Sketchfest Review: The SF Sketchfest Comedy Writing Award – James L. Brooks in conversation with Danny DeVito at the Castro Theatre, 2/1/2011

by Jason LeRoy on February 2, 2011

James L. Brooks snaps a photo of Danny DeVito doing an impression of him knocking on Debra Winger's locked door during the turbulent filming of "Terms of Endearment."

While past recipients of the SF Sketchfest Comedy Writing Award have included Robert Smigel and John Hodgman, the Sketchfest crew that introduced this years’s winner freely admitted to outdoing themselves this time: the legendary James L. Brooks, a towering institution in the worlds of film and television writing, the man who won three Oscars – Picture (as a producer), Director, and Adapted Screenplay – for his very first directorial effort, the immortal weepie Terms of Endearment.

And not only did they snag Brooks, but they also got the inimitable Danny DeVito, who has known Brooks since their Taxi days, to serve as a moderator for what was intended to be a discussion of Brooks’ life and career. I say “intended” because the evening was ultimately less about Brooks’ personal career reflections than DeVito’s broad comic interpretation of their years working together. But since he had everyone (including Brooks) red-faced and panting from laughter, everyone still walked away satisfied. Well, everyone except poor Debra Winger.

DeVito was the first to waddle to the stage, immediately launching into a topical bit about how he was born in Cairo and is glad his people are “taking their fucking country back.” “What, you didn’t know I’m Egyptian?” he said with a smirk. Then, seeing a serious-faced San Franciscan nodding back at him, he growled, “Get the fuck outta here, I was born in Asbury Park, NJ.”

He then welcomed Brooks to the stage, who took a bit of a tumble walking up the steps but quickly recovered and took his seat next to his interviewer. And what a restless interviewer he was. DeVito initially attempted to follow a conventional interview format, peppering Brooks with standard questions about his career and process, but his increasing boredom shone like a beacon. What he really wanted to do was perform, and it seems like that’s what Brooks wanted too.

After a few forced minutes of Q&A, Brooks cut in and said, “Come on, you’re going to tell them the story about how we met, right?” And that was all the invitation DeVito needed to completely take over. After regaling the audience with the story of how they met when DeVito auditioned for what became his legendary Taxi character, they reminisced at length about the Taxi years, including a spirited discussion of Andy Kaufman (and the difficulties of working with his infuriating alter-ego, Tony Clifton).

It was around this time that DeVito started telling tales out of school. Specifically, he joked about all the coke everyone was doing at the time (although he spoke in winking euphemisms; “It was snowing a lot,” “We were really hitting the slopes,” etc). Brooks went red-faced with nervous laughter at DeVito’s first mention of it, and pondered aloud about the statute of limitations for drug use. But soon he started to ease up, and ended up telling an amazing story about doing coke in a bathroom with Penny Marshall and being interrupted by a violent argument between a famous movie star and a famous rock star (they went unnamed) about freebasing. “If that had actually happened, it would have been one of the craziest things that ever happened to me,” he said as a disclaimer.

For his part, DeVito loosened Brooks up by repeatedly yelling things like, “Come on, we’re in San Francisco! These people are all fuckin’ out of their heads on mushrooms! They’re not gonna remember a word of this! They’re all gonna start bangin’ in four minutes anyway!” And while this may have been true of some of the crowd, I was wearing my reporter hat. Sorry to betray your confidence in my city’s constantly inebriated state, Mr. DeVito, but I didn’t get drunk until afterward.

Brooks may have started to regret encouraging DeVito’s storytelling when the topic turned to filming Terms of Endearment and, specifically, the famously difficult Debra Winger, who became the evening’s unofficial punching bag. Shirley MacLaine didn’t escape unscathed either; DeVito lamented that, on his very first movie as a director, Brooks had to deal with “bitch bites all up and down his back” from both Winger and MacLaine.

He also told a story about infuriating MacLaine by trying to pull a piece of string from her hair during a rehearsal; he thought it was there by accident, but it was actually pulling her face tighter for the cameras. “How the fuck would I have known that?” he protested. “She’s gonna love me for this one.”

DeVito consistently upped the ante on any topic under discussion, and Brooks’ protests only seemed to egg him on further. Example:

DeVito: I don’t know if you remember it this way, but according to my memory, I’m the one who gave [Jack] Nicholson the script for Terms of Endearment, so I’m the reason he was in that movie.

Brooks: [laughing] Sure.

DeVito: And he’s the one who gave it to Debra, so you have me to thank for that too.

Brooks: Well, I think he was having sex with her at the time.

DeVito: Right! They were going down on each other, and he was like, “Hey, have you read this script?” So they were just going down on each other and reading your script, like, “Who wrote this shit?”

Brooks: You crossed the line on that one! You just crossed the line.

[DeVito hangs his head for a beat]

DeVito: Everyone fucked her!

You get the idea. It should be noted that Brooks repeatedly defended Winger by pointing out that without her, the movie never would have happened and we wouldn’t have all been sitting there talking about it, but DeVito left the disclaimers to him.

The conversation was at its liveliest during the Taxi and Terms discussions, of course, to the point where Brooks’ other accomplishments were barely mentioned. If DeVito didn’t have a hilarious story about it, it didn’t seem worth bringing up. Brooks briefly spoke about the superlative experience of directing Broadcast News (which was recently canonized by Criterion and screened following their conversation), and at the prodding of an audience question I suspected was a plant, discussed working with Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson on his most recent film, How Do You Know.

He also spoke candidly about his painful experience making I’ll Do Anything, the ill-fated 1994 Nick Nolte movie which was filmed as a musical, then stripped of its musical components following atrociously negative test screenings and released without them. An audience member asked if we could look forward to ever seeing his original musical cut of the film, but Brooks seemed dubious. His other films as a director, the Oscar-winning As Good As It Gets and the Adam Sandler dramedy Spanglish, weren’t even mentioned. Even his work on The Simpsons wasn’t brought up until the final audience question of the evening. But when a man is as accomplished as Brooks, it can be difficult finding the time to talk about everything.

There was also a young man in the audience who couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask DeVito about his should-be-Emmy-winning work on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, specifically if there will be a seventh season. DeVito confirmed that the new season will begin filming in April, and that they’d like to continue making the show for as long as FX will let them. “Those guys like me because they can ask me to do anything and I’ll do it,” DeVito said, which anyone who watches the show will confirm.

So, even though the evening felt less like a conversation and more like 90 minutes of amazing and hysterical Danny DeVito stand-up, I don’t think anyone could possibly complain about that. Except, of course, for Debra Winger.

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