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January 18-24, 2006

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Albert Brooks

Photograph by Lacey Terrell
Has Anybody Here Seen 'The In-Laws'?: Albert Brooks tries to drum up interest in his new act in 'Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.'

Brooks Farming

Filmmaker Albert Brooks talks about Benny, Bruce and Nemo

By Richard von Busack

'TRAGEDY IS what happens to me, comedy is what happens to you." Thus spake Mel Brooks, who once called Albert Brooks (no relation) the funniest person alive. Brooks' new film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, demonstrates how that lesson of comedy vs. tragedy works in foreign policy. Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World isn't a perfect film, but it's obviously worth doing, and parts of it are paroxysmal. And the film deserves attention for Brooks using his considerable talents to tackle international misunderstanding.

Playing "Albert Brooks," a good-natured if put upon comedian, Brooks goes to India to try to cheer up the Moslem population. The personal tragedy of a disrespected comedian slyly reflects something similar to the American's lament in Randy Newman's song "Foreign Policy" ("No one likes us/ Heaven knows why").

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World isn't a perfect film, but it's obviously worth doing, and parts of it are paroxysmal. And it deserves attention for Brooks using his considerable talents to tackle international misunderstanding.

Born Albert Einstein (yep), Brooks was the son of Harry "Parkyakarkus" Einstein (1904-58), a noted Greek dialect comic. As a young comic, Brooks rose to some 40 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

His routine was perfected on his noted album Albert Brooks' Famous Comedian School. Brooks took apart the old style of comedian, the gagman who flaunted sentiment and busked the telethons. As seen in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Brooks mastered the art of deliberate suckage in order to parody the most rotting traditions in standup.

Brooks was a pioneer. He detonated old comedy styles, along with the National Lampoon and the early Saturday Night Live (Brooks was an essential part of the long-lived show's first and best season).

In recent years, Brooks has directed six movies, particularly the masterpiece Real Life, and Mother and Lost in America. Before Lost in Translation and Shopgirl, Brooks explored the intriguing chemistry of an aging sardonic man with a young fresh girl in the Christine Lahti movie My First Mister. One of the keenest parodists of the 1970s bourgeoisie, Brooks is popular with a new generation from his vocal work in Finding Nemo.

METRO: What is it about watching a comedian bomb that's so mesmerizing?

BROOKS: It all depends on the set-up, where the comedian is, how he connects the dots. If its in a comedy club and the comedian just stinks for a half an hour, the audience will get pissed. Ordinarily, Johnny Carson could get a laugh. That's why he got so much more laughs when a joke didn't make it. In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, I tried to set it up that this was a guy who would do everything from A-Z to get a laugh.

METRO: In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, you have a dismissive gag about Lenny Bruce, but the real model for a comedian crashing and burning on stage is Bruce's amazing "Palladium" routine, in which a bad Vegas yuckster starts a riot that destroys the most prestigious theater in London.

BROOKS: Again, it's the set-up; it's set up so perfectly. Lenny Bruce could come out and do an hour—even in his decline he could make people laugh. I'm hoping this movie has a lot of elements going on to make it come together. It's more than just about the audience at the "Big Show" not laughing, it's the comedian having no idea, being certain the audience is wrong for not laughing.

METRO: Are you a fan of the show-tune era? You end this movie with "Put on a Happy Face" by Dick Van Dyke, and you opened Real Life with a memorable cover of "Something's Got to Give." ["Hope you enjoyed the expensive buffet..."]

BROOKS: This is the first time anyone's used the Van Dyke version; usually, they just pay for the Vaughn Monroe version. I'm a sucker for musicals. In the finale of this movie, when we decide not to try understanding the Muslim world and just go back to the old ways of spying and bombing, I thought I should get the most lighthearted ditty I could find.

METRO: How important was the work of Jack Benny to you?

BROOKS: Jack Benny is the touchstone of all my comedy. He created the greatest, most economical comedy about a guy who used his own name. And also Bob Hope and Bing Crosby might as well have called themselves "Bob and Bing" in their Road pictures for all that mattered. I don't think anyone can remember what their characters' names were.

I mention that because Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World gets described as a mockumentary, and that's wrong; it's a fictional film. When people saw Jack Benny, they didn't think he really had Rochester as a servant or a dungeon in his home.

Real Life had me looking in the camera a few times, but Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World doesn't. I did try to confuse real life by using former Sen. Fred Thompson to play Fred Thompson. The trick is to make sure you use real-life famous people to not to make them too famous. It's like The Benny Goodman Story where Steve Allen was supposed to be Goodman, and real-life Goodman collaborators like Lionel Hampton are coming up to him and saying "Hi Stev... Benny!"

METRO: Did you do any research on Muslim comedy before this film?

BROOKS: I wanted to stay true to the idea of the story, that the character was unable to find any. But at the L.A. premiere, I was handed a DVD of the "Allah Made Me Funny" tour. I found that very endearing. It's so wonderful that I had a chance to meet one of these guys, who even told me, "Great fucking movie!" They asked if maybe I could help them on their tour.

I found out that even though the profession is dead in India right now, that in Pakistan there was a big standup scene in the 1970s. That would seem to have been the big decade for comedy, the 1970s. Why has everything got so weird since then? Imagine trying to get something like All in the Family on network TV today. The networks are so sensitive to the religious right.

METRO: A friend says that what bothers him is that television and radio used to be free; now you have to pay for satire, either for Comedy Central or satellite radio.

BROOKS: And I wonder how long Howard Stern's going to be able to say "Fuck" on [satellite radio]? Probably a year or two before the government figures out a way around it. The other problem is that movies used to be the premier way of getting comedy, but now they've been reduced to the teenage mentality.

METRO: There's the internet.

BROOKS: I included a joke in Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World about getting a letter from the State Department and moaning, "This is probably about visiting the Al-Qaeda website."

METRO: Who knew personal computers were going to be such stool pigeons?

BROOKS: Here in L.A., they just had the murder trial of a man who allegedly broke his wife's neck and left her in the river. They're admitting his Google searches into evidence. He supposedly looked up "breaking necks" and checked water levels.

When computers came in, everyone was saying, "This will be the most private way of communicating yet!" But now it turns out that every email you've ever sent will be on file forever.

METRO: It seems like Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World was a way of trying to do something about the lack of understanding between the Arab and American realms.

BROOKS: That's the idea exactly! Looking at the news, there's so little acknowledgement of the new world. It doesn't pop up in the movies, directly anyway. I had to read the reviews of War of the Worlds to get the parallels between the Spielberg movie and the World Trade Center attack—like how the aliens dusting people made sense, because there was so much dust after the explosions. Then are the Arabs supposed to be bug-eyed aliens?

The movie businesses' nonacknowledgement of the rest of the world was driving me crazy. But how do you do a comedy about this? Since Sept. 11, we're not supposed to laugh ever again?

It was only after I started making the movie that Karen Hughes became head of America's public relations to the Muslim world. Moments like this show how this country does nothing to help present its own image to the rest of the world, nothing person to person. What they read in the papers Al Jazeera or Al-Arabia that's what they believe.

Maybe what is needed isn't a Peace Corps but a Schmooze Corps. Send over thousands of friendly people, take them out to dinner. But the way we relate to the Muslim world is part of the current administration, it's very closed off. They're not "Go out and meet the world" kind of people.

We just don't do enough. Two days after we came to Iraq, the museums get looted. This is a clear example of not giving a shit. I got the idea of the assignment, go get that man, he might have nukes. But there's no reason to piss off the entire population by allowing their art works and treasures looted. Things like this are why I never believe in conspiracy theories. Conspiracies have to be planned, and there's such a lack of planning in this.

METRO: When I saw your film, the biggest laugh was the one about Bush's sense of humor.

BROOKS: I've seen it with other audiences, at the Dubai Film Festival, and the audience laughed hardest at the scene of the Pakistani comedians, who look like the usual Arab terrorists in the movies. I think I twisted that stereotype in a positive way. I saw it with Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is now the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Getting to talk to the man about comedy was a real thrill.

I'm not presumptuous enough to think Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World will persuade Israel and Palestine to stop fighting. It's not going to lead to a withdrawal of troops. But I just don't know what the down side of comedy is. We need to put a few more positive things on the other side of the ledger. Even if we put an inch there, it starts to balances up against the tons of stuff on the other side.

METRO: Did you ever hear about the historic Islamic humorist Mullah Nasrudin?

BROOKS: Someone sent me a letter with one of his jokes. It sounded like an old Jewish joke, really—something about artichokes.

I don't think there is a Lenny Bruce of the Arab world. Jokes are very much about marriage and family, and not political, nothing that will get them in big trouble: "How about that Shah of Iran, eh? Does he have enough planes or what?" Then you get a knock on the door after midnight.

METRO: A great moment in Islamic humor, as far as I'm concerned, was whoever that Iraqi politician was who said, "Donald Rumsfeld should be hit with shoes." That's exactly what should happen to him. What do you think of Woody Allen's comment "Comedy always sits at the children's table." Meaning that it's never considered really grown-up?

BROOKS: Well, his new movie certainly proves that drama gets more respect. I think I know why, though. When you joke, people always ask, "Did you just make that up?" When you do comedy, they think you just do that. It's like the way Fred Astaire made it look like he just did that, when in fact he spent 42 years in his room practicing. If it's done right, comedy looks like it's just happening. When you shoot it in actual time, it's like there's not really any preparation.

When I was studying drama at Carnegie-Mellon, the kids who got the A's were the ones who could cry on command. Crying onstage is all a matter of having the right tear ducts. You can set down your jaw in the right way, and the tears just come. Comedy just feels like there's no thought behind it by comparison. The essence of comedy is that nobody takes it seriously.

Take court jesters, for example; since he's acting the part of an idiot, no one takes what he has to say seriously. Oddly, no one remembers the person who used to go to the king late at night and break his heart.

METRO: Strange, the tradition of motley—so you know an idiot is an idiot. I've read that the reason why we know that what happens to the Three Stooges is comedy instead of tragedy is the way they dress.

BROOKS: That and the sound-effects guy. No, I mean "Foley Artist." That's what they call them now. Now the guy who makes footstep noises is an artist. If he's an artist, what does that make Van Gogh?

METRO: When Finding Nemo was such a hit, it must have been marvelous to have the success, but I wondered if you felt like Randy Newman after he had the hit with "Short People." I mean, here you had the body of work behind you, and it was the cartoon fish that was getting the attention.

BROOKS: One of the reasons I made Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World was to take back what I am. I'm really happy about the ability to work with actors again. I just wanted to say that this is what I really do. It's different than the situation with Randy Newman, because he wrote "Short People," and I didn't write Finding Nemo.

Finding Nemo was a decent cartoon, too. My son was 3 at the time, and it was a magical moment for him, really fun—it's not like I could show him my film Modern Romance.

And though I get cell phones handed to me all the time—people's children are on the line and I'm asked to say hello to them—I don't get recognized when I walk down the street for Finding Nemo. It was a cartoon. It would be a different thing if I was the man in the AAMCO commercial.

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