The Jewschool Review: Searching for Comedy in the Muslim World

Comedy in Muslim World Nowhere To Be Found
by Lilit Marcus
Anyone today can tell you that controversy is great publicity. Last year alone, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 each rode very different kinds of publicity waves straight to the bank, angering as many people as they attracted into the theater. Comedian Albert Brooks surely had this notion in mind as he made his film Searching for Comedy in the Muslim World, a mockumentary with Brooks playing himself as an out-of-work comedian who is sent to India by the U.S. government in an attempt to decode the humor of Muslims. Predictably, though, this movie was met with horror by Brooks’ studio, Sony, who didn’t want to offend potential customers by having the word “Muslim” in the title of the film. Brooks then got the reputation of being a vanguard and button-pusher, when what he’s really done is make a mediocre movie that does nothing to enhance any real cultural understanding.
George Bush talked about “winning the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people post-occupation, and Brooks’ mission is motivated by trying to understand Muslim people as a whole by analyzing what they find funny. Brooks is sent to New Delhi along with two hapless lackeys from the State Department (Jon Tenney and John Carroll Lynch), and, as any TV copywriter would tell you, “hilarity ensues.” Their first class airline tickets turn out to be coach. The office Brooks is promised ends up being in a decrepit building and is devoid of furniture. He finally ends up with a trusted assistant, Maya, (the earnest Sheetal Sheth), who he drags along on pointless interviews with random people on the street that begin with, “so, what makes you laugh?” The movie hinges on Brooks’ excessive, cartoonish portrayal of himself as the stupid but well-meaning American. In an attempt to stand out less among the Indians, he insists on wearing traditional clothes that only make him stand out more. His jokes bomb painfully, the prime example being “Why don’t they celebrate Halloween in India? Because they got rid of the Gandhi (with the word stretched out to sound kind of, but not really, like “candy”).” The one joke of Brooks’ that does fly is a bit of ethnic humor, prompting his assistant to write down “Polish jokes work everywhere.” Otherwise, most of the laughter comes from reaction shots- Indian people wondering what the hell Brooks is talking about, or Tenney and Lynch pretending to go along with whatever hairbrained scheme Brooks comes up with next.
The problem with Brooks’ portrayal of himself is that he’s so eager not to offend Muslim audiences that he’s willing to make all Americans look like complete buffoons. He gallivants through the whole film and drags it all down with him. Brooks got rare permission to shoot at some of the most sacred and valued sites in India, including the Taj Mahal, and wastes every second of the footage. As Maya, Sheetal Sheth is the best thing in the entire film, playing a modern, intelligent Indian woman who could be running her own corporation but instead is forced to placate Brooks as he makes an idiot out of himself. It never occurs to Brooks the character to use Maya as a cultural ambassador or even to ask her what she really thinks. Instead, he gets involved in her personal life, trying to improve her relationship with her boyfriend.
The most telling scene in the film is when Brooks is smuggled over the border to meet a group of fledgling Pakistani comedians. He gets stoned with the group, not wanting to be rude by refusing their offer, and they laugh at all his jokes just because they’re high. When they drop him back off at the Indian border, he instructs them, “if you ever make a dirty bomb, put some of that hash in it.” Homer Simpson is an example of a character who can act like a buffoon, say offensive things, and inadvertently come to an understanding or advance the plot. Brooks grates, coming off as one of those super-liberals who thinks the only way to make people in other countries like them is to defame the United States as much as possible. At the end of the film, Brooks returns home a self-styled hero who brings back a sari for his daughter, but he hasn’t learned a single thing. Not only does he learn nothing about Muslim people’s humor, he hasn’t learned anything about Muslim people, or anything about India besides flavors of curry. If you’re looking for comedy in the Muslim world, this isn’t where you’ll find it.
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2 thoughts on “The Jewschool Review: Searching for Comedy in the Muslim World

  1. As an Indian I find it offensive that India is called a muslim country which is false. I hope he found that out when he travelled to India.

  2. As Anand stated, the problem isn’t whether this was suppose to be a mockumentary or a terrible movie, although perhaps the director and the person in charge of the movie knew that India is predominantly Hindu (~80%) and their is a predominant population of Muslims, I hardly think a lot of people know that, and making it seem like India is Muslim is just wrong and misconstrued.
    However, I don’t think this movie should be taken seriously at all…

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