His father, Harry Einstein, was known as Parkyarkarkus, a Greek dialect comedian who performed on Eddie Cantor's radio program. Albert grew up among showbiz royalty in southern California, attending high school with Carl Reiner's son Rob and Joey Bishop's son Larry. (Albert's brother, Bob Einstein, was also bitten by the show business bug, and later became famous for the "professional daredevil as klutz" comedic character, "Super Dave Osborne").
To break into acting Brooks attended Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, then changed his surname and began a standup career which quickly made him a staple variety and talk shows during the late '60s/early '70s. Brooks's onstage persona of an egotistical, nervous comic influenced such other comedians as Steve Martin, Martin Mull, and Andy Kaufman.
After two successful comedy albums, Brooks left the standup circuit to try his hand as a filmmaker; his first film was a satiric short The Famous Comedians School which appeared on PBS and was an early example of the mockumentary comedy sub-genre. He then directed six short films for the first season of NBC's Saturday Night Live in 1975 and appeared in his first mainstream film, opposite Cybill Shepherd in Scorsese's landmark Taxi Driver (Scorsese allowed Brooks to improvise much of his dialogue). Brooks also made a brief cameo in Goldie Hawn's Private Benjamin (1980).
Brooks directed his first feature film, Real Life, in 1979. Real Life was a witty sendup of PBS's An American Family documentary, in which Brooks obnoxiously films a typical suburban family in an effort to win not just an Oscar, but a Nobel Prize.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Brooks would co-write (with longtime collaborator Monica Johnson), direct, and star in a series of moderately-successful comedies, playing variants on his standard neurotic and self-obsessed character. In Modern Romance Brooks played as a film editor desperate to win back his ex-girlfriend.
His best-received film, Lost in America (1985), featured Brooks and Julie Hagerty as a couple who ditch their yuppie lifestyle to live in a motor home, only to find the disadvantages of poverty. The movie has several bravura scenes, including Brooks' unsuccessful negotiations with Vegas casino owner Garry Marshall as well as his "nest egg" monologue.
Defending Your Life (1991) placed Brooks's lead character in the afterlife, put on trial to justify his human failings and to determine his cosmic fate. In the fictional Judgment City – a sort of mid-point between Heaven and Earth – a tribunal decides whether the Brooks character is ready for "forward movement" (presumably a step closer to Heaven) or whether he must be sent back to Earth to be reincarnated and try again to get life right. Critics responded to the offbeat premise and the surprising chemistry between Brooks and Meryl Streep as his post-death love interest. Mother (1997) starred Brooks as a middle-aged writer moving back home to resolve his tensions with Mom (Debbie Reynolds). The Muse (1999) presented Brooks as a down-and-out Hollywood screenwriter using the services of an authentic Greek muse (Sharon Stone) for inspiration.
Brooks also continued acting in other people's films during the 1980s and 1990s. He moved into the horror genre in one of the stories in Twilight Zone: The Movie as an unsuspecting driver, James L. Brooks' Broadcast News (1987), Albert was nominated an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as an insecure, supremely ethical network TV reporter. He also won accolades in Out of Sight (1999) as an untrustworthy banker and ex-convict and My First Mister (2001) and has appeared as a guest voice on The Simpsons four times during its run. He continued his voiceover work in Disney and Pixar's Finding Nemo (2003) as the voice of Marlin the clown fish.