"After 9/11, all I did was sit around and be scared," Albert Brooks told me recently. "After a year and a half," Brooks now says, "I just got tired of it."
He wondered, "Why isn't this being processed? Do we never mention it?" Looking at what Hollywood was releasing to the public, he concluded that "most of the [current] movies take place in the past -- or are teenage sex comedies."
Brooks decided to do something about it. His response, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," which opened in Los Angeles on Jan. 20, imagines that a U.S. government commission contacts Albert Brooks (not their first choice, but he's available) to travel to India and Pakistan to better understand the Muslim mind. They've tried bombing and spying, argues lawyer-actor, senator-actor Fred Dalton Thompson who's leading the commission, why not explore comedy?
The movie opens with Brooks auditioning for Penny Marshall for the lead role in a remake of "Harvey." The scene is played perfectly and succinctly illustrates the humiliation that attends working in Hollywood.
So when offered the chance to do "important" work -- and possibly earn the Medal of Freedom -- he signs on.
When Brooks goes to India, he is at first flummoxed by the challenge of how to find out what people think is funny there. Apparently, there are no comedy clubs in New Delhi, so he decides to stage a comedy concert.
Of course, as Brooks pointed out in our conversation, if the U.S. government actually wanted to find out about humor on the Indian subcontinent, it would never send a comic. And as I pointed out to Brooks, if a comic wanted to find out what Indians thought was funny, he might show them a whole range of classic comedy, say a smidgen of Chaplin, some Keaton, maybe a soupcon of Lucy and a smattering of the Three Stooges, some Richard Pryor, some Seinfeld, some Chris Rock -- rather than performing a revue of some of his own greatest hits -- which is exactly what Brooks does.
And that, folks, is part of the joke. Brooks has always mined comedy that operates at several levels, including deconstructing comedy itself.
Brooks, nee Einstein (yes, that's a fact) is the son of actress-singer Thelma Leeds and Harry Einstein. Einstein was a comedian who performed as Parkyakarkus on the Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor radio shows. He died on stage, literally, after completing a performance at the Friar's Club when Albert was 11 -- an event that shaped Brooks' worrying persona, and his comic one as well.
Brooks was famously funny even at Beverly Hills High. After graduating, he pursued acting but found success performing comedy.
Brooks appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and the "Tonight Show" doing wild cerebral bits, ventriloquists who spoke more than their dummies, mimes who described their every gesture, animal tricks lacking the right animal. Brooks never tried out these bits -- as legend has it and as he confirmed in our conversation -- he just went on stage and performed them.
During the first season of "Saturday Night Live," he made several short films that became comedy classics. A few years later, he began making his own feature films.
In the 1979 "Real Life," he played "Albert Brooks," who decides to make a documentary about an American family (like the Louds on PBS) and who is so bored by them he interferes to create a "better" show -- presaging all that has followed in so-called reality TV.
In "Modern Romance"(1981), Brooks dissected a breakup; in "Lost in America"(1985), he took apart a couple who decide to ditch life in Los Angeles to discover America and themselves; in "Defending Your life" (1991), he tackled the afterlife; in "Mother"(1996), his character decides that he can't have a successful relationship until he resolves his relationship with his mother (played by Debbie Reynolds), and in "The Muse" (1999), he explored creativity and the writer's life.
Now, with his latest film, "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," Brooks has decided to deconstruct Albert Brooks himself. The conceit of the film is that Brooks' ego as a comedian is such that he is seduced by the thought he might contribute to world peace; that even though he is most well known as someone who voiced a fish in an animated movie, when he puts on a show, it is of all his own material.
And when he bombs, he doesn't accept it as a failure -- just a matter of the show having been scheduled for too early a crowd. His vindication comes when he crosses into Pakistan and performs for a group of would-be stand-up comics who find his work hilarious, perhaps because it's funny, perhaps because they've all been smoking hashish. In the end, there is no medal, and he has nearly caused an international incident, but he is hailed by his friends and family as "our hero."
At the same time, we, as an audience, get to see Brooks do his ventriloquist routine and his improv routine --bits he has not performed in decades.
It is as if Brooks is saying: "This is who I am; this is what I do," and that, despite the ways in which the world, and Hollywood in particular, belittles the sort of comedy Brooks is interested in, he has to go on doing it. It's important.
It is also about Brook's own existential search for meaning -- to prove that after Sept. 11, what he does matters.
When I told Brooks this, he said: "Yes."
I prodded him to elaborate.
"There's no movie that's going to change the world," Brooks acknowledged.
However, Brooks maintains that "laughter is one of the best lubricants." To Brooks, laughter is healing; laughter is survival.
"It's not just car exhaust," Brooks told me. "You're adding things to the atmosphere. It goes somewhere."
I told him that I thought "Looking for Comedy" was his personal "Sullivan's Travels," a classic Preston Sturges film about a director who discovers the value of comedy films.
"OK," Brooks responded.
Frankly, I was hoping for a more expansive answer -- something about the existential dilemma we all face that can be all the more acute when confronting life in Hollywood -- and the importance of finding satisfaction in what we do. But, "OK" will do.
Or as Brooks put it more simply: "Comedy matters."
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.