Brooks Looks for Comedy in the Muslim World

In "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," which opens this weekend, director and star Albert Brooks goes to India to see what makes Muslims laugh. He learned a more than he expected.

"In order to get our cameras into the biggest mosque into the world, in New Delhi, I had to tell the imam the whole movie," says Brooks, who spent weeks in India securing locations. "In my description, he started to laugh. His sense of humor was more similar to mine than dissimilar."

In the film, the U.S. government hires Brooks to travel to India and Pakistan to research Muslim humor. The feds are looking for ways to diffuse tension between the cultures - his goal in writing the film.

"After 9/11, the ideas that normally come to mind for a movie seemed like a waste of time," says Brooks. "I didn't see anything addressing this issue, other than war. So after two years, I went, 'Wouldn't it be good if somebody wanted to find out something about this world?'"

In the filmmaking process, Brooks learned not only what makes people laugh, but also what frightens them - especially if they're studio execs.

"Looking for Comedy" was on target for an October release through Sony Pictures when in May, Newsweek ran an story about U.S. soldiers flushing a Koran down the toilet. The next month, Sony's chairman told Brooks that he wouldn't release the film unless the name was changed.

Brooks was crushed. "It was like a right hook to the face," says the filmmaker, who considered the title essential. "The whole idea of putting 'comedy' and 'Muslim' in the same sentence is healthy, because it lessens the fear of this subject, which is full of fear."

Brooks never even considered a name change. So his financier, producer Steve Bing, found distribution through Warner Independent Pictures. In the interim, a premiere was arranged at the Dubai International Film Festival, and Brooks had no idea what to expect.

"I don't know if there's been any comedy, much less an American comedy, that's even remotely dealt with this subject," says Brooks, "and I don't know what's going to happen. Are people going to walk out? Am I gonna be put in prison? What do I know?"

But the screening was magical. "That was the experience of my life, one of the great surprises I've ever had on this planet," he says. "I watched 500 people roar at this movie, Muslim people, people I was afraid to show the movie to previously. I learned that this tension is everywhere, and that this is a balloon willing to be pricked."

Brooks says that "if you can laugh at this [tension], you lessen its grip in a teeny way." He's not naive enough to expect huge changes, thinks that when it comes to diffusing the most difficult cultural rift of our time, effort is all.

"I don't think anything can have that big an impact," he says. "But, and this is the big 'but,' if you don't try, you're screwed. I think if there is a god, that's gonna be the question. 'Did you try?' 'Yes.' 'Good, then you can come in.'"