LOS ANGELES, Jan. 16 (JTA) “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” a project that sounds as hopeless as staging “Springtime for Hitler” on Broadway, has been conceived, written, directed and performed by American Jewish comedian Albert Brooks. In the film, the protagonist is a down-on-his-luck American Jewish comedian named Albert Brooks, who jumps when the U.S. State Department offers him a mission to India and Pakistan to find out what makes Muslims laugh. As the chairman of the State Department commission explains, neither politicians, generals nor diplomats seem to be having much luck in winning the hearts and minds of Muslims, so perhaps killing them with jokes might do the trick. Besides, if he does a good job and turns in a 500-page report, President Bush, who, the chairman assures a skeptical Brooks, has a great sense of humor, may confer the Medal of Freedom on the comedian. To Brooks’ objection that India is a Hindu nation, an expert informs him that there are 125 million Muslims in the country. Urged on by his wife (played by Amy Ryan), who sees the harebrained idea as a great patriotic act, Brooks starts out, accompanied by two unenthusiastic government handlers (Jon Tenney and John Carroll Lynch). Arriving in New Delhi, his first job is to hire a local secretary. After interviewing a string of candidates who either speak no English, can’t type, or question whether he is a Jew (“Well, part time,” is the answer), Brooks finally hits the jackpot with the beautiful and efficient Maya (Sheetal Sheth). In the best Hollywood tradition, Brooks decides to loosen up the natives by putting on a show in the form of a stand-up comedy routine, complete with a talking dummy. Naturally, whatever can go wrong goes wrong, the audience listens in stony silence, and his handlers begin to doubt Brooks’ professional talents. Denied a visa by Pakistan, Brooks sneaks across the border for a clandestine campfire meeting with a group of budding Pakistani comics. Since everybody, including the unwitting Brooks, is smoking hashish, the impromptu show is a rousing success. As an accidental by-product, Brooks almost starts an Indian-Pakistani nuclear war and is whisked to safety just in time. In execution, Brooks’ brilliant concept turns out not quite as hilarious as it sounds, with the director-actor falling back on some fairly hoary shticks. But the movie has its moments, none better than when Brooks is invited to meet with three producers at the Al- Jazeera television network. The elated Brooks assumes he will now have a chance to explain his vital mission to the Muslim world and for the occasion dresses up in a silk cream-colored tunic with gold sequin trim over matching pants and beaded Indian slippers. Instead, the producers explain that Al-Jazeera has decided to launch an entertainment channel, whose first offering will be a sitcom about an American Jew living in a Muslim housing complex. The title of the show is “That Darn Jew,” and Brooks is offered the starring role. Brooks declines, but as he bolts for the door a producer shouts after him, “Do you know how we can contact Jerry Seinfeld?” P.S. Brooks never gets his Medal of Freedom.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.