"After Sept. 11, I sat in my house for a year and was scared. All that was happening in the first year was, 'The next one's coming tomorrow. Maybe this weekend. Maybe on Monday,'" he said at a recent roundtable interview with reporters. "One day, I thought, 'This is insane. What is our life like? We're going to hide until we're killed.'"
Like many people, Brooks responded to his fears with a decision to return to the routines of everyday life--though normalcy for him is not what it is for most of us.
"Normalcy, in my mind, is to deal with it in a motion-picture comedy," he says. "That's what normalcy is."
The result of that supposed return to normalcy--"Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World"-- is anything but conventional. In it, Brooks plays a comedian named Albert Brooks, who is sent on a mission by the U.S. government: In an effort to better understand the Muslim world, he is to travel to India and Pakistan to discover what makes Muslims laugh.
Shot on location in India, the country and its people play a central role in the film--though Brooks fails miserably at the task he was sent to do. He spends most of the time asking strangers straight out, "What makes you laugh?" or telling jokes and wondering why no one got them.
Though Brooks may say he made "Looking for Comedy" just as a means of emerging from the post-terrorist-attack doldrums, he also acknowledges that he had a more serious intention as well.
"One way to deal with it is not to even talk about a world after 2001," he says, referring to Sept. 11. "I just want to find a way to just get in this door, just to be able to stand up and say, 'I'm acknowledging the new world here, and maybe we can get a few laughs for 98 minutes and then we'll go on.'"
Despite his intentions, fears about the film's potential to generate controversy almost lead to its demise. Sony had been set to distribute the film, but the studio asked him to remove the world "Muslim" from the title in the wake of last year's controversy over a Newsweek story, later retracted, about Americans abusing the Koran at the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects. When Brooks refused, Sony pulled out, but Warner Brothers Independent later picked up the film.
But the film's premise raised eyebrows among more than just studio executives. When first presented with the possibility of auditioning for "Looking for Comedy," Sheetal Sheth--a young American actress from an Indian family--feared the worst, though she was quickly won over by Brooks and ended up with the most prominent role in the film aside from Brooks's.
"I was like, 'Ugh, someone's doing a movie about India,' and I was all nervous and protective," Sheth says. "And then I met him, and honestly was so struck about how specific he was about staying authentic and real, because he asked me so many questions that were so specific and so nice, and I said I want to be part of this because he's going to do it with the respect and dignity it needs to be done with."
Sheth sees no reason for people to worry that the film will be offensive or controversial.
"It puts everybody in such a nice light, and is so intelligent," she says. "If anything, it makes fun of Americans, I think."