At times haphazard but always involving, "The Last Laugh" confronts a question that sounds anachronistic in today's anything-goes world: Are there any taboos remaining in humor, areas where making jokes is simply beyond the pale?
Though documentarian Ferne Pearlstein (who photographed and edited as well as directed) deals briefly with potentially forbidden areas like 9/11 and even child molestation (the subject of a Louis CK routine), most of the film focuses on jokes about Hitler and the Holocaust, a subject that elicits as many opinions — and jokes — as there are interview subjects.
Those speaking up include Larry Charles — involved in everything from "Seinfeld" to the features of Sacha Baron Cohen — and Israeli novelist Etgar Keret, the son a Holocaust survivor, who notes that "humor is the weapon of the weak."
One of the most involving voices in the film turns out to be Mel Brooks, whose vision of "Hitler on Ice" from "History of the World, Part I" opens the film.
Though Brooks can be antic — he drops quickly into a Hitler imitation and then notes he could do Stalin, "but [Hiitler] is the guy who made me money, so I stay with him" — he also has some thoughtful things to say about why he can do Hitler jokes but not ones about the Holocaust.
Rob Reiner agrees. "Survival can be funny,” he says, “but the Holocaust itself is not funny."
In one of the film's funnier bits, Reiner and Gilbert Gottfried alternate lines in a joke about what happens when two Jews are sent to assassinate Hitler.
Most comics feel that the passage of time makes even the most tragic events, like the Spanish Inquisition, a Brooks target, acceptable for comedy.
Brooks relates that he had originally wanted to call "The Producers" "Springtime for Hitler," but distributor Joseph E. Levine told him, "I can't put that on a marquee." Though the title seems tame today, Harry Shearer says imagining "Springtime for Sadaam Hussein" after 9/11 would give you an idea of its effect at the time.
"The Last Laugh" is at its best when its people are telling jokes, often ones in which the Holocaust is involved. There's Baron Cohen in country-western mode singing "throw the Jew down the well," Sarah Silverman ending a skit with "Auschwitz? You'll say Wowschwitz" and Larry David focusing a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode on a dinner-party battle between a Holocaust survivor and a contestant on the TV show "Survivor."
Perhaps the most savage, and most unapologetic comic in this area was Joan Rivers. Her take-no-prisoners humor included showing a picture of Heidi Klum and saying, "The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into ovens" and complaining about a botched Mercedes repair: "The Germans killed 6 million Jews, you can't fix a carburetor."
Getting the most divided response was Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning Holocaust comedy "Life Is Beautiful," with former director of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman calling it "brilliant" and Brooks unhesitatingly describing it as "the worst movie ever made."
Less involving than this kind of spirited back-and-forth is time spent with Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone, whose ideas about and memories of humor in Auschwitz feel like they come from a different movie.
Given how much has happened since his heyday, it's interesting that "The Last Laugh" puts in a plug for Lenny Bruce as the most shocking comedian ever. As David Steinberg points out, he was the only one who actually was put in prison for the jokes he told.
“The Last Laugh”
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills, Town Center 5, Encino, Ahryna Fine Arts, Beverly Hills.