"Are you going to run a tape recorder?" asks the voice on the other end of the phone.
"It's already running." I say.
"How do you like that. Running since morning?"
"Yes. You never know who's going to call."
"You leave it on all day just in case."
"I do the same thing."
Albert Brooks is calling me from his house in the San Fernando Valley, on a late December morning, just before he sets out on a national promotional tour for his seventh feature film as writer, director and star. I'm in LA too, just over the hill, yet Brooks has declined my request for an in-person meeting, supposedly because his schedule won't accommodate it. But Brooks is famous for preferring telephone conversations to the face-to-face kind, regardless of the extenuating circumstances. He doesn't like to leave the house if he can avoid it, his publicist tells me beforehand. He is, others have suggested, the most hermitic director since Stanley Kubrick, who was himself said to be a Brooks aficionado.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that, for his new film (and his first since The Muse in 1999), Brooks didn't just venture from the comforts of home, but all the way to India and Pakistan.
The movie is called Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and it features Brooks as a comedian named Albert Brooks—not, he is quick to note, the same one I'm talking to right now—who gets recruited by the U.S. State Department (and former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson) for a matter of great national urgency. He is to travel to South Asia where, equipped with a wide-eyed assistant (the disarming Sheetal Sheth) and two mid-level government agents (Jon Tenney and John Carrol Lynch), it will be his task to discover what makes Muslim people laugh—and write a 500-page report about it.
But as Brooks points out, "The movie's called Looking, not Finding. That's a big difference. It's never claimed in the title that a goal is going to be reached. You know, in the cartoon I did, it was Finding Nemo."
As it happens, Brooks is no stranger to thwarted journeys and unrealized quests. The first time Albert Brooks played Albert Brooks, in his 1979 debut feature, Real Life, he was a megalomaniacal documentary filmmaker who ends up burning down his subjects' home just so his movie can have an ending. In Modern Romance (1981), he was film editor Robert Cole, obsessive-compulsively breaking up and making up with his girlfriend in an endless cycle of fear and self-loathing. Then, in Lost in America (1985), he was a Los Angeles advertising executive, quitting his job and resolved to travel across country in an RV, only to find himself stranded in Las Vegas when his wife blows their entire nest egg on an all-night casino binge. And now there's Looking for Comedy, in which Brooks doesn't glean enough insight for one of his 500 pages, but does manage to implode on stage during an SRO comedy concert and, ultimately, brings India and Pakistan to the brink of nuclear war.
The moral of the story, I suppose, being that comedians, like countries, sometimes bomb.
Coming on the heels of a holiday movie season rife with such highly charged fare as Munich and Syriana, Looking for Comedy and its gentle, if pointed, lesson in the art of miscommunication may not seem like the makings of a political controversy. But that didn't stop distributor Sony Pictures from refusing to release the film unless Brooks removed Muslim from the title. (He wouldn't, and eventually the movie was sold to Warner Independent Pictures.). And it did little to quell Brooks' nerves when the film was invited to be the first Hollywood movie to have its world premiere at the nascent Dubai Film Festival.
"I was very scared to go there," says Brooks. "I mean, if it was Brokeback Mountain, it would have been a different story. But it's Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. First of all, there's really been no comedy out of America that even deals with this subject at all. Second of all, there've been almost no comedies anywhere that deal with this subject."
The film was a hit with festival audiences, however, and Brooks received a first-hand lesson in globalization in the process. "In Dubai, they have the largest shopping mall I've ever seen in my life," he says. "In this mall, they have a ski resort. It's a giant plastic bubble. You take chairs up. There are Arab children and big woolly coats. There's not just fake snow; they make it cold and windy. And you ski down these sizeable hills. Across from that is a Haagen Dazs, and then they have every store . . . you know, there are only about 300 stores that dominate the planet, and all of them are there. And in the windows are sexy women selling lingerie. You know, the same Victoria's Secret models. So you see these women in burkas going by, stopping for a moment, looking at the woman wearing nothing and going on to get some ice cream. And, in a weird way, I thought, 'You know maybe shopping will save this planet.'?"
* * *
"How'd you die?" a desperate comedy club performer asks of Brooks' newly dead Daniel Miller in an indelible exchange from Defending Your Life (1991), Brooks' hugely imaginative afterlife comedy (and one of his only films to culminate in a happy ending).
To which Miller replies, "On stage, like you."
It's a telling moment, for Brooks' father, the radio comedian Harry Einstein (a.k.a. Parkyakarkus), did die on stage, or rather on the dais, just after completing a bravura performance at a 1958 Friars Club roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But as the old saying goes, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," and from early in his career, Brooks revealed himself as a master practitioner of the comedy of self-humiliation, appearing under such guises as the world's worst ventriloquist, an impressionist whose every utterance sounds like Ed Sullivan and, in a storied 1970s appearance on The Tonight Show, declaring that he had completely run out of material before proceeding to smash eggs into his hair, rub cake on his face and squirt himself with seltzer water.
Audiences haven't always known what to make of him, and those who queue up for Brooks' latest will prove no exception. "I remember the first time I ever did this bit on television," Brooks recalls. "I was a mime who came out and talked a mile a minute. I did it on The Steve Allen Show and, I'm telling you, nobody in the audience laughed. And I said to my manager, 'It's them. It's not me. They just don't get it.' When I did it four years later on Johnny Carson, they went crazy for it."
Indeed, the peculiar brilliance of Albert Brooks—like that of the late Andy Kaufman and a handful of other comics who've dared to walk that fine line between entertaining and castigating their audiences—is that you're never quite sure whether what he's doing is supposed to be funny.
* * *
Here is a situation worthy of a character in an Albert Brooks movie: a child is born into a family called Einstein and is christened Albert by a comedian father who can't bring himself to pass up such a golden opportunity. That son grows up to follow in his father's footsteps, hailed as the most brilliant American comic since Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen, then segues into filmmaking with a series of inspired shorts made for the first season of Saturday Night Live. A career on the big screen follows, including an Oscar nomination as supporting actor for Broadcast News (1987). And yet, when all is said and done, this comic genius may be best known for giving voice to an animated fish in a movie that he neither wrote nor directed, but which was seen by more people than have seen all of his other movies combined.
"You know," Brooks says with a sigh, "I'm just doing the thing that I can do. If I knew how to change four sentences and guarantee myself $150 million, I'd do it. I have no control over the commerce part. And so therefore, over the years, I've stopped thinking about it.
"Back when I did Modern Romance, you could have as many preview screenings as you wanted—there was no Internet, they could all be private—and the studio executives came to like 11 of them and they sat in the back and they loved the movie. Then they previewed it in San Francisco and the audience hated the preview, and the studio [Columbia Pictures] treated me like I had secretly done something to the movie in the middle of the night. And I hadn't! So there were big fights and I remember Michael Ovitz, who was my agent at the time, calling me and being very compassionate. He was trying to smooth things out with the studio, and he said to me, 'I don't know why you always take the hard road.' And I said, 'You think I see two roads. But I don't.'"
In the 25 years since, Brooks has continued to take the road less traveled, no matter that it has become ever harder to do so. "When I was in my formative years of watching movies, in the 1960s and '70s, you would sit up all night talking about a movie and nobody ever talked about how much money it had made. Nobody gave a shit. Nobody knew. It was never a discussion. You talked for five hours whether you thought the scene in the bathroom was necessary. Or what did the running water mean? But nobody would say, 'Let me tell you something, nobody's going in Ohio.' Then the world changed."
But if all else fails, Brooks could always go back to standup.
"[Standup] gets me nervous, but I also like it if it goes well. So, never say never."
"The ideal thing," I say, "would be to do it by phone."
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"Boy, that could be great. Or what about, you know, over the Internet—just me at my desk, projected on a big screen in front of 2,000 people."
"Then you wouldn't have to leave the house."
"Now there's a career."
For Ella Taylor's review ofLooking for Comedy in the Muslim World, see New Releases in Film Calendar.