Press Round Table for Albert Brooks and Sheetal Sheth
Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
January 10, 2006
Written and Photographed by Wendy R. Williams
Photo Couresy of Warner Indepent Pictures
Looking for Comedy in the
Muslim World is a hysterically-funny-deadpan-film
based on the premise that after 9/11 the United
States government decided to commission the hysterically-funny-deadpan-comedian
Albert Brooks to travel to India to write a five
hundred page report about what makes Muslims laugh.
Here is a plot description (this film is definitely
not a documentary) from the film’s press release:
"Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World
is the hilarious story of what happens when the
U.S. Government sends comedian Albert Brooks to
and Pakistan to find out what makes the over 300
million Muslims in the region laugh. Brooks, accompanied
by two state department handlers and his trusted
assistant, goes on a journey that takes him from
a concert stage in New Delhi, to the Taj Mahal,
to a secret location in the mountains of Pakistan.
Written and directed by Albert Brooks, Looking
for Comedy in the Muslim World is a funny and
insightful look at some of the issues we are dealing
with in a post-9/11 world."
For more information on the film itself, see my
review in the New York Cool film section: http://www.newyorkcool.com/archives/2006/January/film_1.html#muslim
On January 10, 2006, I went to New York’s
Drake Hotel for a press roundtable with Albert Brooks
(the screenwriter, director and star of Looking
for Comedy in the Muslim World) and Sheetal
Sheth, the actress who plays Brooks’ beautiful
and loyal assistant Maya.
with Albert Brooks
Question: Please talk about why
Sony Pictures dropped the distribution of Looking
for Comedy in a Muslim World.
Albert Brooks: Well, we wasted five months. The film was being financed by Steve Bing and we went together to a meeting with the Sony executives about the film. One of them said, “I guess we are going to have to put in extra phone lines to take those calls.” It was just one remark, but I was very worried. Steve kept saying we should not worry, but I was worried. And sure enough they did drop the distribution a few months later. They said that the climate had changed with the claims about the Koran being abused in Guantanamo Bay. They wanted me to change the title to simply Looking for Comedy. They kept saying, “Times have changed,” but the times are always changing. You should have seen the Sony trailers; it was like Bill and Ted Go To India. Movies are just part of the Sony business and I am not Peter Jackson. But if Sony had not dropped the film and our new January release date had not been delayed until January, I would not have had the premier in Dubai. See this article about the Dubai premiere: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060108/ap_en_ce/albert_brooks_4.
Warner Pictures is a smaller company than Sony and they have fewer employees so launching a film creates “landing pattern issues.” It is like when you are above JFK and they tell you that you have to go back to Ohio and start over again.
Questions: Would you talk about your decision to make this film.
Albert Brooks: After September 11th there was the Anthrax scare and then on all the holidays we were warned that we were on high alert. Other wars have their conclusion; this one will be around as long as we are. There was a real need to get back to normalcy and dealing with something in a comedy is normalcy. All the top movies of 2005 are all set in the past except for teenage sex comedies, which have never dealt with the real world.
Question: Would you talk about your comedic style?
Albert Brooks: Greg Garrison of the Dean Martin show once told me, “you are here (holds up hand) and the audience is there (lowers hand).”
Question: Would you ever do stand up again?
Albert Brooks: Woody Allen does not do press roundtables. He just finishes a film and goes right back to writing. I have to publicize my films and raise the money. As for the stand up in the movie, my act is much better than that. We filmed that scene over two days with sixty different shots. I am the director, so I had to tell them not to laugh. But you turn up the heat and keep them for five hours with out a break and they certainly won’t laugh. (He did not answer the question about stand up but I suspect the answer is no.)
Question: Why India?
Albert Brooks: Well, there is no Saudi Arabia Film Commission and the President of Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map (Brooks is Jewish). Morocco is too touristy and Egypt is too filled with people from Florida.
Question: Please talk about dealing with the Indian government.
Albert Brooks: I was hesitant to tell them about the part of the film where I almost start a war with Pakistan, but they did not mind. They are used to it. Bollywood deals with (the situation with) Pakistan.
Question: What about working with Fred Thompson?
Albert Brooks: He was a little hesitant. He said, “You’re not going to pull a Michael Moore, are you?”
Question: Do you think this film will make a difference?
Albert Brooks: If I can make people laugh about a situation, maybe it will bring them together. It certainly cannot hurt.
with Sheetal Sheth
Sheetal plays Albert Brooks’ loyal Indian assistant, Maya. She was the perfect foil for Mr. Brook’s deadpan humor, remaining constantly upbeat about the possibility that they would actually be able to produce a five hundred page report on what makes Muslims laugh. Sheetal was raised in the United States and is a graduate of New York University, but she told us that she has traveled to Indian a lot with her family.
Question: What was it like working with Albert Brooks?
Sheetal Sheth: Albert does not let anyone read the script beforehand. The sides I used in the audition were not even from the script. He just wrote up something for me to use to audition. (As he came closer to the decision to give me the part) he acted the entire movie out for me. I had to sign a confidentiality agreement before I actually did read from the script.
He definitely has a script but he also works in the moment. Albert is very adamant about sticking to the script.
Albert was very specific about my character should be played, even down to how long my fingernails should be. There is a very British influence in India. (For instance) you would not touch your employer. There is a richness of tradition in India and I feel very protective of its culture.
Question: What concerns did you have about the character?
Sheetal Sheth: (Since I am Indian) I wanted her to be authentic – to be smart and love to learn. I really love the fact that the relationship between Maya and Albert is old fashioned. They have a poignant fondness for each other.
Question: What was it like to film in downtown New Delhi?
Sheetal Sheth: It took a lot of takes. You cannot close off the streets like you can in LA. There were so many people standing around. (For that reason) most Bollywood movies are dubbed, but we could not do that. Albert likes to do three minute takes which were very difficult because we could not control the crowd. So we took many takes.
Question: Do you have a favorite joke?
Sheetal Sheth: No, but I should probably get one.
Question: What about the decision to film in India, a country that is 75% Hindu.
Sheetal Sheth: No Saudi Arabian type country would allow us to film. That is actually part of the joke that the State Department sent Albert to India.
Question: What is it like to audition as an Indian actress?
Sheetal Sheth: I get comments
like, “You’re not ethic,” meaning
that ethnic means black. When I first met with my
manager, he asked me, “Which of your names
are you going to change?” (Sheetal did say
that she is very lucky and she continues to work.)
Question: What about
the controversy about the title? Sony Pictures passed
on releasing it (because of the controversy) and
the film was then released by Warner Independent
Sheetal Sheth: (People think that) you can’t say Muslim in a title and that you cannot put the word comedy next to Muslim. (But it is a misconception) if anything this film makes fun of Americans, not Muslims.
Many thanks to Albert Brooks and Sheetal Sheth for talking to www.newyorkcool.com.