"Do you have a Holocaust joke?"
That was director Ferne Pearlstein's first, ice-breaking question when she sat down to interview comedians for "The Last Laugh," her documentary about taboos and comedy, particularly in regard to the Holocaust.
Gilbert Gottfried, master of the over-the-top punchline, didn't miss a beat.
"There was a Holocaust?!" he replied. "Nobody told me!"
"The Last Laugh," which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, pokes and prods at the question of "Where's the line?" in comedy, teasing out comedy's cathartic, healing role in even the worst tragedies. It's a debate with many differing perspectives, even in the comedy community where stand-ups are often taken to task for "going too far" or "too soon."
Pearlstein's film doesn't only examine the issue from those with a microphone, but through Holocaust survivors who add a deeper dimension to the film: humor as a necessary survival tool. Some, like 91-year-old Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone, frankly confess that among themselves, survivors, too, tell jokes about life in the camps.
"Humor kept me going after the Holocaust," Firestone said in an interview alongside Pearlstein and her co-writer and husband Robert Edwards. "Without humor I don't think I would have lived this long."
By seeking humor in the darkest dark, "The Last Laugh" gets at the intrinsic nature of comedy.
"Comedy puts light onto darkness, and darkness can't live where there's light," Sarah Silverman says in the documentary. "So that's why it's important to talk about things that are taboo because otherwise they just stay in this dark place and they become dangerous."
But there is discord even within many of the comics in the film. (Among them are Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Larry Charles and Susie Essman.) Brooks, creator of the Hitler-skewering "The Producers," acknowledges he can do Nazi jokes, but not Holocaust jokes. When he reflects on Silverman's introduction of him for a 2014 AFI lifetime award, he cringes at her joke: "What do the Jews hate most about the Holocaust? The cost."
"The film doesn't answer the question," says Pearlstein of what's off-limits. "We wanted to provoke discussion."
One thing everyone — comedians and survivors alike — seem to agree on: Roberto Benigni's 1997 Holocaust tragicomedy "Life Is Beautiful" is sentimental, implausible claptrap. Brooks calls it "the worst movie ever made."
Famously never released was Jerry Lewis' "The Day the Clown Cried," made in 1972, in which Lewis plays a German clown forced to entertain children before they were sent to the gas chambers. (Lewis has sworn no one will ever see it.)
For Pearlstein, a veteran filmmaker whose previous films include the 2003 Japanese wrestling documentary "Sumo East and West," it's a complex chemistry that goes into determining whether a joke is offensive or not: Who's telling it? When was it said? Was it funny or not?
"I don't have a philosophy about it," Carl Reiner says in the film. "I just know that it's much more fun to laugh than not to laugh."
In some scenes in the film, Pearlstein documented survivors watching YouTube clips from the likes of Larry David and Ricky Gervais. "Watching Renee's face during these jokes, it was not the same," said Pearlstein. "I was hearing them differently. It hit me differently."
The line may be ever-shifting, impossible to pinpoint and necessary for comedy to flirt with. But what's most important to both Pearlstein and Firestone, is not to censor discussion.
"I feel very strongly that in order to move beyond these horrible events, everybody has to know about everybody's pain," says Pearlstein.
Firestone, who travels tirelessly to speak about genocide as a threat to all people, vividly recalls the absurdity of Auschwitz. One doctor examined her and advised her to have her tonsils removed should she survive.
"Our treatment was so ridiculous that you either had to cry or laugh about it," says Firestone. "Wherever there are survivors, any kind of survivor, they must have some humor."