Media Allah be mirthful

And may the audience be patient with Albert Brooks

In 1989, shortly after Salman Rushdie published a satiric novel, The Satanic Verses, considered blasphemous by many Muslims, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa targeting for violent retribution not only the author but also his publisher. So when Albert Brooks insisted on calling his new film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Sony did not see the humor and withdrew its distribution agreement. Brooks found another way to circulate a film that one might expect to be as raucous and offensive as The Producers. Early in the story, when Brooks, playing a comic actor and writer named Albert Brooks, receives a flattering letter from an official in the State Department, he is distrustful of his own good fortune and tells his wife: “I bet he thinks he’s writing to Mel Brooks.”

Comedian Albert Brooks, center, is as dry as the Sahara in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.

The writing in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World sounds nothing like that other Brooks. Whereas Mel, taunting Jews, Germans, gays, old women, producers, and everyone else, is boisterous and abrasive, Albert is gentle and self-deprecating. The target of his mockery is not so much Muslims as Albert Brooks, and infidel Americans like him who presume to pontificate about a foreign culture on the basis of a brief visit. Commissioned to produce a 500-page government report on what makes Muslims laugh, Brooks travels to India and Pakistan to X-ray funny bones. It is not clear why, except for security hazards or political sensitivities, he does not go to Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, or Saudi Arabia, with its most established. But he is soon canvassing strangers on the streets of Delhi.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Writ. & dir. Albert Brooks; feat. Brooks, Sheetal Sheth, John Carroll Lynch, Jon Tenney (PG-13)

The Indians — Hindus and Sikhs as well as Muslims — whom Brooks invites to a one-man show he stages do not crack a smile when he attempts to crack a joke. “How come there’s no Halloween in India?” he asks. “Because they took away all the Gandhi.” Dumbfounded by the dumbness of the jest, no one in the audience — in the threadbare auditorium he rents and the cinema where I sat — slaps a knee. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is the cinematic equivalent of an extended knock-knock joke. If you wonder why Brooks crossed the road to get to Kashmir, it is, he claims, to see his sweater.

So oblivious to his surroundings that he does not even notice the Taj Mahal during a visit to Agra, Brooks represents the latest in a long line of American innocents abroad. He remains grandly unaware of the military confrontation provoked by his presence on the India-Pakistan border or of his effect on Maya (Sheth), the lovely local ingenue Brooks hires as his assistant. The movie offers a sarcastic take on the visitor’s lame attempts to explain sarcasm. Except for an awkward sequence in which Brooks turns down a starring role in an Al-Jazeera TV sitcom called That Darn Jew, the Muslim world into which he sets out looking for comedy is not much different from the world he leaves behind. It is blithesomely easy to bomb in both.


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