones on his TV so it was similarly strange to see him bragging about his big satellite dish.
Ned’s RV fills Homer with jealousy and also rage so he heads over to the local RV dealership, where he’s seduced with flattery by Brooks’ honey-dripping salesman. So much of acting and improvising is about making choices and Brooks makes choices as unpredictable as they are brilliant, whether he’s admonishing a gun-shy Homer to ignore the wishes of his family by imploring, “If you have to talk it over with those humans over there there’s something wrong with all of us” or enigmatically confiding, “I don’t own this place, even though my name’s up there. Long story,” a line that hints at a whole world of weirdness and duplicity just outside the frame.
Brooks’ oily salesman tells Homer, “You look like a God, sort of” and plays to his gluttony by promising an RV with four deep fryers, “one for each part of the chicken” before doing an abrupt about-face when a credit check reveals Homer to be history’s greatest monster, at least where his credit is concerned.
So Homer buys a lemon of an RV and the Simpsons head out for a perilous trek to the woods. Shenanigans ensue. The Simpsons lose their camper almost immediately. Maggie becomes queen of the grizzlies in a subplot as adorable as anything that’s ever appeared on the show. Meanwhile, Homer and Bart lose their clothes and Homer is mistaken for a Bigfoot.
The problem with an Albert Brooks’ performance on The Simpsons is that it gives a show nowhere to go but down. So while the rest of the episode was good, it felt a little routine, though I enjoyed the screaming tabloid headlines detailing every new development in the ongoing Bigfoot saga.
Albert Brooks has only appeared in five episodes of The Simpsons (he also appeared in The Simpsons Movie) but he nevertheless ranks with Kelsey Grammer and Phil Hartman as one of the show’s best guest voices. He’s made the most of every appearance, beginning with his show-stealing turn here.
—“Ever known a siren to be good?”
—“We now return to the President’s address, already in progress.
—Who is your favorite A. Brooks Simpsons character?