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Interview: Looking for Comedy with Albert Brooks

by Peter Sobczynski

The funniest filmmaker working today sits down to talk about his daring and hilarious new film, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World."

Although he is probably best known to the masses for supplying the voice of a talking fish in “Finding Nemo,” Albert Brooks is, to put it simply, the finest maker of comedic films working in the world today. Although his output may be relatively small–“Real Life” (1978), “Modern Romance” (1981), “Lost in America” (1985), “Defending Your Life” (1991), “Mother” (1996), “The Muse” and the new “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World–each one has demonstrated his unique gift for taking serious basic material–love, death, jealousy, fear, job insecurity, tense family relationships–and exploring them in a manner that demonstrates that he has some serious and intriguing thoughts on the subject at hand as well while still delivering big laughs at the same time. The results have been some of the funniest movies of modern times–the weakest jokes are still more hilarious than most anything else around and the best (such as the “Mercedes Leather” bit in “Lost in America”) will inspire laughter as long as there are still people around to laugh at them.

“Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” is by far his riskiest film to date and it is also one of his best–easily his finest and most consistent work since “Lost in America.” In it, he finds himself sent to India and Pakistan by the U.S. government as part of a project to discover what it is that makes Muslims laugh in an effort to understand them better. Once he arrives, he decides that the best way to go about this is to do his old stand-up routine for a local audience and record their response. Like so many others who have blundered into a foreign land without any real understanding of the people within, he meets with absolute failure when his jokes about Halloween and ventriloquism (things that are alien to the Indian culture) bomb. With local assistant Maya (charming newcomer Sheetal Sheth), Brooks continues on in a journey that leads him to an illegal crossing into Pakistan and a meeting with al-Jazeera until his blunderings raise the suspicions of the Indian and Pakistani governments–Brooks may have started the project hoping to score the Medal of Freedom but might end it by unwittingly inspiring World War III.

The film is hysterically funny–the disastrous stand-up routine that is the centerpiece is a comedic masterpiece all by itself–and also has interesting things to say about America and its place in the eyes of others in the post-9/11 world. Needless to say, Brooks himself has a lot of interesting things to say as well as he demonstrated a couple weeks ago when he sat down to discuss the film with a few journalists. Over the course of a half-hour, he discussed the film, the challenges of filming in India and the even greater challenges of getting it released in theaters. (After producing the film, Sony Pictures dropped it last October when Brooks refused to change the title–it is now being released by Warner Brothers Independent.)

In making “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” in India, did you come away from the film learning anything for yourself about Indian tastes for comedy?

Well, the most important thing was to follow the story of this guy who wasn’t able to, so I had to follow the story as opposed to doing a PBS documentary where I would have every day to do that. I went there for eight days initially to understand and to get permission–I had to meet the minister of culture and tell this man the movie and see if they would even let me back into the country. After that, I spent two months there and I spent those two months, day in and day out, with the Indian crews that were made up of Hindus and Muslims and some of them–well, most of them–really didn’t have an idea of what I was all about early on and they would just stand around and watch. After two or three weeks, I would see them start to laugh at little things. I sort of felt that after a while, people need to trust you because everybody needs to trust a comedian, no matter who they are. Then the things that I thought were funny, I sort of thought that I understood what many of them would laugh at in the way that I would if I went to Cleveland and spent three weeks with people there. There are similarities now because of things like CNN–there are people who are seeing the same things all over the world. There is a similarity in shopping with brand names. People would have reference points that they wouldn’t have had 25 years ago. They wouldn’t know Halloween but I wouldn’t really do that in a club there–my character didn’t know.

By the same token, one of the things that I made up years ago called “The Famous School for Comedians” to supposedly teach people how to be funny simply because I thought that it was impossible to teach anything about being funny. I think that tragedy is universal everywhere–you lose a child anywhere in the world and you weep and it is that simple–but I don’t know you can ever figure out a sense of humor. I’ve never been able to figure it out in this country! I mean it–I’ve performed my entire life and I’ve had half an audience sit there and not laugh while the other half is laughing and I’m not sure why the first half isn’t laughing. To presume that I could go to someplace else in the world and figure it out is almost silly. By the way, if you were going to actually do that, I wouldn’t send a comedian because it would be like sending Jerry Falwell to tell you about stem-cells. A comedian is the one person who has a preconceived notion about what he thinks is funny. You might send an anthropologist with no sense of humor and let them live amongst the people and write things like, “When the native discovered that when he found the bamboo to be shorter than he thought, it was quite humorous.” I can’t tell you what makes Americans laugh.

A lot of the people writing about the film are obviously going to focus on the aspects of the film dealing with the American attitudes towards Muslims (and vice-versa) in the post-9/11 world. However, from a political standpoint, this is a story that could have been told about any country–Vietnam, Nicaragua or wherever–that America has aggressively involved itself in without having a strong working knowledge of the people and what that actually want. At the same time, the film also works from a conceptual standpoint as a throwback to your earlier work such as “Real Life” and your short films because of the manner in which you deconstruct the cliches of show business by illustrating them at their worst–you even play “Albert Brooks” as you did in those films. Could you talk about how the initial idea for the film came about and how it grew to incorporate all of these notions?

This is similar to “Real Life” in that I played “Albert Brooks” in that film and I wanted to do that again. I like what that can do in a movie–it can break down the fourth wall in an interesting way. It is a lot like what Jack Benny used to do. Jack Benny played a character named “Jack Benny” and he wasn’t really “Jack Benny” at home but it just made it more real in a way.

The real reason, in my mind, was that my job is to regurgitate the world and try to make a funny things out of it and I felt that it was a big cheat not to deal with 9/11. I was noticing all the movies that came out at the end of 2005 and everything that I look at takes place in the past. “Munich,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Brokeback Mountain”–so many people aren’t even choosing to make films set in 2005. For me, to make a comedy set right now was the 2000-pound gorilla subject. How do you deal with this? I certainly have never seen any laughter in relation to this subject and I was getting upset because we were just getting scared. For the last four years, we’ve just been scared every day and I’m getting tired of it. I began to think, “What do I do about this?” There isn’t much that I can do, you know. I’m not presumptuous enough to think that a movie can change the world–movies don’t change the world. Movies provide discussion and different images. There is the scene in the movie where they are at the border where the guy comes out and blindfolds me and Jon Tenney has a line that I really like, “I think they’re comedians, not terrorists.” You have never before heard that line or even heard those words being used together. You haven’t heard “comedy” and “Muslim world” together either. By the way, my greatest experience of ever showing a movie anywhere–including here or the Cinema 1 in New York–was showing this film in Dubai. I was scared to go there and I didn’t know what in God’s name would happen. It felt like this tension balloon is everywhere and the chance to laugh at this tension seems to have been appreciated. It was the greatest thing that I ever experienced.

I read the papers. They tell me that the FBI and the CIA won’t talk to each other and that is one of the reasons why the buildings fell down. I’ve never been a conspiracy theory person because I never believed that any administration could talk clearly enough to each other to plan a conspiracy–I’ve never seen them coordinate themselves well enough to do anything, let along conspire these things. The thing about the NSA tapping into phone lines–I can’t imagine that they are actually tapping into the right lines. They are probably hearing 95 conversations about dry cleaning. One of the reasons for doing the movie was that I was frustrated that there was no attempt at doing anything like this until after the movie was done and Karen Hughes came along and became this sort of PR person for the Muslim world. I’m not really sure what she is doing–she goes to meetings and brings religious figures together. What is the harm in this? It is all right to spend a trillion dollars on all of these weapons but why not put some human contact on the ground? What is the down side? So it doesn’t deliver anything–maybe it will save the world! I think the strongest image I have ever seen in my life was when John Kennedy spoke six words of German and the world loved him. That is the definitive moment of diplomacy–you just reach out and if you do it correctly, you can make an enormous amount of difference. The United States makes no attempt at making friends with anybody. Somebody said to me, “Well, these are enemies” and my response was “We can still bomb them!” It isn’t one or the other–take them to dinner and then kill them. I don’t care, but take them to dinner. Maybe you’ll learn something.

Your previous films have dealt with fairly universal topics such as love and death whereas this one ventures into very specific and politically charged territory. Did this feel like a big change for you?

Well, this movie, in my mind, is similar to “Real Life” and “Lost in America”–in those three movies, an ambition is set forth and the idea of not being able to achieve what you set out to do has always intrigued me. I had lots of people who came up to me after “Lost in America” and tell me, “I really wanted to see what would happen if he lived in Wyoming for a year.” Okay, you do that! In “Real Life,” the guy had to burn down the house to get an ending because everyone had left him. The idea of trying to accomplish this thing to get a Medal of Freedom and nearly starting World War III just made me laugh. I think those three are similar. “Mother” and “Defending Your Life” were films where I gave more of a conclusion–at least there was a resolution there. My favorite book growing up was “The Peter Principle” because I like things that don’t have resolutions. Resolutions in movies–sometimes they are warranted but most of the time, I don’t believe them. Why do those two people work out? Nothing about them says that they will, so why? Because you put in 200 strings? I can’t buy that. “Modern Romance” was resolution/unresolution–married, divorced and married again.

It gave me pause–it gave me the same pause that Sony wound up backing out. I’m not stupid and I know the dangers of the world. I believed in my heart that if I couldn’t put “comedy” and “Muslim” in the same sentence together, then we are really just waiting in our homes to be killed. I don’t want that. I’d rather be killed doing this if that is what is going to happen. What got me upset was that they had this for five months–they made trailers, they made posters and they booked it into the Toronto Film Festival–and gave it an October 7 release date and then a week after that Koran story in “Newsweek,” they decided that they didn’t want to deal with this. Fine, tell me this five months ago–now you’ve wasted my entire summer! I talked to them and somebody said, “If a mullah in Iran saw the poster and took it the wrong way, we don’t know what could happen.” My answer was, “I have trouble getting my posters up in Sherman Oaks–you’re telling me you are putting the poster up in Iran? That would be fantastic!”

The whole point is that it has to be political–you can’t deal with the subject without being political. I didn’t in my own mind think “political” as much as I did “subject.” I just got sick and tired of watching these terror levels go by every eight seconds. In the meantime, while you are waiting to die, maybe you can laugh a little. I swear, in Dubai, I left there feeling more hopeful than even because it felt like this thing wants to be relieved everywhere. I wish there were a hundred comedies that would follow this–it couldn’t hurt. You know what you don’t want to do–you aren’t going to do the religious stuff or sexual stuff that is going to make people unable to watch it without getting angry. I’m a Jewish man and I have Jewish stuff and I’m sitting in Dubai in a balcony with the Minister of Information and a sheik with his entourage and they are laughing!

I figured a couple of things. I figured that if I made fun of myself the most and don’t hold myself higher than anyone else, I would be okay somewhat. Also, Sheetal is very smart and one of the reasons that she wanted to do this was that she thought it broke down other stereotypes. There are so many of these movies that come out of India where the woman has to be given away to get married. India is changing and getting more modern and she liked the fact that this was not anything cliche about this.

In terms of cinematic style, most movie comedies tend to be a little on the crude side–they tend to be dominated by wacky camera angles or close-up in order to underline the fact that things are supposed to be “funny.” Your films, on the other hand, have always struck me as fascinating from a visual standpoint because they don’t look like comedies and that you have enough confidence in your material that you don’t need to punch it up in such a manner. Obviously, you know how to tell a visual joke–the Taj Mahal sequence is a perfect example–but for the most part, if someone were to remove the soundtracks from your films, someone unfamiliar with them could easily assume that they are serious works. Using this film as an example, can you talk about your visual approach to filmmaking, especially in regards to filming in India?

That aspect was discussed a lot. In India, in New Delhi, the air is not so great and it is very hazy all the time. If you notice, the sky in the Taj scene is not blue–it was for a few days but we weren’t there. Your first feeling is that you always want beautiful in a movie but after being there on our scout, I came to the conclusion that if you could show it as it looks if you really landed there, I would be satisfied. You forego some of the “Brokeback Mountain” skies. You almost don’t want to see the Taj without the blue sky, but the blue skies are so rare now. You have a white sky and that is the way it looks. We were trying to go for what you would see if you were walking around without coloring it or making it look dirtier. We were conscious of not adding or taking away as much as possible. If I had a blue sky on the day we were at the Taj, I would have done it. We experimented with an effect and I junked it. We spent a little money and a guy worked up the puffy clouds and I just said, “This is bullshit.”

Louis Malle is the reason that there are extreme restrictions on filming in India. They were very open until he came in to make that famous documentary[“Phantom India”] but told them that he was going to make a travelogue–when they saw what he did, they cracked down on filming from that moment on. We were very lucky because normally they have a minder with you when you film but we were able to not have that. I just ran into the guy who produced the Indian portions of our movie. You know those explosions in New Delhi? They happened a year to the day that we were filming there and one of them was in the exact place. Now they are getting more restrictive again because there is more worry. They had that shooting at that Internet conference–some guy broke in and gunned down everyone because, I think, they are pissed off about India’s technology relationship with the world. We were lucky, apparently very lucky, that we didn’t get blown up.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1690
originally posted: 01/18/06 21:11:48
last updated: 01/31/06 18:09:38
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