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January 18-24, 2006

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Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Photograph by Lacey Terrell
Flight Risk: Albert Brooks (right), John Carroll Lynch (center) and Jon Tenney go looking for laughs.

Religious Riot

In his new movie, Albert Brooks purports to go 'Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.' Whatever you think of it as a film, however, it definitely doesn't live up to its title. The truth is, Muslims are funny, and the Allah Made Me Funny comedy tour that comes to Santa Clara this week is more proof.


By Richard von Busack

AT HEART, every comedian would like to be thought of as the scapegoat who takes away the sins of the world. In Albert Brooks' controversial new film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, which opens Friday, Brooks tries to make a link with the Islamic world through a kind of self-sacrificial buffoonery.

By coincidence, the film's opening coincides with a local stop by the renowned Allah Made Me Funny tour of three genuine Islamic comedians, the kind of comics Brooks would seem to have been searching for if you took his title at face value.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World was a subject of dissent even before its release. Sony chairman Michael Lynton urged Brooks to change the title to the rather Sovietly plain Looking for Comedy. Rather than caving in, Brooks took the movie to Warner Independent, which is releasing his film with title intact.

To paraphrase Benjamin Disraeli, 1,500 years of Christian love have made the Muslims nervous. The idea of Brooks going to the Arab world and mocking its customs had the Internet well-tizzied: "If this movie was called Looking for Comedy in the Jewish World and it was written by a Muslim and put out by a Muslim studio it would be considered virulent anti-Semitism, and it would immediately be condemned by Hollywood," posts one inflamed correspondent to the Internet Movie Database.

Brooks on Brooks

In Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, the subject is, as always, at times to the point of weariness, Brooks himself. He plays a warped-mirror version of himself, a privileged American comic actor: unhirable, aging out of the youth market, fonder of the charm of his happy household than of the ugly necessity of fighting for roles in movies.

He's facing the worrisome possibility that he's going to have "Here Lies the Voice of Marlin, Nemo the Fish's Dad" carved on his headstone. So Brooks is ready when the State Department calls him for an assignment. They ask him to go overseas to prepare a 500-page white paper on Muslim comedy, in an effort to get to know the rest of the world.

"As you know, the president has a great sense of humor." (The cut to Brooks' aghast face gets the biggest laugh in the movie.)

Going to India—where 150 million Muslims are a minority—Brooks is miffed at being treated like a second-class comic. Grousing at the affront of a too-small office, "Brooks" tries to go native, duding himself up in pajamas and pointed elf-shoes, buttonholing men and women on the street in New Delhi to ask them what they think is funny.

Despite the (inexplicable) clear-eyed belief in him of Maya his secretary (Sheetal Sheth, a rudimentary, daughterly female lead), he clumsily creates an international incident.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World is built around the film's best sequence: Brooks' performance where he tries to make Muslims laugh through an abysmal standup act.

Brooks detonates superlatively stenchy jokes: "Q: Why did they cancel Halloween in India? A: Because they got rid of the Gandhi! [candy]." In a reprise of a standup comedy routine he performed decades ago on The Ed Sullivan Show, he becomes a bullying improv comedian, overruling audience suggestions and making them ever more tragic.

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

Photograph by Lacey Terrell

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure

Watching a comedian flop is always invigorating. Mark Twain himself used to warm up on the lecture circuit telling an authentic frontier-gibberish tale about Horatio Alger and a speeding stagecoach driver. The audience received the pointless anecdote in dead silence. Then Twain would then begin again and repeat it word for word—and then once again, until the outraged laughter came.

Here is Brooks' first return to standup comedy in some 30 years. And here he faces the problem of being a pioneer who sees his land overdeveloped. Years ago, Brooks invented his own kind of anti-comedy.

He perfected the character of a creepy entertainer, a figure one step beyond the self-fascinated persona of Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch's immortal To Be or Not to Be. But since then, dozens of performers have picked up on Brooks' act, from Andy Kaufman to Krusty the Klown. And that's just the funny K's.

When Brooks puts himself and the audience through the routine, it may not be funny ha ha—and that may be the only test that matters. But the mortification in the ritual feels fresh. And Brooks has caught something vivid and essential to the American vibe: our desire to be applauded, our insistence on being arbiters of a worldwide taste. The joke is definitely on us, and the rest of the world can get a laugh out of it.

Loud Families

The release of Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World provides an occasion to revisit Brooks' 1979 film Real Life, his last stab at playing "Albert Brooks" onscreen. Real Life is a particularly venomous species of backstage comedy, occasioned by the primal reality show, PBS's An American Family. The style in reality shows has changed over the past 25 years, choosing gross humiliation over unadorned realistic drama.

An American Family picked the Loud family of Santa Barbara and watched them stew in their juices during the course of months. This family of placid nobodies turned out to be rife with scandal. Affairs were revealed, and so was the shocking spectacle of son Lance coming out of the closet.

Daily critics of the time dutifully cooked up all the easy comparisons to Death of a Salesman. As essayist Mary McCarthy wrote of the Louds, "Before they were ever found, the members of the family of the series were limited, prejudged, categorized."

In Real Life, a movie to be filed next to the best of Preston Sturges and W.C. Fields, "Albert Brooks" thirsts to discover the truly average American family, played by the meek Charles Grodin and his increasingly tense wife, Francis Lee McCain. Through watching them, he destroys their house and nearly their marriage. Willy Lohman, nothing: the blame is placed not on the American dream but on the cameras tailing this unhappy family like starving bloodhounds.

As "Brooks"—glitzy comedian turned obsequious, bullying documentary filmmaker—Brooks parodied the obscene ego of the worst comedians, the terrible narcissism that comes from regarding everyone and everything as grist for an act.

Brooks is intimidating, like one of his few rivals for Funniest Man Alive, John Cleese. Though he's older now, he is still rather menacing: the fearfulness and truculence still show in the cocked, square, pale head.

If that titan of comedy, Richard Pryor, showed the lurking fear hiding under coolness, "Brooks'" arrogance and monomania was the perfect exposure of the Me Generation's self-absorption. Who was more "Me" than Albert Brooks?

The Real Muslim Comedy

The title Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World wrongly suggests that it is a documentary on what makes Muslim comedy work. One would love the educated view on this matter by the funniest men and women alive.

Islamic comedy is beginning to flourish. The Allah Made Me Funny show coming to Santa Clara includes Azhar Usman, self-declared "ayatollah of comedy," the one-named comic Azeem and ex-SNL writer and anti-racism activist Preacher Moss. The trio took the tour to the San Jose Improv in May 2004. This time around, they're looking forward to the booze-free surroundings at the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara.

The tour has been embraced with understandable relief. Muslims who won't pull our fingernails out, hurray! And the world media has extensively covered the tour as a sign of hope.

I caught Usman via cell phone on the road near his home in the Chicagoland area, interrupting his Eid holiday with a quick interview. We talked for a minute through the noise of some of his four children tangling in the background. Usman was preparing for this week's shows in Montreal and Ottawa. Ottawa in January, readers. Comedy is not pretty.

Usman is a jovial stout figure with a rugged voice. He is visible on the webcast of his show Tinku's World (tinkusworld.com) posing as a barely informed Indian foreigner conducting man-on-the-street interviews on hot-button subjects like racism.

Usman's Tinku poses one penetrating question to a white passer-by: "Why you so scared of black man?" Or he asks them to comment on the uncommentable, such as Tinku's received idea that in America the totem-pole of status goes "Black man, dog, then Arab."

Usman has a beard slightly longer than suggested by tradition (it is thought that a man's beard should be at least as long as a fist). He dresses in skull-cap and flowing shirts, and he is baffled by the unwarranted attention at the airports: "Would a terrorist look like this?"

Usman tries to find a balance between his faith and the job of making people laugh by making modest proposals like renaming the Palestinians "Native Israelis." Touring Islamic cultural centers and nightclubs alike, he'll use inside jokes if necessary, such as the problem of "Ramadan breath" (apparently fasting can cause a little halitosis).

Usman hadn't seen Brooks' film but was eager for it. In the meantime, he sent me a carefully worded essay about Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. While appreciating the nature of Brooks' act, Usman underscores the problem of the film's title.

In the essay "Looking for Laughs in All the Wrong Places," Usman demonstrates his training as a lawyer:

"[The film] reveals a series of implicit assumptions about Muslims: that they don't laugh very much; that they are not very funny; and that there is no way that Americans could reasonably understand Muslim humor without the aid of significant research and investigation.

"All of this is built upon the obvious presupposition ... that Muslims are not really human, because if they were, such assumptions would be unacceptable."

The Jihad of The Joke

Since Brooks does without, let us compile a list of funny Muslims. Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi; loads of elegant wit in Omar Khayyam, if nothing to make you spit milk through the nose. Danny Thomas, born Amos Muzyah Yaghoob, was not unamusing. Wait, he was Christian Lebanese, he's out.

Arab film buffs of a certain age likely remember Nagrib al-Rihani, the half Coptic, half Iraqi movie star. "A low but beloved comic" sniffs one account. But in the 1930s and 1940s, Al-Rihani was "l'idole ... sans conteste" of the Egyptian cinema 1930-50, counters Magda Wassef in her study Egypte: 100 ans de cinema, a history of that powerhouse of the Arabic cinema, Egypt.

In a hoard of movies, from the silent age to the studio musical era, Al-Rihani played Kishkish Bey, a self-satisfied fez-wearing Turk.

But to go much farther back than Egyptian movies, note that Mohammed himself could be a joker: "He kept his keen sense of humor under control, knowing its hazards for public men," suggested historian Will Durant.

In Usman's earlier essay, "The Jihad of the Joke," he cites the long history of comedy in the Muslim world. Note the Koran, 53:43, "And He [Allah] it is Who makes (men) laugh and makes (them) weep."

Usman writes, "The Messenger of God did in fact smile and, at times, laugh at funny things, and, even more significantly, he cracked jokes of his own on several occasions. However, it is also clear from the foregoing that moderation is of utmost importance. Whereas excessive laughter can kill the heart, perhaps deficiency in laughter can serve to harden it."

The Hadith—a sacred record of deeds of Mohammed and his followers—includes stories of Nu'aymen ibn Anr. Usman told me, "Anecdotes about Nu'ayamen ibn Anr are a little untranslatable, but he committed practical jokes. No one knows if he was mentally unstable, or whether he was acting out of humor.

"One of the more hilarious stories is how he sold a free man into slavery. This was back when slavery was legal. 'He's a good slave, very strong, but his problem is, he lies ... don't believe a word that comes out of his mouth.' Naturally, the man protested when the customer came for him. Ib'n Anr pulled off the prank, but Mohammed had to intervene."

If that sounds too harsh for fun, one commentator records simpler physical comedy among Mohammed's companions: it is recorded that they used to toss melon rinds at one another.

But of all Islamic humorists, the West could most easily understand a man Usman describes as a "transnational figure," a hero of a 1,000 anecdotes. He's called Juha, Mushfiqi or the Mullah Nasreddin, sometimes Nasrudin. He's also called "The Hoca" or "Hoja"—the Professor.

Though he's known throughout Islam, he may be most popular in Turkey. "There, he is quoted almost as much as the Koran," says one account. And Ankara is the site of his alleged tomb. Legend says you'll be cursed if you don't laugh when you visit it.

A local shrine to Mullah Nasrudin is SCOWAH, an unpretty acronym for the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humor at the main library in San Francisco. Schmulowitz (1889-1966) was a longtime San Franciscan, best remembered for having successfully defended silent-film star Fatty Arbuckle in his rape trial.

He started a collection that now has some 20,000 volumes (and some back issues of Mad magazine). It contains a selection of stories of the Nasrudin. Special-collections librarian Andrea Grimes told me, "You'll probably be laughing out loud," and she was right. The recommended anthology is edited by The Way of the Sufi's Idries Shah: The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mullah Nasrudin, with cartoons by Richard Williams, the cartoonist who created the Pink Panther.

The character that emerges in Schmulowitz's own monograph on the Hoja is a cross between Diogenes, Groucho Marx and Judge Roy Bean. He was a preacher and a bit of a weasel. Sometimes the humor is sometimes like the subject of the most schoolyardish little-moron jokes.

One turns up as a Chelm story in Joys of Yiddish. Some are older than vaudeville: the one about the stolen hen, with the punch line, "Who are you going to believe? That chicken, or me?"

Some have the nuance of Zen koans:

Nasrudin goes to speak to the faithful; they await the lecture of the famous mullah. He looks at them and asks, "Do you know what I'm going to say to you?"

"No," they cry.

"If you don't know, I couldn't possibly it explain it."

Next day, they're ready for him. Nasrudin repeats his question. "Do you know what I'm going to say to you?"

"Yes!"

"Well, then why should I waste my time repeating it."

On their next encounter, the faithful decide that half will say yes and half will say no, to finally press some wisdom out of the Hoja. "Do you know what I'm going to say to you?" he begins.

"Yes!" "No! "Yes" No!"

"Good. Let the ones who know tell the ones who don't."

On another occasion, Nasrudin leaves his house, expecting a large dinner to be made out of 3 pounds of beef he'd purchased at the market. When he comes back his wife tells him, eh, no dinner. The cat ate it.

(A lie—she fed it to her friends.)

"The cat ate it? Did he."

"She, my beloved husband."

"Fetch me a scale."

He weighs the cat; let us imagine that Turkish cats were very skinny in those days.

"Exactly three pounds. If this is the cat, where is the meat? And if this is the meat, where's the cat?"

Summing up his essay on Islam in The Age of Faith, Will Durant notes, "Civilization is polygenetic," giving no nation or race the leading edge in culture. We infidels owe them, anyway. Not only did Islam keep math and science alive during the Dark Ages, but it also saved our Christian bacon—bacon that they're forbidden to eat, oh, the irony—from Genghis Khan. (It was in Syria and Egypt, you could look it up.)

How can one look for comedy in the Muslim world, when the very definition of the Muslim world is vague. Is it cat or meat? It's a religion that ranges from downtown Oakland to Djakarta, the long way, even; it's a culture that includes both bin Laden and Omar Sharif.

The stagnation of any fundamentalist culture, whether in Saudi Arabia or Arkansas, opposes the human drive to explore and excel. And humor offers a light that leads the way out of any maze of closed thought.


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