The present day comedic zeitgeist pulls a great deal of humor from parody. Scary Movie, Epic Movie, and their ilk twist Hollywood’s latest offerings into a punchline for the uncultured. The mockumentaries of Christopher Guest provide a more sophisticated brand of humor. Best in Show or A Mighty Wind play to supporters of PBS and independent films. Either way, the laughter is fueled by a stream of cultural references.
In 1979, Albert Brooks was ahead of today’s comedic trends. Real Life starts with a preamble connecting itself to the seminal PBS docu-series An American Family. When PBS originally aired An American Family in 1973, the nation found the fractured life of the Loud Family compelling. Critics found the work challenging. Ethical questions arose; concerns of objectivity and honesty were debated. What Albert Brooks saw was a potential for comedy.
Here, in his first feature film, Brook’s plays a fame driven celebrity wanting to dive into the world of documentary filmmaking and confusing sociology with sensationalism. As much as he wants to make a document of a real American family, Brooks is more interested in how his grand experiment is received. Herein, conflicts arise. Just as critics challenged the objectivity and intent of An American Family, Brooks uses his own character to raise similar queries. Through manipulation and hubris, the at-any-cost director distorts the reality he desperately hopes to capture. The family he wants to immortalize become more victim than archetype.
The legacy of An American Family lives on in the form of reality television. The questions Real Life raises still exist and they are not being addressed in today’s parodies of mass-media. The brilliance of Real Life is the target of its humor. It’s the producer, not the product that is called into question and made the butt of joke. Today, An American Family is long forgotten and rarely seen. Real Life is just as forgotten, but slightly easier to see. The film’s DVD is woefully out of print. Still, copies exists and if you are to watch Real Life and have never seen An American Family the comedy of Real Life, as well as its criticism, is relevant today.