Albert Brooks, Searching for Islam's Laugh Track

Albert Brooks with a ventriloquist's dummy in a scene from his latest film. i i

hide captionWriter, director and star Albert Brooks puts himself in some awkward audience situations in his latest film.

Albert Brooks with a ventriloquist's dummy in a scene from his latest film.

Writer, director and star Albert Brooks puts himself in some awkward audience situations in his latest film.

Comedian Albert Brooks plays himself in the film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which he also wrote and directed. Brooks tells Steve Inskeep about his "government-sponsored" mission to find out what makes Muslims laugh.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The new movie by Albert Brooks is called, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. In it, the comedian plays a character named Albert Brooks who's recruited by the U.S. government to write a report about comedy. Here, former Senator Fred Thompson, playing himself, lays out the mission.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Actor, Former Senator): (As himself) We'd like for you to head up a project: take a month, go to India and Pakistan, write a 500-page report and tell us what makes the Muslims laugh. You'll be doing a hell of a service for your country.

Mr. ALBERT BROOKS (Actor): (As Albert Brooks) Oh, my - well, I have a lot of questions. First of all, why me? There's a lot of comedians in America. How did I get picked?

Mr. THOMPSON: (As himself) Quite frankly, our first few choices were working.

MONTAGNE: Albert Brooks has been making quirky movies for decades. He played a TV reporter who lacks camera appeal in Broadcast News and was the voice of the father fish in Finding Nemo. Steve Inskeep talked with Brooks, who says he started thinking about this film after the September 11th attack.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some people will wonder, will immediately wonder, what got you on this subject?

Mr. ALBERT BROOKS (Actor): One of the things that made me want to write this movie, and made me want to even begin this premise, is that I was upset that we spend as much money as there is in the world for military items and attacking, and I understand that part of a government, but why not send 20,000 good will ambassadors and take these people to lunch? I don't know. I think it could be a new version of the Peace Corps; the "Nice Corps," you know? The "Schmooze Corps." Call it whatever you want.

INSKEEP: Well, what your character is doing is something similar to what people in the U.S. government very seriously are trying to do, which is understand the Islamic world and communicate with it in some fashion.

Mr. BROOKS: Yes, but first of all, when I was writing this movie, they hadn't even formed, Karen Hughes hadn't been called to Washington yet...

INSKEEP: She's now the head of the office...

Mr. BROOKS: That's right. That's right.

INSKEEP: ...pursuing it.

Mr. BROOKS: I understand. And I'm not exactly sure what that office is doing, but we do nothing like this.

(Soundbite from "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World")

Mr. BROOKS: (As Albert Brooks) Excuse me. I'm with the United States government and I'm doing a survey here. Can I ask you, what makes you laugh?

Unidentified Man: I'm afraid I'm not interested in talking to anybody from the United States government.

Mr. BROOKS: (As Albert Brooks) Well, I'm not really with the government, I just said that. Just tell me what makes you laugh.

Unidentified Man: I don't want to talk to anybody from any government.

Mr. BROOKS: (As Albert Brooks) Good start.

INSKEEP: Why'd you choose India?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, the story of the movie is Pakistan and India. Pakistan, of course, is an entirely Muslim country, and India is a Hindu country, but with a minority of 150 million Muslims. And, additionally, if I wanted to go to the few countries in the Middle East where I would have been provided the jeopardy my character needed, quite frankly, I'm not invited or allowed to go there. You can't film in Saudi Arabia. You're not allowed to film in Iran. The president of Iran has recently expressed the desire that Israel be wiped off the map. It's hard after that speech to then say, hey, I totally agree. Can a Jewish filmmaker come in though and sort of have access? You know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: It just doesn't work that way.

INSKEEP: So, what makes Muslims laugh?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, you know, the movie is looking for comedy, it's not finding comedy.

INSKEEP: I was wondering if you had an answer to the question.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I have - I mean, what I found, it's interesting. I mean, in India you have a society that is Hindu and then Sikhs and Muslims; that's the three primary people that live there and, you know, I found, just from the crew, you know, the Hindus were making jokes about the Sikhs, and the gentleman who was a Sikh driver was telling me jokes about the Muslim who was pulling the cable. So, I have a feeling that probably a universal truth about comedy is that there's always someone else to make fun of, you know?

INSKEEP: Polish jokes work anywhere.

Mr. BROOKS: Well, that's what the movie says.

INSKEEP: Jewish jokes seem to go over well. In the movie anyway.

Mr. BROOKS: The fact is I'm sort of making fun of myself as a Jew and, therefore, I think it's okay. I don't know that, it depends on how the Jewish joke would end and it would depend on where you would say it. It's unfortunate there are certain countries in the world where I think the Jew would have to be severely injured in the joke to get a laugh. Yeah.

INSKEEP: So, I don't think it's giving away too much to say that there's a scene in this film where Albert Brooks, the comedian, stands on a stage in front of several hundred people and attempts to get a laugh out of them and utterly fails.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. Well, his way is to, you know, he thinks that if he can do a wide range of material and, he'll find out what they laugh at, and he will start to gain knowledge.

Mr. BROOKS: (As Albert Brooks) Let's start with a riddle. Buddy of mine told me this. Why is there no Halloween in India? Because they took away the Gandhi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Oh, God, am I learning.

INSKEEP: Then, the real Albert Brooks takes this movie and you go to a theater, which holds several hundred people, in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates...

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...to show the film.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. (unintelligible)

INSKEEP: What did you expect?

Mr. BROOKS: I expected polite laughter, maybe. You know, nobody would walk out. I have a line in the movie where I'm talking to my wife once I arrive in India and I'm saying, you know, maybe I bit off more than I can chew. And she says, oh, honey, everyone's so proud of you, even my mother. And I say, honey, your mother thinks a Muslim is a fabric. Now, I know that's okay. Before I wrote that line, I looked up and I knew that muslin was a worldwide word - that's the word for the fabric - so, I thought, okay, I can do that, but I still didn't, you know, I didn't know enough to know, does fabric mean something bad? You know, I don't know any of this. Well, you know, the audience laughed for 30 seconds at that. I'm telling you, it's now the new benchmark for the great audiences of one of my comedies.

INSKEEP: Was there one thing that you did not intend to be funny that drew a laugh?

Mr. BROOKS: I'll - yes, and I'll tell you what it was. My intention in the movie in the show is that the comedian that I play has misjudged very badly the audience in which he's standing in front of, but this audience actually laughed at some of the stuff that I didn't want to get laughs at, so they laughed over the moments where the audience wasn't laughing.

INSKEEP: The moments of silence.

Mr. BROOKS: That's right.

INSKEEP: They laughed at a bad joke.

Mr. BROOKS: That's right. But what I really felt coming out of there was that the tension that I felt over the last four years, you know, they feel, too, and everybody in the world feels it. So, to relieve the tension with a laugh, was appreciated.

INSKEEP: Well, Albert Brooks, thanks very much.

Mr. BROOKS: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World by Albert Brooks opens, to mixed reviews, today. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.

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