Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Albert Brooks has been around almost as long as the 2000-year-old man, the stand-up character that launched the career of Mel Brooks (no relation to Albert). But Albert Brooks’ shtick is just as comfortably familiar, like watching reruns of Your Show of Shows. One such stand-up routine, revived for Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, involves Brooks as a cringingly poor ventriloquist working the audience with his puppet, Danny the Dummy. The gag is not how bad a ventriloquist he is, but that he seems to be getting away with such a lame act. Better known to today’s audiences for his roles as a dread-filled worrier, in movies like Lost in America, Mother, or Modern Romance, Brooks, for some reason, has chosen to coast on his older material here.

In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World Brooks plays a movie version of his comedian persona of himself. In the opening scene, set in hometown Los Angeles, he is called in to read a part for Penny Marshall (who plays herself in this cameo moment). He doesn’t get the part (his loser persona is established), yet while feeling deeply dejected and fretting, he gets a call (actually a registered letter) from Washington. In this film, Brooks styles himself a sort-of famous, sort-of respected comedian. He is best known–to influential Washingtonians, or at least to real-life actor-cum-politician Fred Dalton Thompson (who also plays "himself"), as well as (according to another self-deprecating running joke) to an international audience–for his role as a "talking fish in a cartoon" (the voice of the clown-fish father in Finding Nemo).

Brooks is recruited to help fight the war on terrorism and earn himself a Medal of Freedom. After some weak send-ups of culture inside the Beltway (and sidestepping rich opportunities to engage in political satire), he comes up with a plan to fly to India and Pakistan on a "fact-finding " mission to learn what makes Muslims laugh (and thus end world hostilities). The brainstorming sessions and the "logic" employed wishfully suggest classic Marx Brothers zaniness. However, the audience is not caught up in the madcap mayhem which ought to ensue, but rather is left at some intellectual distance, pondering questions like: Why send an out-of-work American comedian on a Congressman’s junket? Why send a Jew to disarm the Muslim world for Protestant America? How will coming up with an excuse to put on a show in a foreign country produce sociological data? (Hint: it’s not how absurdly wrongheaded this all is, but the fact that Albert Brooks thinks he can get away with making this movie, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

Brooks is escorted to and through "the Muslim world’ (which consists mostly of India, a primarily Hindu nation) by two State Department bureaucrats, played by John Carroll Lynch (a TV staple, as cross-dressing older brother Steve on the increasingly surreal Drew Carey Show) and Jon Tenney. They find him a tiny office in a New Delhi office building, to which most customer service calls from America, it appears, are outsourced. (This running joke provides a rare flash of Brooks’ real comedic genius, otherwise in short supply in this film.) After a series of hilarious scenarios interviewing potential job seekers, Brooks turns up a bright, naive, eager assistant named Maya (Sheetal Sheth). Together, the foursome plod on with Brooks’ hare-brained plan.

The plot then meanders down hapless side paths, often pregnant with comedic possibility, but falls flat time and again. Maya becomes Brooks’ best cheerleader. She, in turn, is trailed by her crazy, "irate-Iranian" boyfriend Majeed (Homie Doroodian), who lurks, skulks, and stalks menacingly in the wings of the story line, but never amounts to any real danger or comic use. At the core of the story, Brooks’ fact-finding mission (once he figures out what causes Muslims to laugh he must write a 500-page report) turns out to be a ruse to mount an evening of stand-up routines in New Delhi. His jokes fall flat in English-speaking India, but he is whisked away to a secret nocturnal rendezvous with half a dozen up-and-coming Pakistani comedians, who find his jokes, translated into Arabic, to be intensely, gut-splittingly amusing.

One joke which bombs in New Delhi, but triggers guffaws around the Pakistanis’ campfire, goes like this: "Why is there no Halloween in India?" Answer: "Because they took away the Gandhi." Now, Halloween has become one of those globalized world village phenomena, exported as a marketing device to sell American-produced Halloween costumes and candy. But it is unclear as to why, or whether, an Indian or Pakistani audience would find humor in this pun, especially when translated into Arabic. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World had its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival, where it apparently met with a warm reception. Indian extras, who played the audience at Brooks’ stand-up routine in New Delhi, reportedly "got" and laughed at the jokes, through several repetitions, before they were filmed giving deadpan non-response to the camera. The film leads deeper and deeper into unintended puzzlement.

The driving idea behind Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World (our erroneous beliefs, which currently push us closer to the dangerous brink of the world stage, are often misinformed, hilariously wrong-headed, and absurd when exposed to the light of reason) is rife with possibilities. Yet Brooks manages to blow most of them. His deadpan, "off" spin on humor only amplifies the missed opportunities. In an iconic scene, Brooks is engrossed in an animatedly self-absorbed conversation, the whole time he is walking past the Taj Mahal. (Why the Taj Mahal is chosen to represent "the Muslim world" is another head-scratcher.) When his daughter back in America asks him over the phone what the Taj Mahal was like in person, he gives the classic ugly America shrug, "Oh, sorry, honey, I missed it completely." Unfortunately, this whole movie is kind of like that, a lot.

Les Wright