They don’t give out awards for best titles, otherwise Albert Brooks’s Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World would be in the running. Instead, all it got him was trouble with the studio.
“Yeah, it did,” he says. He looks less at home in his Ritz Hotel suite than he does in the flyblown New Delhi office his character occupies in the film. “This movie was financed by Steve Bing and he had a distribution deal with Sony. They knew the title when we were doing it, and after we were done filming I had a meeting with them and I showed them a scene, told them about it.”
The premise is as funny as the title: Brooks plays a comic named Brooks enlisted by the government to find out what makes Muslims laugh.
“I came out of that meeting and said: there’s trouble here. Instead of going, ‘This is really exciting!’ one of the guys said: ‘Well, I guess we’re going to have to put in some extra phone lines to take these [calls] we’re going to get, huh?’
“Four months went by. I showed them a rough cut. It went as good as any of those screenings have ever gone for me. They made posters, trailers, booked me into the Toronto film festival, release October 7. And then a week after, that Newsweek article came out...”
The story, you might recall, was the one about Guantánamo Bay prisoners forced to desecrate Korans. Newsweek was compelled to retract it when its authenticity was questioned. Some claimed it instigated riots halfway across the world in Afghanistan.
“They said that was what scared them and by shortening the title everything would be okay. And then I saw one of the trailers they made. They eliminated everything involving Muslims in the trailer. It was like, ‘A kooky comedian goes abroad!’ It was like a Bob Hope movie. I was amazed. I don’t have proof of this, but I think some very high-up who’s not involved in the day-to-day movie stuff because it’s a big company that makes televisions, he sees a computer printout and says, ‘What are you, crazy?’”
Luckily, Steve Bing stuck with the movie and moved it to another studio, Warner Independent Pictures.
“Two months later,” continues Brooks, “Bing says, ‘Let’s go to Dubai and have a world premiere.’ I was scared to death. I thought maybe people would ... It was only the second year of this film festival and the first year I had read that they had showed that documentary Control Room and everyone was booing. But it was the single greatest experience of my life. Lines like, ‘They stuffed Abbot and Costello and me into a cab’ — they roared.”
If the film killed them in Dubai, it can’t be too controversial. In Muslim World, Brooks looks for comedy that doesn’t purge fear and animosity, but calms them.