His bits were new and interesting, playing the "World's Worst Ventriloquist," on the "The Flip Wilson Show," at a time when ventriloquist acts where a standard bit on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and other popular comedy hours. He was "meta" and "ironic" before those were even show-biz terms.
"I was sort of making fun of what I did, making fun of show business pretty early on," he said. "That was a new style of comedy."
Indeed, some called him ahead of his time. He skewered reality television with his first film, "Real Life," even before reality television was a phenomenon.
"I guess if you do something before somebody, I guess you're ahead of your time," Brooks says. "As I like to say, there's no line at the bank that says 'Ahead of your time.' It's not a profitable thing, but it's a nice thing, I guess. If you're going to do something 10 or 15 years before other people do it, I guess it's cool," he said. "But while you're doing it, it doesn't feel cool. It feels like you've got a lot of people around you going, 'What's this?'"
He asked one of his heroes, Carl Reiner, to direct "Real Life," but they disagreed on some issues so Brooks took over.
"Directing movies was really to service the script, because the writing is everything," Brooks says.
Pursuing his own movies, he says, he had to "turn down a lot of great acting parts, because I was making my own movies. Once you start a movie, you can't stop to act in someone else's."
Among the roles he turned down, he says, are the leads in "Big," "When Harry Met Sally," "Dead Poets' Society," "Pretty Woman" and the Burt Reynolds role in "Boogie Nights."
Known for making people laugh, whether it is on "The Tonight Show" or "The Simpsons," there has always been a seriousness in his body of work. This year, Brooks published his first book, "2030: the Real Story of What Happens in America," a novel that describes what the United States would look like in 19 years, and the outlook is bleak.
"The future ain't that funny," Brooks said.
Like much of Hollywood, Brooks is a fairly traditional liberal Democrat -- but his book sounds an alarm about the nation's huge debt. According to Brooks, in 2030, the U.S. is borrowing 100 percent of its budget and has become an impotent nation on its knees to China. The young target the old, resentful of all the money spent on entitlement programs.
It's a book the Tea Party could toast, but that was not Brooks' intention.
"I don't know what the whole Tea Party platform is," he said. "I think that they're right to worry about the national debt. I believe in evolution. I'm a science guy. I believe that. What the Tea Party has issues with, with this money, I agree with, and that's the inefficiency of the spending."
Speaking of cutting, Brooks now claims great skill with a knife because his film had an expert on the set of "Drive" to help him in his role.
"I know how to kill you," he joked. "I'm just not going to."
ABC News' Lauren Effron contributed to this report.