Albert Brooks is Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World!
The actor's hilarious brand of humor takes him to India for a government study
After a very tumultuous afternoon, Albert Brooks proved how much he cares for his films and the media. On the Los Angeles press day for his new film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert was in the middle of doing television interviews when a light stand fell on his head.
He took a break from those interviews to get treated, but determined to promote the movie, he continued doing television interviews. After that, he was supposed to conduct print and online roundtables, however, we were told that he was feeling more effects from that head injury.
Having to leave the hotel and go to the doctor, we were sure he wouldn't return; and I don't think anyone waiting for him, including myself, wanted him to come back if he wasn't feeling up to it. But, after about an hour, we got word that he was on his way back from the doctor and would be doing roundtable interviews.
All of us were so impressed with his dedication, and it just shows why everyone in Hollywood respects this man. And not only did he come back to talk to us, but he sat down and spoke to us for nearly 40 minutes!
He joked as he walked into our room, ‘I'm alright, you gotta make sure you're alright. Are people here? I am dilated right now; I don't have my glasses on, but I know people are here. Let me count. I've been all the way around the world and nothing happened; how did it happen in the g-d damn hotel. This is life in a nutshell, I swear to G-d; I think this speaks volumes of the world we live in. You're out in the garden and that's where it happens; India, no problems, Pakistan, Dubai, Four Seasons (makes crashing noise), but I'm laughing.'
And during his first answer, one of the journalists got up to move his microphone closer to Albert; with his eyes dilated, he stopped in the middle and joked again, having to make sure someone did stand up. The question was about the hardships of making a film like this; and for those of you who don't know what the film is about, let me tell you. Albert is asked by the US Government to travel to India and Pakistan to find out what makes people of Muslim faith laugh. The study is to try and bridge the gap between the US and the Muslim people.
But, once Albert got going, he performed like a true professional and answered every question. And even through in a bit of his shtick throughout the 40 minutes. Oh, that first answer of why he would do a movie like this; it was because nothing like this has been done. ‘There's certainly not been any comedies about anything post 9/11, and very few dramas, just the few that are coming up now which I call ‘the terrorists with a heart of gold' dramas, those movies like suicide bombers changing their minds. But the idea of making something that you're reasonably making people try to laugh at. I knew it was going to be unusual, and it was the whole reason I wanted to make it. I'm just dismayed that since 9/11, so little has been done in the arts about this, especially in motion pictures. I don't know if it's a conscious decision by filmmakers to say ‘I'm not going to deal with it,' or if people sort of don't know how their going to deal with it. But as I said, there's a few dramas that are coming up that are trying to tackle this thing. But there's no comedy and that's sort of what I just thought. The few comedies that are contemporary are teenage sex comedies anyway, and they're just sort of dealing with ‘oh, will I get laid or not,' and 9/11 doesn't enter into that brain, so I got frustrated by it.'
This film had a crazy ride to where it is now, almost nearly not being released and getting out to the public. Originally, the film was shot, and financed, independently; Albert shot it and Steve Bing was the man with the money (yes, the same Steve Bing, who was in a legal battle over Elizabeth Hurley's child). Anyway, Steve and Albert took the film to Sony and it sounded like they had a deal. ‘When I finished shooting, we had our first meeting, and I showed them a rough cut of the Fred Thompson scene, which sort of explains the movie. Everybody thought that meeting went well, except me, because one of the gentlemen there made a joke about the title that ‘Great title; I guess we're going to have add a lot of phones to answer the calls we're going to get on this one.' And I've never heard a studio make a joke that it's not what they really wanted to say.'
So, Sony made posters, and set a slot for the film at the Toronto Film Festival; the release date was scheduled for October 7th. Then, something changed for the worse; four months later, after a negative Newsweek article about Muslim's, Steve Bing phoned Albert. He told him Sony didn't want to use the title; Albert's reaction was much to be expected, ‘I was angry, because they wasted five months; we found Warner Independent immediately, and they were really excited about it. But they didn't have an October slot.'
Warner Independent moved the release date to January 20th; for Albert, he was mad Sony wasted his time, but there were upsides to them dropping the film. ‘I saw that Sony trailer, and you wouldn't believe it; not only did they not want the title, but they didn't want to tell anyone what the movie was about. It looked like ‘Bill and Ted go to India,' I really couldn't figure it out. A comedian decides to put on a show overseas; wait, wait a minute, what about the plot? Where's the scene where he says ‘We want you to find out what makes Muslims laugh;' it wasn't in the trailer.'
And another advantage of the delay, Warner skipped taking the film to Toronto in favor of The Dubai International Film Festival – a trip that Albert will never forget. ‘There was an audience of 500 people, and most of them were in traditional dress, the men were in robes, the women were in Beas. I have no idea how this is going to do; nobody can say ‘Well, last year, the comedy Jack goes to the Comedy World did very well;' I mean, nobody's telling me anything. And then about an hour before the screening starts, the head of the festival is happy, he's beside himself, he says ‘The Minister of Information is here; he was flying in from Abu Dhabi with his entourage, and he had not come to any of the screenings before, and decided to come to this one. And my first reaction is ‘well, if he walks out, does everyone else have to? What's the tradition here;' I'm only thinking of the disaster. And so the movie's about to start and it's a beautiful theater, gorgeous, and there's about 500, 600 people there. They close the balcony for the sheik, and the lights go down, and the people grab me and say the sheik wants to meet me, so I grab my wife, we go off to the balcony, but the movie had already started. He's not even looking at us, but they say ‘Just sit down; he'll meet you when he chooses.' ‘Ok, but can I go down and watch this with my friends?' ‘No, sit right behind him.' ‘Ok.' So I watch this entire movie behind these 14 men, and I don't know; I know all the lines, the ‘Those Darn Jews,' is that going to work? They're just jabbing each other, the whole audience is going, the laughter is pouring into the balcony; it was just great. And at the end, he didn't even know I was there; he had to do a double take, ‘Oh, hey!' And he said a very nice thing, he said ‘A movie like this can bridge the culture between here and here; he made the gesture with his hands. So it was like the reason to make the movie came true; it was just amazing. I'm telling you, this was like the hottest screening. It wasn't translated, but the cool thing was they got some of the jokes before the translations came up because it's a very interesting mix of audience; when the guy is doing his Arabic, he's going from right to left, and then he translates ‘That Darn Jew.' When he said it in Arabic, half the audience just went crazy, so they didn't have to go back the other way in the English.'
So after writing, directing and starring in a movie like this, did he find out what even makes Americans laugh? Apparently not, and after nearly 30 years in comedy, Albert still hasn't been able to find out saying ‘I have no idea; I'm amazed how I don't know after all these years. Not only is sense of humor vastly, not only is it the most varied of all emotions, it doesn't even remain consistent. What makes you laugh on Monday may not make you laugh on Friday. So I started in the early 70's, I did that sort of satirical article for Esquire starting the famous school for comedians, just based on the fact that I'll teach you to be funny. We literally got 300 applications on that fake comedy test; they were filled out and sent in to Esquire. You could have opened that school.'
But what makes Albert Brooks laugh? Himself, ‘When I'm writing, I use myself. If I can make myself laugh, then it goes in the movie, so sometimes I make myself laugh. I did Jon Stewart last week, he makes me laugh, I think he's really funny; I think David Letterman, I think people, Jack Benny is one of those people I looked up to as a kid. My father, he died when I was very young, but he was a well-known radio comedian, who went by the name of Parkyakarkus; he was a Greek comedian. But I still grew up loving Jack Benny, I thought he was the most economical comedian I have ever seen, to get that many laughs with doing so little was remarkable. But I can make myself laugh sometimes.'
How about doing something Steven Spielberg never got to do – shoot his film in the second largest mosque in the world. Albert got permission to go inside after meeting with the imam (the spiritual leader of a mosque). But why wasn't Mr. Spielberg allowed to shoot there? As Albert puts it ‘Steven Spielberg wanted to shoot Temple of Doom, but ‘we wouldn't allow it.' I said ‘Why?' He said there was a scene where they eat monkey brains; so well, ok, I don't have any of that, and that's not going to be a problem.'
They also got to shoot at the Taj Mahal, another amazing adventure. ‘I'm the kind of person who likes to watch things on television, you know where they take you places; it's made me say ‘I never want to go see the Acropolis,' I don't know why, but I just don't. This (the Taj Mahal) is the most spectacular thing I have ever seen, the most spectacular thing I have ever seen; and it's funny, in the movie, I never see it.'
Throughout the interview, Albert's voice got in my head; I couldn't help hearing Marlon, you know, Nemo's father, over and over again. As some of you may know, the folks over at Disneyland are designing a Finding Nemo ride. And how can you have a Finding Nemo ride without his dad? Well, you can't, but the voice is a different story; the heads over at Disney asked Albert to work with them on the ride.
What you're probably thinking is why would they need to ask, right. Well, ‘unfortunately, what they've done is, they have the rights to my voice in that character for continuity, so I didn't choose to do the games for example that you buy, the spelling games. They have this guy, Jess Harnell, who does me so well, my own kid thought it was me. So now I have this decision to make, I don't even know if I should do it on principle; they'll get him to do it and everyone will think it's me. Maybe I'll do the ride.'
We'll have to wait to hear what happens with that, but there should be no waiting to go see Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. The film is filled with tons of laughs, great sites around India, and the great comedy of Albert Brooks.
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World opens in limited cities on January 20th; it's rated PG-13. It also stars Sheetal Sheth as Albert's assistant in India.