Medill News Service: "Looking for Comedy" may not have found any, Muslims say

We have a new tactic in the struggle to understand Muslim World — laughter, a U.S. State Department representative tells comedian Albert Brooks in the movie “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” which opens in Chicago this Friday.

To understand someone, you need to know what makes them laugh. That’s the premise of Brooks’ parody documentary.

The U.S. asks Brooks to go to India and Pakistan and find out what makes Muslims laugh. If he comes back with a 500-page report, he will get the Medal of Freedom.

When Brooks gets to India, he starts research by randomly asking people on the street, “What makes you laugh?”

Unfortunately, not everyone is amused.

Ahmed Rehab, director of communications at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, said, “I find the topic and the premise of the movie a bit condescending.”

Ray Hanania, Palestinian-American stand-up comedian and journalist living in the Chicago area, said that, although he hasn’t seen the movie yet, his problem with it is the location. There are already confusions between Arabs and Muslims — Americans do not understand that there are Muslims in every country, he said. “Why not go to Cancun? There are Muslims in Cancun too.” He said the movie seems to want to understand the people who are angry at the U.S., but won’t accomplish that in India and Pakistan.

“India is not an axis of evil in the eyes of the U.S. … [Brooks] is looking at the wrong ‘they’. He really should have gone to the Arab world. If you look for humor [there], you might find out they don’t really hate us,” Hanania said.

British comedian Shazia Mirza, who is Muslim, says that the idea of finding what makes Muslims laugh “is a bit of a generalization to make…it means nothing really.

A lot of [Muslims] don’t come and watch comedy. Not really their thing… Some cultures are interested in music and not sports,” said Mirza, who is touted by promoters as the only devout female Muslim comedian in the world.

She said she does not change her act, a provocative take on being Muslim, for different religions and audiences.

Mirza has performed in various locations around the world, ranging from the U.S. to Dubai — and she said there were not many comedy clubs in that city.” They specifically had comedians come from England.” She thought her Dubai audience really enjoyed her act, as it was “a bit of a! novelty” for them.

In the movie, Brooks is surprised to find that there are no stand-up comedy clubs in New Delhi and he decides to put on his own show for research. He gives out flyers, does his jokes and sees who laughs.

“I saw the trailer,” Rehab said. “Trailers are designed to haul you in but this one didn’t make me laugh or crack a smile. I won’t see the movie for the reason that it seemed not funny.”

The movie at face value reinforces the misconception that Muslims are a monolith — that they laugh for the same reason, cry for the same reason, Rehab said, adding that with 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, “You can’t generalize.”

Hanania said, “I love all [Brooks’] movies. They are always funny. Is [this movie] going to do any good? Absolutely not. He should have taken on a real challenge.”

“I understand that it is supposed to be a comedy. But with a community [Muslim-Americans] that is so misunderstood, we can’t afford to have questions asked in this manner,” Rehab says. “If we [Americans] were comfortable with the community, that would be different.”

Copyright © 2006, Medill News Services