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Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert Brooks (2005)

I admire and enjoy post-comedy comedians like Larry David, Gary Shandling, and Sarah Silverman, each of whom in their own twisted ways seek to implode the ancient setup/punchline paradigm. But I would submit that Albert Brooks, alone among comics, has dared to take comedy all the way through the tradition, on through the anti-tradition, and into the ultimate comic space: unfunniness.

This is, on its face, an awful movie. Stupid setups, lame jokes, draggy pace, contrived situations. But there is, I think, a kind of transcendent genius in it. Brooks plays a comedian named Albert Brooks, a half-talented Hollywood comic with a stalled career who happens to have starred in all the same films that Albert Brooks has starred in. The State Department phones to let him know that he’s their last choice (all the people they wanted for the job were too busy to do it) for a project to find out what Muslims think is funny. (Fred Thompson, an actor playing a politician who became an actor playing a politician and now wants to be a politician again, is chairing the project, which is a nice addition to the irreal feeling of the movie.) Brooks is daunted but too vain to say no, and flies off to India to try to make Muslims laugh. The movie’s premise is itself a solid metaphor for Brooks’ comic style: it seems a little stupid but a little smart, a little serious and a little funny, a little misguided and a little insightful. The scene where Brooks puts on a one-man showcase of comedy styles for a New Delhi audience as a sort of humor allergy test–he wants to see what kinds of jokes get a reaction–is sublimely strange.

Like just about everything I’ve seen Brooks do, this movie struck me as both tedious and insanely clever. Such a strange dude.

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