Looking for Laughs . . .

AS A FULL-TIME, professional standup comedian – and a practicing Muslim – I have been keeping a close eye on Albert Brooks’ new film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, since I first heard about it several months ago. Imagine my delight when I was invited to attend the Los Angeles premiere. It’s a good movie, with some definitely funny moments, a generally uninspiring plot, and what I felt was an abrupt ending. I would probably give it 2 to 3 stars. But as one of the few American Muslims in the Comedy World, I thought it fruitful to share some of my thoughts on the more poignant aspects of the film: what is important about it conceptually and why Brooks’ effort (hopefully) signals a positive step in the right direction.

First, the title says a lot. The U.S. State Department sends Brooks to India and Pakistan to investigate and write a 500page research report on what makes the Muslim people laugh. Besides the fictitious story in the film, Brooks actually decided to call the film itself “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.” The storyline and the title reveal a scries of implicit assumptions about Muslims: that they don’t laugh very much; they are not very funny; and 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 – albeit perhaps unintentional or unconscious – that Muslims are not really human, because if they were, such assumptions would be unacceptable.

I do not believe that Brooks has any ill intent. On the contrary, he has stated in a recent interview : “One of the things I’m trying to say is that all these countries look the same to the U.S. State Department. America has programmed us to think that everyone who looks or sounds different is the enemy.” In fact, I know Brooks has no anti-Muslim agenda because I met him at the L. A. premiere and spoke to him candidly about my thoughts on the film. He genuinely appreciated my feedback and even thanked me for the quote I provided The New York Times, which stated, “The notion that a Muslim authence wouldn’t have the vaguest notion of what stand-up comedy or improvisation was is utterly false.” Thus, Brooks has actually courageously acknowledged that Muslims are dehumanized by our government to such a degree that the first step toward combating this ignorance is humanizing “the Other.” Brooks’ field happens to be humor; hence, he seeks to humanize Muslims by discovering what makes them laugh.

On another level, however, Brooks’ title probes a more fundamentally important question: What happened to Muslim art? The very notion that we must go out searching “for comedy in the Muslim world” indicates that it is not readily apparent or accessible in our times. Muslim art in the contemporary world has all but vanished, certainly relative to its historical legacy. Muslims today are seen as artistically straight-jacketed by their religion, aesthetically dead, culturally backward. Yet, these are the same people who once gave the world some of its everlasting artistic gems: the Taj Mahal (featured in the film, incidentally); the Alhambra Palace of Granada, Spain; the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, Turkey; the intoxicating poetry of divine love of the Whirling Dervish Rumi (the bestselling spiritual poet in America); the shadow puppet theatre and gamelan orchestra of the Southeast Asian Sufi saints; the list can go on indefinitely. Thus, the contemporary phenomenon of Muslim resistance to artistic expression is a real problem indeed. However, it is my contention that such resistance actually betrays Islam’s rich history of artistic expression, cultural relevance, and, indeed even the comedie arts.

Many Muslims – let alone non-Muslims – are unaware that the Prophet Muhammad (may God bless him and keep him) was noted for his rather jovial disposition. The most rigorously authenticated texts of Islam – besides the Qur’an itself – which compile the statements and actions of the Prophet include chapters with titles such as “The Book on The Laughter of the Prophet,” and perhaps even more interestingly, “The Book on the Joking of the Prophet.” History records one of his favorite companions, a man named Nu’ayman ibn ‘Amr, as “the Jester of the Prophet,” because he was known far and wide for his practical jokes, gags, and physical comedy and well-known for providing comic relief to the Prophet. This humor tradition, contrary to popular belief, is actually still alive and well in the Muslim world.

For all his searching in the film, Albert Brooks does not seem to find out what makes Muslims laugh. And perhaps therein lies the answer – sometimes the answer to an absurd question is simply to recognize the absurdity of the question. I believe this is the takeaway that Brooks intended, and given his penchant for absurdist and alternative comedy, I wonder if he even realized it himself.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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