Albert Brooks And Super Dave: The Weird Comedy Journey Of A Couple Einsteins
It’s probably not a surprise that the father of legendary comic minds Albert Brooks and Bob “Super Dave” Einstein was a comedian himself. Although it might surprise some of you to know that Albert and Bob are real-life brothers.
Their father, Harry Einstein, was known professionally as entertainer Harry Parke. And in the same way that most people know Bob Einstein as Super Dave, Harry Parke was better known by yet another comic alter-ego, Parkyakarkus.
Parkyarkarkus, a goofy fellow with a heavy Greek accent, was Harry’s signature character, a hit in the movies, on radio guest appearances, and for six seasons, on his very own radio show, Meet Me at Parky’s. He was enough of a celebrity in his own right that he was invited to perform at a Friar’s Club event honoring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It would turn out to be Harry's most famous comedy performance, but it’s not one the family likes to remember.
“He got up and was brilliant,” remembers Albert. “It was elegant, they screamed, he sat down, put his head on the table, and passed on. Right there. They stopped the dinner, took him backstage, cut him open and shocked him with a lamp cord. But that was it. What always impressed me was that he finished.”
That tragedy alone would be enough to convince a son not to follow in his father’s footsteps. For Bob Einstein, his dad’s fellow comics made it worse.
“At the funeral, Milton Berle and George Jessel, they did their act,” Bob told Jerry Seinfeld on an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. “Berle did his jokes, George Jessel did his jokes at my dad’s funeral. And I hated it so much.”
“At my father’s funeral, Bob was so turned off by the behavior of comedians,” Brooks recalled in the Super Bob Einstein Movie. “He said I never want to be any part of this. I don’t want anything to do with this business.”
Bob Einstein: Insisting It Was Funny
So Bob went another direction entirely. The 6’5” Einstein (“For a Jew, that’s like being 7’ 2”,” notes his older brother Cliff) played college hoops and, like Cliff, got a job in the advertising business. But the new direction didn’t last long.
Bob befriended a local talent who provided voice-overs for the agency’s commercials. The friend had a local cable show and Bob agreed to appear in a mostly ad-libbed and completely hilarious bit as the guy who installs stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In one of those weird show-biz coincidences, the appearance caught the eye of Tommy Smothers, who was looking for writers for the new Smothers Brothers TV show. One thing leads to another and guess who’s in show biz after all?
“Bob would always make fun of Albert. He said ‘you don’t want to go into show business. That’s a stupid idea. You’re not going to make a living,’” says Rob Reiner, Albert’s best friend as a kid. “And of course, Bob became what he did.”
And of course, Bob was randomly assigned to a struggling unknown as his writing partner -- Steve Martin. The two hit it off instantly and the insecure Martin became a fan of his new partner’s confidence. “(Bob) could sell a bit by insisting that it was funny.”
Little by little, Bob inserted himself into sketches for the Smothers Brothers and other variety shows for which he wrote. In the mid-1970s, he introduced a character on Dick Van Dyke’s show that would maim himself on TV, the movies, and even cartoons for the next 30-some years: Super Dave Osborne.
Super Dave was a parody of 70s daredevils like Evel Knievel, but perhaps his real comic inspiration was Wile E. Coyote. Armed with equal parts bravado and ineptitude, you could always count on Super Dave for the comic equivalent of an anvil dropped on the head.
A favorite of generations of talk-show hosts, from Letterman to Conan to Kimmel, Super Dave would have been a career definer for most comedians. But Einstein wasn’t quite done.
“He was hilarious,” says Larry David, who cast Einstein as Marty Funkhauser on Curb Your Enthusiasm. “He really made me laugh. I’m laughing just thinking about it.”
Funkhauser was a role Bob would play until his death in 2019, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. And he loved playing it.
“So this is what would happen every single day that we worked together,” remembers Curb’s Susie Essman. “We’d leave, I’d be in my car, my phone would ring. It would be Bobby. He wanted to relive every moment of every scene. ‘Wasn’t that the funniest thing when I said that?’”
“And then I’d say, “You know, I was in the scene too.’”
Albert Brooks: Brains Outside the Head
As for Albert? He didn’t do too badly in the comedy game that Bob advised him not to play. After all, he’s the man Playboy called the funniest white man in America.
But other than both men being funny, most people wouldn’t know Bob and Albert were related. In contrast to Bob’s over-the-top physical humor, Albert’s understated style is cerebral -- the guy’s real name is Albert Einstein, for Pete’s sake. (You can guess why he changed it for show biz.) The critic Pauline Kael once said Albert’s curly hair reminded her of brains worn outside of his head.
Albert claims he doesn’t know any jokes. Bob was a walking encyclopedia of them.
And unlike Bob, Albert wanted nothing else but to be in show business. He dreamed of being an actor -- and for some reason, his agents convinced him that the path to acting stardom began by becoming a comedian. You can’t blame the agents -- once Johnny Carson asked Carl Reiner about the funniest people he knew. Reiner put his son’s high school pal Al Einstein near the top of that list.
“No young person wanted to be a comedian in the late Sixties. A comedian was a fat man with a cigar in a lounge,” says Albert. But reality made a convincing argument. “As an actor at 19, I was one of a thousand. But as a comedian at 19, I was one of maybe two.”
Besides, if you’re funny on television, his agents promised, the acting parts will come. What came instead was more invitations to do comedy.
That included an offer to become the permanent host of a new television show -- Saturday Night Live.
“I was too wiped out as a performer to put myself through that live stress,” Brooks says. But “because they didn’t have anyone, talentwise, attached to the show yet, they still wanted to get me on board. So I suggested the short films.”
In addition to the classic Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians, he filmed a short in which he only appeared sick in bed. In another, he performed open heart surgery. “Doing the Saturday Night Live shorts—six of them over a short time—was like enrolling in the most amazing filmmaking course.”
That education led to an incredible run of comedy feature films that he wrote, directed, and starred in -- Real Life (Brooks’ prescient view of where reality TV would lead -- in 1979!), Modern Romance, Lost in America, and Defending Your Life among them. On top of that, Brooks developed an impressive acting resume that includes award-winning turns in films like Taxi Driver, Broadcast News, Out of Sight, Drive, and several animated turns in Finding Nemo and The Simpsons.
All of which makes Brooks one of those guys they call a “comic’s comic” -- the favorite of all the other comedians. “He’s above all of us,” says Dave Letterman. “He is someone you respect and fear at the same time because of his brilliance,” says Steve Martin.
Two brothers, both acclaimed for their prodigious comedy talents. Which only begs the question: Why didn’t these comic dynamos ever work together?
I Mean, They’re Brothers
It turns out they did. Once.
In Albert’s feature Modern Romance, Bob played a small but memorable role. “This was the part of a sporting goods salesman who had distaste for me, the customer, and was put off by any questions I asked,” says Albert. “Sort of what our relationship was.”
“It’s a great scene on it’s own and it’s fascinating with everything between them,” says comic Sarah Silverman. “I mean, they’re brothers.”
“I was the youngest. And the youngest, even in a perfect family, has a different dynamic,” Albert says in the Super Bob documentary. “And normally that dynamic is, you punch him in the head, and you don’t listen to what they say.”
Like many brotherly relationships, the threat of violence was to some degree real.
“He was very big and wanted to be the ruler. He always used to threaten me. He would say, ‘I’ll break your neck.’ Then I was in the hospital with a separated shoulder from football and was next to a kid whose neck was broken. And I saw how horribly serious that was. I said to Bob, ‘That’s a terrible threat. That’s paralysis!’”
By the way, if you think this is going to be one of those stories, don’t worry. It’s not. While Albert concedes to having anger about those childhood fights, he and Bob worked out their differences long ago. “I used to have dreams of wanting to beat him up and stuff,” Albert confesses. “But when we got all of this out on the table, he apologized. Then the dreams stopped.”
“We had our fights,” he says. “But deep down, when you didn’t involve show business, the brother love was there.”
Which makes it all the more frustrating that we didn’t get to see more of them on screen together.
“(Both of them are) so good at playing characters who take themselves way too seriously, says comedian Patton Oswalt about the scene in Modern Romance. “These two knocking into each other in this scene, as a comedian, it’s so fascinating to watch.”
“I can’t imagine Albert casting anyone else,” says Bob’s Curb castmate Jeff Garlin. “And it does kill me that they never worked together again.”
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Top image: Columbia Pictures