Director Ferne Pearlstein does something very clever at the opening of her latest documentary, a look at the ever-shifting line separating good taste from bad in comedy. The film deals overwhelmingly with the ultimate taboo subject — the Holocaust. A succession of talking heads weighs in: Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Sarah Silverman and, of course, Mel Brooks. Then, suddenly, we're in the kitchen of Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone, and she kills.
The 91-year-old recounts an occasion when prisoners received "checkups" from Josef Mengele. When her turn came, Firestone recalls, she was told that, should she survive, she should have her tonsils removed. "So I'm thinking, Is he insane? Tomorrow I may die. I'm worried about my tonsils? It was funny."
The scene nicely captures the thesis of The Last Laugh, which will screen at the Vermont International Film Festival this weekend. The film demonstrates that humor is uniquely human, yet ultimately beyond human comprehension. All of the picture's interviewees agree that a joke about a tragedy better be a really funny one. But who decides what's really funny? Brooks goes batshit discussing Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, calling it "the worst movie ever made." Cut to Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League declaring it "absolutely brilliant."
Who'd have guessed humor and the Holocaust would make such a great Hollywood couple? But Pearlstein (Sumo East and West) examines the relationship from so many perspectives and with such perceptiveness that they prove fascinating costars. The documentarian reveals, for example, that concentration camp prisoners were permitted to put on cabarets, and presents captured Nazi footage of several. Initially, we learn, audiences consisted entirely of inmates, but eventually SS members began to attend. "All I can deduct," says survivor (and "Hogan's Heroes" cast member) Robert Clary, "is they had such a terrible life hitting us and killing us, they wanted to be entertained, too!"
Brooks is the perfect choice to play éminence grise here. In the movie's first half, the comic icon credits himself with pushing the envelope in 1967's The Producers, which famously featured the fictional musical Springtime for Hitler. Brooks' own daring provides an effective counterpoint to his comments on other comedians in the second half.
Both Joan Rivers and Sarah Silverman come under scrutiny. Alluding to Heidi Klum on "Fashion Police" in 2014, Rivers joked, "The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens." Brooks judges the remark "in terrible taste." But when it comes to Silverman's "What do Jews hate most about the Holocaust? The cost!" he allows, "Maybe the time has come for that joke."
You've probably heard the axiom "Tragedy plus time equals comedy." Pearlstein mines it to illuminating effect. As actor Harry Shearer points out, "When The Producers was a movie, it was daring. If it had been Springtime for Saddam Hussein when it appeared on Broadway [in 2001], it would've had the original kick." The issue takes on charged significance when the subject matter becomes current.
"Nine-eleven — not funny," states comic Judy Gold in the film. Yet, 13 years after the attacks, Chris Rock made comedy out of the tragedy. Hosting "Saturday Night Live" in 2014, he questioned the decision to build the Freedom Tower in the same spot where the original Towers stood. "They should change the name of the Freedom Tower," he quipped, "to the Never-Going-in-There Tower. Does this building duck?"
Will some future comic do a bit on ISIS? The movie doesn't explicitly raise the question, but its wide-ranging meditation on the meaning and functions of humor will leave you with a deepened appreciation for comedy's power and possibilities. It's the finest film study I've seen on the business of being funny. And that's no joke.
The Last Laugh will screen on Sunday, October 23, 3:45 p.m., at Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington. Visit vtiff.org for info.