For Albert Brooks, it was a longer trip than expected from Los Angeles to India. His new film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World in which the comic, as a version of his real self, visits India and Pakistan on behalf of the U.S. government to learn what makes Muslims laugh originally was slated for an October release (and lofty Toronto Film festival showing). Instead, it got shuttled to this weekend due to some nervous Nellies. And all because of the title.
After screening some footage almost a year ago for Sony execs, "Everyone felt excited, but I didn't feel as excited as the others," Brooks recalls, "because when I told them the title, one of the big shots made a joke that was weird to me, like, 'Good title. I guess we're going to have to put extra phone lines in to take these calls.' When studios say things like that, there's never anything good about it. They never make jokes. If the studio sees a rough cut and says, 'That scene was a little long,' that scene is never going to get in the movie. That's just the way they let you know something."
Assured that all was well, Brooks who also wrote and directed the film forged on ahead. Five months later, an untimely Newsweek article about the Koran being abused in Guantanamo Bay had studio execs shaking. "I got a call from Steve Bing [the financer who set up the deal with Sony]," shares Brooks. "He said, 'Bad news. They don't want to do the title.' 'OK, didn't I say this five months ago?' Steve said, 'No, no, you were right' one of those things that's supposed to make you feel better. [Laughs] 'Gee, I was right, but now my life is over.'"
Bing told Brooks that the film was a go if he watered down the title to simply Looking for Comedy "'if that's OK with you.' 'No, it's not OK with me! There's nothing to that [title].' I said, 'We can't do it.'"
Seeking illumination from Sony execs, Brooks was told "Times changed after 9/11" a sentiment that may have made perfect sense four years ago, maybe even three or two, but now? "Times are always changing, that's why we're making the movie," he notes. "I later said to him on the phone, 'Let's say I change the title. Are you going to tell the audience what the movie's about, or are you going to hide it...?' 'No, no, that's not a problem.' Well, I saw one of the [original] trailers, and it was like 'Bill & Ted Go to India.' You had no idea what the movie was about. 'A comedian is on his way to be funny!' On his way where? Where are we going?"
When all was said and done (and the film relocated to Warner Independent Pictures), Brooks arrived at his own assumptions. "I don't have any proof of this, but as much as I understand how very big companies [like Sony] work, there are many, many people that are not involved in the day-to-day movie business, and the movies they make to some people are meaningless until one afternoon [a suit says], 'I've got nothing to do, let's see what's coming up. What is this? What's that word? Muslim? Get Charlie on the phone!'"
Obviously aware that a travelogue about sheikhs and stand-up (and Brooks' near triggering of an international incident) might hit a snag, why did the filmmaker feel compelled to tackle this unorthodox laffer? "After Sept. 11, I sat in my house for a year and was scared," he shares. "All that was happening in the first year was, 'The next [terror attack] is coming tomorrow, maybe this weekend. Maybe on Monday.' The second year, it was 'The attacks are going to come on the holidays. Be careful on July 4th. I wouldn't go to Times Square on New Year's Eve.' The third year, 'It's going to come, we're not sure it's going to come.' What they kept telling us is that this is never going away, this will be around for as long as you will. I thought, this is insane! Are we going to hide until were killed? You want to get back to normalcy even if there is some impending doom, and normalcy in my mind is to be able to deal with [post-9/11 mentalities] in a motion picture comedy."
After all, as Brooks points out, few mainstream films let alone American or funny ones have dared to broach the setting of life in today's United States. "If you look at all the pictures that have risen to the top at the end of 2005, virtually all of them are set in the past. Munich, Brokeback Mountain, Good Night, and Good Luck, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Squid and the Whale.... These are all movies set in the '60s, '70s, '80s. And the comedies that have been set in the supposed present are generally these teenage sex comedies that never talk about the world anyway, so they're not going to deal with it. So what do you do? I wanted to find a way to get in this door, to stand up and say, 'I'm acknowledging the new world here. Maybe we can get a few laughs for 98 minutes, and then we'll go on.'"
Speaking of laughs, despite its title and concept, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World does not mock or poke fun at its subjects. Far from it. Having met with and provided detailed scene descriptions to the Indian government officials beforehand, Brooks says, "In my heart, I wasn't pulling a fast one." In fact, India's Minister of Culture had few if any notes to serve the filmmaker. "What they do mind are religious issues," he reports. "The guy told me they wouldn't let Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom shoot there because there was a scene where they ate monkey brains. What I told him, very respectfully, was, 'In the future, you really should take our money and let us do it because now, with CGI, they'll make any place look like India and do all the things you don't want anyway. So at least get our money!'"
Is Brooks concerned at all that moviegoers might not "get" his film's message? Is he taking a risk by not appealing to the lowest common denominator that gobbles up those aforementioned teen sex romps? "If I really asked myself that, I would have retired when I was 30," he answers. "One of the guys who gave me my start, [Dean Martin Presents producer] Greg Garrison, felt it was necessary to give me a lecture before my career started. He said, 'I just want to tell you, you're going to have a very tough career because you're here [holding his hand high] and the audience is here [hand low]. If I were you, I'd adjust for that.' Greg then looked at me to listen for my answer: 'I don't know what you're talking about.' He said, 'I just wanted to check. Now go do what you do.'
"One of the most famous sayings in show business is, 'You never go broke underestimating your audience,' and that's what a lot of people do," Brooks says. "But I can't think like that."