Late Night Last Century: Albert Brooks Introduces Johnny Carson to “Buddy”

Comedy Features Albert Brooks
Late Night Last Century: Albert Brooks Introduces Johnny Carson to “Buddy”

Late Night Last Century is a new weekly column highlighting some of the funniest and most unforgettable comedy from late night, talk shows, and variety shows of the 20th century that’s currently streaming on YouTube. This week we look at a clip of Albert Brooks introducing Johnny Carson to his electronic friend, Buddy.

When asked why he had finally allowed his close childhood friend, Rob Reiner, to direct a film about his life, Albert Brooks shared a simple motivation: nowadays, he said, most young people only know him as a fish. Perhaps the reason Brooks—whose career is chronicled by Reiner in the documentary Albert Brooks: Defending My Life—feels his career is not known beyond Finding Nemo to younger audiences is because it is difficult for a newcomer to know where to begin with his prolific body of work. 

Before Brooks became an essential actor (Taxi Driver, Broadcast News) and director (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America) of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, he commanded the stage as a comic performer on the variety television show circuit. Unlike many comedians, who would go workshop their material in front of live audiences, Brooks would simply get an idea, try it out in his bathroom, and then perform before a national audience. Carl Reiner and his contemporaries, who watched Brooks grow up, saw him immediately for what he was/is: a comic prodigy. 

Brooks’ act was often a more conceptual form of stand-up comedy. He played a mime who spoke throughout his entire act, and a circus performer forced to do his routine with a frog after his elephant got sick. One of his most famous bits was as a ventriloquist named Dave, who often moved his lips along with his puppet, Danny. The act was a complete deconstruction of the tired schtick, with Brooks even pouring water down the dummy’s mouth as he sang “I Love Paris.” He performed the bit on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 31, 1971. 

More than a decade later, on May 17, 1983, Brooks took the ventriloquist act to a new level when he went on The Tonight Show and introduced Johnny Carson to Buddy, an electronic Speak & Spell toy with arms, glasses, and a nose à la Mr. Potato Head. Buddy, with help from Brooks, speaks with Johnny, often using only the sound of a single letter or two. Buddy brings down the house, and in doing so showcases once again the genius of Brooks, who only needed a kid’s toy and a few sounds and letters to further innovate the art of comedy. 

Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic and researcher, who first contributed to Paste in 2022. He is an assistant editor at Cineaste, a GALECA member, and since 2019 has hosted The Video Essay Podcast. You can follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter and learn more about him via his website.

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