Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World by Albert Brooks

The comedy tells the story of what happens when the U.S. Government sends comedian Albert Brooks to India and Pakistan to find out what makes the over 300 million Muslims in the region laugh. Brooks, accompanied by two state department handlers and his trusted assistant, goes on a journey that takes him from a concert stage in New Delhi, to the Taj Mahal, to a secret location in the mountains of Pakistan. Written and directed by Albert Brooks, “Looking for Comedy” is a funny and insightful look at some of the issues we are dealing with in a post-9/11 world. The comedy also stars John Carroll Lynch, Sheetal Sheth, Jon Tenney, and Fred Dalton Thompson.

What inspired you

The world really changed after 9/11, not just in the tragic way but in every way. So it took me a couple of years to even understand how in my art form I could process any of this. My job, what I do for a living, is to try to elicit laughter. And when the world changed, eliciting laughter with subjects that were funny to me before 9/11 just didn’t seem good enough. I thought why do I want to take a year out of my life and make a funny movie about dogs I’m not thinking about dogs anymore. Now I’m not saying that once I’ve made this movie I can’t go on and do another subject. I will. But I just thought this was the 700-lb. gorilla sitting in my comedy office saying, deal with this, find a way.

Subject is not funny

No, it isn’t. But let me tell you somethingand this is really the most important thingwhen the time comes where there literally is no ability to extract laughs from a subject, it’s really the end of the world. I mean, people with horrible diseases make jokes till the end. It’s like it’s the armor against being completely eaten and gone from the planet. But if the movie can get a bunch of people in a darkened room laughing for an hour and a half people who in real life may otherwise never encounter each other then I feel Ive done a good thing.

Humor as way to understand another culture

I think if people who hate you can laugh with you at something, that’s the fastest way to have a little understanding. If you really sat in a room with different kinds of people who normally don’t speak to each other and you all laughed at something, even if it was me falling on my ass, there’s some sort of release of pressure there. There’s some sort of commonality there. And that’s one thing I believe a comedian provides.

Comedy more effective than traditional approach to international relations

I don’t think it can be more effective, but why not add it What I’m saying is that with all of the other things the United States has in its arsenal, which are weapons and spying and the CIA, it just wouldn’t be a bad thing to add human contact. Find out what makes people laugh. Find out what clothes they like. Find out what they do on a Friday night. All it means is I’m trying to find something out about you that’s not top secret. It can’t hurt.

The film as bridging the cultural gap

One of the biggest things in World War II was the Voice of America and this idea of trying to broadcast the entertainment side, the non-violent side. I don’t believe in this new era of conflict that the United States has done one-tenth what they should do on the cultural side. Trying to find out about other people; the idea that America is interested, that is intriguing.

State Department should have a program like the one in the film

Yes, I do. Just don’t put me in charge. In fact theyre starting one. Bush has asked Karen Hughes to head it up. Basically, it’s PR to the Muslim world. Maybe she’ll have a comedy department.

Permission to shoot in India

You need permission from the government to shoot there. I had to make one separate trip ahead of time just to do that, to meet with government officials. I told them the story and I gave them a 45-page outline. I told them very clearly what happens in the movie, they liked the story. What they don’t like is when films make fun of their traditions or religions. And of course this one does not do that.

Response from people in India

This was one of the greatest things. This was a huge moment for me personally. I was in the biggest mosque in India and they never allow any filming in that mosque. I’m a Jewish man and I don’t think there have been 15 Jewish people in that mosque ever. But in order to get permission I had to talk to the Imam, the man who is head of the mosque. And Im just having a private discussion with him and telling him I’m doing a movie about a character who has come to this part of the world to find out what makes people laugh. And he started to laugh. And then he said, Okay, so I felt like a diplomat for two minutes.

Playing himself

I played Albert Brooks in one other movie in 1979, in “Real Life.” I was the first one in my generation to play a character in the movies who uses his own name. It’s done on TV but almost never in the movies. But it’s still a comedy character even though it had my name. It’s like Jack Benny was not a cheap guy and didn’t have a dungeon and I don’t think Eddie Anderson worked for him as a houseboy. Laurel and Hardy really could move a piano if they had to. It’s the same thing with me. I used Albert Brooks because it feels more real, but it’s a comedy creation. And I can movie a piano too, if I have to.

Does the character understand anything more about the Muslim world when he leaves

I think the one thing he understands is that it’s not easy to find out what makes people laugh and you probably shouldn’t send a comedian to do it. You should probably send an anthropologist because a comedian’s sense of humor is already formed. He’ll have preconceived notions. Probably the best person to find out what makes people laugh is a person with no visible sense of humor.

Did you learn anything about people that’s useful to Americans

Yes, I did. There is a preconceived notion of America. We know what it is. Right or wrong, many people see us as bullies and insensitive. So when you travel youre acting like mini-ambassadors. If someone in a foreign country says, Here is a bowl of soup, don’t go, Eeww, what is that! There’s a way to say No thank you without making a face. America will come off better.

How do you think the film would play in the Muslim world

I think that the Muslim world would laugh at this because I am the person who isI don’t want to use the word idiot butI’m the buffoon in the movie. It’s not them. It’s not countries. It’s this guy. And that’s in the grand tradition of comedy. Charlie Chaplin was the buffoon in Charlie Chaplin movies. W.C. Fields took all the hits in his movies. The comedian is the one we are making fun of; no one else.

How do you want people to feel coming out of the film

I don’t have any overall philosophical idea of what they should feel. I would like them to think they’ve seen a great comedy. And if it provides discussion, that would be cool. Maybe this movie will lead to a Muslim comedy night at the Improv.

Would you like the film to play in India or for a Muslim audience

I’d love it. That would be the greatest thing. What I’m trying to show is America making fun of itself. And America needs to kick itself in the butt a little bit so these people see that we’re human, that we’re not this giant robot that’s going to kill them, because many people perceive us that way. If an Indian audience or a Muslim audience could laugh because were making fun of ourselves a little bit it certainly couldn’t hurt.