James L. Brooks, acclaimed writer-director of Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets, talks up the merits of smart comedy. Asked how much his audience’s concerns play into his creative choices, he responds with a story about vomit. I think there was a time in early independent cinema when it closely resembled idealized art, he says. You know Husbands? It’s a great film; Time magazine called it the best movie ever made, and with reason.
Well, Cassavetes and his acting-mates who made that picture … had a scene in there where people were vomiting for 20 minutes in a john. And as the audience started to leave the theatre in the middle of the scene, the filmmakers clapped each other on the back and said, We did it! We did it! Meaning, We reached them — we’ve made our point.
Brooks sort of simultaneously laughs and laments. Nobody thinks like that any more.
While it would be nigh-impossible to accuse James of torturing an audience, he’s definitely done his share of pioneering — carefully stretching the boundaries of comedy on movies and television while reaping awards, dollars and ratings in the process. He’s won 18 Emmys so far for his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Tracey Ullman Show and The Simpsons. In 1984 he won three Oscars, for writing, directing and producing the tearjerker comedy blockbuster Terms of Endearment, his feature directorial debut. Two subsequent directorial efforts, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, garnered him four Oscar nominations, two each for best original screenplay and best picture.
In Focus debriefed a bit with Brooks on his latest, Spanglish — but the conversation quickly turned into a wide-ranging discussion of his entire career. We talked about The Simpsons, The Office, comic theory, television versus film, why sentiment isn’t bad, and whether we’ll ever get to see the lost cut of “I’ll Do Anything” — which he originally shot as a musical, only to discard almost all its songs after a round of audience testing.