Director Ferne Pearlstein with Mel Brooks. (photo from Tangerine Entertainment)
Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours marked the first time that many people heard the philosophical proposition, expressed by Alan Alda’s character, that “comedy is tragedy plus time.”
I’ve always cited “the Woodman” as the source of the insight, probably because it’s consistent with a Jewish worldview. In fact, another Allen, the late, great comedian, composer and TV host Steve Allen, described the phenomenon in a 1957 magazine interview. Maybe he picked it up from somebody else; in any event, this is what he had to say: “When I explained to a friend recently that the subject matter of most comedy is tragic (drunkenness, overweight, financial problems, accidents, etc.), he said, ‘Do you mean to tell me that the dreadful events of the day are a fit subject for humorous comment?’ The answer is ‘No, but they will be pretty soon.’”
Ferne Pearlstein’s wonderfully entertaining and provocative documentary The Last Laugh asks a gaggle of comedians, as well as the viewer, if there might be one subject that defies Allen’s thesis. Seventy years on, is the Holocaust still off limits for purveyors of punchlines? Are there subjects that cannot and should not be the subject of jokes? Or are some of the functions of humour – healing, confronting uncomfortable truths from oblique angles, challenging stereotypes – applicable even in the case of targeted genocide? Finally, as the great wit Hillel famously asked his students at a late-night yeshivah improv set, “If not now, when?”
Pearlstein puts the question to a group of sharp Jewish humourists, interspersing their incisive comments with a parade of clips from films and TV shows that comprise a kind of Rorschach test for the viewer. The expert witnesses include Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried and Larry Charles, who grapple with the topic with both hilarious and discomfiting results. As you’d imagine, given their ethnic backgrounds and line of work, they’ve given the matter considerable thought over the years.
Mel Brooks, who displayed unimaginable chutzpah and courage in conceiving and producing The Producers 50 years ago, cites Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant The Great Dictator to illustrate the power of mockery and ridicule to cut the Nazis down to size. Another interviewee provides a reminder that humour played an important role in the camps, providing a brief escape from bleak reality and a way of maintaining one’s humanity and dignity.
But it’s another matter altogether to mine the camps or victims for laughs. (Here’s where the late Joan Rivers makes an appearance with a jaw-dropping one-liner from some archived late-night show.)
Of course, one of the jobs of comedians is to step over the line, in order to impel us to consider where the line is. (Come on down, Sarah Silverman.) And, given the prominence of the Holocaust in shaping the identity of at least two generations of American Jews, it is a taboo that needs to be examined.
Too soon (to use the catchphrase du jour)? About time, I’d say.
Pearlstein implicitly acknowledges two important caveats, however. The reality of the Holocaust can’t be ignored or subsumed in a theoretical discussion of contemporary attitudes, and those who endured the camps should be allowed to comment on what’s funny.
Stalwart survivor Renee Firestone acts as a thread and guidepost throughout The Last Laugh, reminding us of the deadly toll of the Holocaust as well as the determination and, yes, good humour required to create a satisfying life after the darkness of Europe.
Firestone inspires us to consider the highest and best use of memory and, in the context of the film, to see humour as a constructive way of remembering and revisiting tragedy that instils strength. Over and over, The Last Laugh eschews glib analysis in pursuit of deeper truths. And those are always the best punchlines.
The Last Laugh airs on PBS April 24 (check local listings).
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.