Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

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It took me forever to see Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, and I’m a little embarrassed at that fact. Here’s why a genius movie like this fails big time, but is that much funnier because of it.

Almost no one gets Albert Brooks. Take the number of people who loved Woody Allen comedies (for similar reasons) and divide by like 20. It takes effort to figure out an Albert Brooks movie, but perhaps if you put too much effort into it you won’t see it at all – it’s kind of like one of those three dimensional hidden pictures where I can’t see the sailboat because I’m farsighted.

Brooks comes off like an intellectual, but he never really makes fun of anything but his own persona. The only thing he has ever really parodied was his inability as a middle aged Jewish guy to make do in the modern world. Larry David has mined the exact same territory brilliantly, and with infinitely more financial success, but Brooks is the link between Woody Allen and David.

Brooks’ comedy is the complete opposite to say the Airplane, Naked Gun, Scary Movie genre. There you get a thousand jokes thrown at you with gigantic rim shots. With Brooks, if you find it funny, you just start giggling uncontrollably at the rising absurdity of this insecure, cowardly, overanalyzing schmuck, who is paranoid about everything especially his Judaism and being judged, and how he manages to make his every second on the planet painful and shaming.

What Brooks, as a comedian, does is bomb comedically, every single second of his life on film. This means that Brooks can never really tell a joke that’s funny. We just have to sympathize with the decent guy he seems to be and revel in the understanding of how clueless an otherwise somewhat intellectual guy can be.

The premise of Looking for Comedy is a brilliant one. The U.S. Government decides to actually attempt to understand the 100’s of millions of people in the Muslim world. It’s a concept so sane, that you know that George W. Bush could never come up with it. The Government offers Brooks a Medal of Freedom if he can go to India and Pakistan and find out what Muslims there find funny. Brooks sees himself as the next Bono yet somehow winds up closer to being the next Yakov Shmirnov.

What does Brooks’ movie have to say about this subject, well absolutely nothing. He’s Albert Brooks, who is obviously the worst choice possible to figure this out.

1. He’s Jewish – and one of the hidden joys of this movie is the suggestion that Muslim’s probably love anti-semetic jokes, which Brooks’ persona (as opposed to the real man) wouldn’t possibly find funny himself. There is a long lineage of Jewish American stand up comics but I’m guessing we’re still about a billion years away from Lenny Bruce or Woody Allen going over big with the Mosque community.
2. No one understands him in the United States, how are people in India supposed to understand him?
3. The Brooks persona is a horrible stand up comic – and yet his performance material is of course so out there bad that it itself is hilarious.
4. Brooks is so obsessed with his own insecurities that he never manages to learn anything else, but how uncomfortable he is. You get the impression that if the foremost expert on what Muslim’s find hilarious offered to speak with Brooks and perhaps even write the 500 page government report Brooks is dreading having to do himself, that Brooks would turn down the offer, because he would be afraid that he wouldn’t get any of the credit.
5. Brooks may be so incompetent at his tasks, that he may inadvertently and credibly start World War III
In the film Brooks decides the best way he can learn about what makes Muslim’s tick is to perform for them live and see what they laugh at, which is of course absolutely nothing, but whereas other comedians would be mocking the Indians for not laughing, Brooks is instead mocking his inability to connect with them on any level imaginable. The Indians are not holding back their laughs because they are stupid or lack humor, it’s because they have absolutely no idea what Brooks is talking about, and Brooks is so self obsessed he never really makes any effort to understand or communicate with them at all. In fact, when one of Brooks’ government aids suggests this to him, Brooks is only able to be insulted that no one in India get him! Brooks is so dense that he sits and watches Indian sit-coms and never bothers to have them translated to see what could possibly be funny about them.

The Master scene of the movie is Brooks’ attempt to play an improv game with the Indians. Whereas this move by Brooks does get his audience involved by having them suggest details for the improv, expecting an Indian audience to understand an improv game is like starting with Calculus instead of addition. Which wouldn’t be as horrible an idea, if Brooks weren’t so horribly incompetent at improv humor. He’s so incompetent that he changes all of the audiences suggestions like three times, just to find something he feels he can pull off, and then winds up with something pathetic anyway. This is funny enough, but the real Brooks is so far ahead of the on screen Brooks that while he is doing this he’s also tearing apart and mocking his contempt for improv game humor at the same time.

Which is probably why this movie totally flopped. Every place you’ve been taught to laugh in this movie isn’t funny, and everywhere else is hilarious. Even in a great movie like Spinal Tap, you tell yourself that nobody is really that dense. Brooks on screen is completely believable as a guy who thinks so much that he may just end the world by accident through his own stupidity.

So why did this movie flop? Making fun of the fact that almost no one understands your humor is not the best business plan ever created. This movie almost had to flop to make any sense whatsoever.

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