When Bob Einstein passed away earlier this month at the age of 76, I was unsurprised by the first bit of his work that sprung to mind. It’s maybe my favorite one-scene performance in a comedy, from his brother Albert Brooks’ 1981 anti-rom com Modern Romance.
Reeling from a recent breakup and hoping to reinvent his life, Brooks attempts to buy running shoes from a monotone salesman, played by Einstein. Brook’s neurotic tendencies put up a weak defense against Einstein’s muted but aggressive upselling—he is driven away from a cheap box set of gear and towards endless expensive running accessories, until he finally insists that he can be a serious runner without all this stuff. “I misjudged you,” says Einstein. “I’m not perfect. Buy the box, you’ll like it.”
Soon after that, I felt a little pang of guilt, too. For a man with decades of his own accomplishments under his belt, I couldn’t help but be a little embarrassed that the first thing I thought of after his death was essentially his cameo in the auteurist expression of someone else.
This, however, was the secret sauce that made Bob Einstein Bob Einstein. He turned his iconic deadpan into a sniper rifle, keeping his voice steady and his expression dispassionate without ever draining the energy from a scene or a sketch, and without ever letting you forget his presence. It’s what makes a consummate supporting player, and yet his ability to do the exact same thing while squarely in the spotlight—as his did with the detached stuntman character Super Dave Osborne—elevated him beyond the other character actors of his day.
Super Dave (along with the likes of Pee-Wee Herman, Father Guido Sarducci and others) now exists as a cross-platform relic from the last great age of the variety show. Einstein would bounce from show to show without even having anything to promote, and without being associated with one particular franchise the way, say, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog was. He was just that magnetic a presence.
But the role that arguably heightened his persona to the Nth degree was his five episode stretch on the third season of Arrested Development. As Larry Middleman—a professional surrogate for George Sr. who allows him to interact with the outside world while on house arrest thanks to a hat with a camera on it—Einstein was tasked with existing as his own character while essentially repeating someone else’s dialogue with no affectation whatsoever. And yet his stillness didn’t come at the expense of a real character. When the real Larry Middleman expressed his own contrary opinions in exactly the same voice, we’d immediately get who the guy was and how he existed in silent judgment of the Bluths whenever he was onscreen. This was a hat trick no one but Einstein could pull off to this degree.
On the other side of that equation, his years as Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm proved he could unlock rage without losing his identifying qualities as a performer. He was perfectly balanced for that show specifically—capable of convincingly committing a social faux pas and condemning one without becoming inconsistent as a character.
While Einstein existed in the shadow of Brooks for much of his career, in reality they were two distinct sides of the same coin, and both embodied the era of comedy they helped define in their own way. Brooks embodied the manic excess of “show business” as an abstract concept in the ‘70s. Especially when he played “himself” in films like Real Life, he was quick to huff and puff and scream as he got ahead of his own ambition, rationalizing every poor decision out loud. Einstein had the understatement of a more counter-cultural figure. He was there at the very beginning of the era, writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour alongside Steve Martin, and yet he provided a critical counterbalance to the outsized personalities that would go on to define the next several decades of comedy. Bob Einstein proved you didn’t have to made a lot of noise to make an impression. Sometimes you could be the funniest guy in the room just by standing still.