were trying to name the least likely
American comedy star to crack up
Muslims—or any sort of foreign audience,
for that matter—Albert Brooks might come
only an alien sensibility that prevents
people from “getting” Brooks. There are
plenty of Americans who don’t, either.
are those of us who find Brooks to be
one of the funniest human beings who has
ever walked the planet—funny not because
he does or says funny things but funny
as a property, a trait, funny like a
diamond is hard or like copper conducts
in that category, then the mere title of
his latest film as writer-director,
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,
is enough to set you giggling.
Brooks plays Albert Brooks, much the way
that Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld play
themselves on their sitcoms.
Career-stagnant and bored despite the
triumph of providing the voice for
Nemo’s Dad, Brooks is surprised when
he’s offered a mission for the U.S.
Government: travel to India and Pakistan
and return with a 500-page report on
“what makes Muslims laugh.”
reservations about his fitness for the
job—he’s a Jew, after all—he can’t
resist the hint that he might be awarded
the Presidential Medal of Freedom, so
off he goes to New Delhi in the company
of two State Department bench players,
one (John Carroll Lynch) impressed with
him, the other (Jon Tenney) not so much.
He hires a
sweet, eager-to-please young assistant,
Maya (the delightful Sheetal Sheth), and
begins his task by simply standing in
the street, asking passersby what makes
them laugh, while Maya writes down the
the inefficiency of this approach wears
him down, and he decides to stage a free
stand-up concert in a school auditorium
and see what shticks go over best.
Muslims, apparently unaware that they’re
abetting the gag, have expressed outrage
over the film as a racist exploitation
of the stereotype of Muslims as
humorless and easily outraged. But the
real target of Brooks’ satire here is
the same one as in every film he’s made:
Albert Brooks, his weary, wounded
self-absorption, his desperate vanity.
film’s cringe-inducing centerpiece
scene, Brooks performs routines from his
early stand-up days—deliberately
excruciating parodies of lame
ventriloquism and improvisations—for a
stony audience of perplexed Indians.
There can be no doubt that it’s he, not
they, who’s the butt of the joke.
it’s a good joke or not will, again,
depend on your taste for Brooks’ gently
wheedling manner. I found it riotous.
But Looking for Comedy in the Muslim
World has a sting to it either way.
The film is politically naive in the
extreme (purposely), but on a cultural
level, as on a personal level, the
needles are jabbing Westward, not
title on, Brooks sends up American
cultural nearsightedness—our absurdly
monolithic idea, for instance, of “the
Muslim World,” which just barely
discerns that Muslims are not the same
as Hindus, the majority in India.
two non-American characters of any
substance are the charmer Maya, who
appears to be a Hindu, and her Iranian
boyfriend (Homie Doroodian), whose
volatile jealously Brooks pointedly
depicts as not really much worse, or
different, than that of which any
boyfriend anywhere is capable.
too much stretching, though, I suppose
one could find a political allegory in
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim
glory in his head, Brooks ventures forth
on a sort of comedy Crusade, but trips
over his own obtuse ego. Would that all
failed Crusades were this harmless.