“My experience as a victim led me to believe I could say almost anything on the subject, no matter how outrageous,” wrote Milo Yiannopoulous in his apology statement after losing a book deal as a result of a joke he made about pedophilia last year. But it is not a line that would be out of place in Ferne Pearlstein’s long-gestating project The Last Laugh, a movie partially interested in Jewish comedians making jokes about the Holocaust. In the hands of Yiannopolous and his ilk, “free speech” and “politically correct” have become words charged with the kind of subtext around which trench lines are formed. Trolls abound. One does not simply say they believe in the First Amendment anymore.
But unlike Yiannopolous, Pearlstein’s interest is in essayistic inquiry: The Last Laugh, taking its title from a quote by Heinrich Mann (elder brother of novelist Thomas Mann) betrays a genuine interest in the boundaries of offensive language and their policers then its talking head-littered trailer would have you believe. To Pearlstein’s retroactive credit, one of those heads, the comedian Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm), provides Pearlstein a line of sorts when Essman tells her, “There is nothing about child molestation or rape that I find funny.” Pearlstein follows this with a clip from a child molestation joke delivered by the comedian Louis C.K. on Saturday Night Live.
Uncommented upon, the joke is a reductive rejoinder to Essman’s comment: child molestation can be funny because a live audience laughs uproariously. But that isn’t quite true: a headline from The Hollywood Reporter reads, “Louis C.K.’s ‘SNL’ Monologue About Child Molestation Leads to Uproar.” But unlike Yiannopolous, Louis C.K. is still very much employed. Proving Pearlstein correct? Incorrect? Read this way, leaning heavily on its star power, The Last Laugh’s arguments feel convoluted and tautological. Beyond Essman, a parade of even more recognizable talking heads like Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and the nails-on-a-chalkboard personality of Gilbert Gottfried give court on the subject. Because Mel Brooks has made millions off his arid wit, when he holds a comb to his lips, it is therefore funny?
The effect, over two hours, can be numbing and not unlike Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza’s The Aristocrats, an award-winning but unwatchable parade of familiar comedians, Silverman and Gottfried among them, repeating various iterations of the movie’s titular dirty joke. In an interview last year, Pearlstein admitted the movie’s popularity served as an impetus for this project. But unlike Jillette and Provenza, Pearlstein is actually interested in the relationship between the comics and the offended, between the survivors and the event they survived. When it floats away from its star talent, The Last Laugh becomes a viciously humane work, on a journey as vigorous as any contemplated by D.A. Pennebaker and his sort.
Pearlstein’s talking heads intercut fundamentally more interesting stories. In one, a wandering and anecdotal narrative is helmed by Renee Firestone, a 90-year old Holocaust survivor who riffs on her experiences during the war in a variety of locations that Pearlstein films in quietly gorgeous cinema verite. Firestone visits a Holocaust survivors convention in Las Vegas, later she takes a ride on a gondola at the Venetian. There, she chats with Elly Gold, a grumpier survivor who, earlier, tells Pearlstein she doesn’t think there is any comedy to be found in concentration camps. Pearlstein explores this debate through a pleasantly staged metaphor, the pair listening to a casino employee sing a lushly rendered Italian song:
Gold: I liked the song but I could not enjoy it.
Firestone: Why not?
Gold: Because I remember so many youngsters who were perished and who can’t enjoy this beautiful place.
Firestone: But you survived. You’re alive. How can you not have pleasure out of the fact that you survived?
It’s a charmingly Beckettian argument (by way of Love and Death-era Woody Allen) and Pearlstein never quite resolves it. Elsewhere, we find Robert Clary, a survivor of Buchenwald who later starred in the Nazi prison camp comedy series Hogan’s Heroes, proving to be the documentary’s most interesting movie star. Pearlstein pairs him with Firestone for an afternoon, and he tells us about some of his first acting experiences, in the cabarets set up in concentration camps to entertain SS guards. “Even when they made us walk in the middle of the night, we laughed,” he says, neatly evoking the liberal humanist iconography that Pearlstein is interested in.
Both Brooks and his movie The Producers feature prominently, and Pearlstein’s lavish, vicarious, praise for the movie, along with Hogan’s Heroes, is propped up as an argument for humor existent on the subject of the Third Reich. Jeff Ross, known to many as the host of Comedy Central Roasts, says something along the lines of revenge exercised through best-selling humor. (I would have liked to see some talk of the big flops of Nazi humor, such as the 1990 BBC sitcom Heil Honey I’m Home!, which was canceled after a single episode.) More interesting is when Pearlstein has Firestone’s daughter play her mother YouTube videos of stand-up comedians making Nazi or Holocaust jokes. Firestone doesn’t find them amusing. Ditto Abraham Foxman, a director of the Anti-Defamation League who calls a Holocaust joke that Joan Rivers makes nonsense and, later, vigorously defends Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. Funny stuff.
But where does the logic of The Last Laugh fit in with today’s discourse, where every alt-right troll believes they are providing valuable social commentary in each LMAO flamewar? The assertion that, say, Yiannopolous would be tasteful if only his material were better is philosophically untenable at best. Something about his work strikes us as insincere and cruel in a way that Brooks and Silverman (to some, at least) do not. Unable to address a dichotomy that it is not aware of, Pearlstein drifts vaguely into the outmoded narratives of George Carlin’s pre-internet world, needlessly obsessed with shattering taboos. Even Pearlstein can’t help herself from excerpting Carlin’s tedious “seven dirty words”NN routine. But it’s old news: Bill Maher, who thankfully doesn’t appear, remains one of Carlin’s few representatives still on the air, and he hasn’t cut a decent joke since 2006.
Strangely enough — or not — it’s Brooks who provides the riposte Pearlstein’s argument needs when she asks him to make a direct joke about the Holocaust: “I, personally, cannot go there,” he says with some struggle, surprisingly human for a multi-millionaire. It’s conservative, sure, and untenable for anyone trying to make a living in media today. We have to hate Yiannopolous, we have bills to pay. But it would be nice if we didn’t have to.