But we do like labels in America. And if you’re labeled a comedian early on in your career, then that will likely often stick to you. Now and then, somebody like Jordan Peele will come around and transcend the tag by ending his hilarious, gag-filled sketch show with Keegan-Michael Key to become this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock—but even his acclaimed horror films Get Out and Nope still blur the line between scary and darkly humorous. Mel Brooks (no relation to Albert) has demonstrated that he can write songs good enough to nab him Tony and Grammy awards, and people who are still mad about the last episode of Seinfeld probably wouldn’t appreciate my belief that its writer, Larry David, is the modern Franz Kafka and that Kafka was hilarious. When I first met the Instagram-age comedian Kareem Rahma, who’s gained a big online following for his mini-talk shows Keep the Meter Running and Subway Takes, he mentioned to me that he sees what he’s doing as having more in common with another performer who was cracking up and confusing audiences at the same time as Brooks—Andy Kaufman. Rahma has hosted comedy shows and like anybody with a comedic mind, he loves a bit, but he’s quick to point out that he’s as much a writer and an actor as anything else. But because he’s especially good at making people laugh, he often has to justify what he does and why he does it.
“I have a really hard time explaining that I am a comedian who enjoys stand-up but does not want to be a stand-up,” he says. Along with Kaufman, he mentions Steve Martin as another influence that comes up when you talk about Brooks’ and his career trajectory. Martin is two years older than Brooks. They both grew up in L.A., and each took bits and pieces of old Hollywood and American entertainment tropes and twisted them into something just south of stand-up comedy but also not that far north from performance art. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, their movie careers took over for their stage shows; Martin went from more zany films like The Jerk to rom-coms and America’s Dad movies like Father of the Bride, while Brooks made and acted in films that often get mentioned alongside the best work Billy Wilder, Nora Ephron, and Mike Nichols did. Both have dramatic roles in their respective filmographies, but they both drift back to funny roles sooner or later. Martin’s most recent success is with the show Only Murders in the Building and Brooks’ most recent television role was on the most recent season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, as a “Covid hoarder” version of himself who hosts his own funeral while he’s still alive.
“I think that like all creative people, comedians are multi-dimensional,” Rahma says when I ask him what he thinks draws people like Brooks back to comedic roles. “The thing about it is that sometimes you feel like being funny and sometimes you don’t. Being a comedian allows you to live in a different reality, one that is rooted in laughter and entertainment and all of the great things about life, but sometimes you just want to return to Earth. The class clown goes home, and is a quiet kid in his bedroom.”