IF IT bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it isn’t.” This satir­i­cal def­i­ni­tion of com­edy, ut­tered with req­ui­site ego­tism by Alan Alda in Woody Allen’s 1989 film, Crimes and Mis­de­meanors, is ac­tu­ally as good a re­sponse as any to the ques­tion: Is it ac­cept­able to make jokes about the Holo­caust?

This is the ques­tion ad­dressed by Amer­i­can film-maker Ferne Pearl­stein in her new doc­u­men­tary, The Last Laugh, in which she in­ter­views Holo­caust sur­vivors along with Amer­i­can com­edy aris­to­crats from Mel Brooks to Sarah Sil­ver­man, sup­ported by screen ex­tracts rang­ing from Curb Your En­thu­si­asm to Jerry Lewis’s never-re­leased but newly dis­cov­ered Holo­caust com­edy, The Day the Clown Cried.

It is easy enough to imag­ine, in Alda’s char­ac­ter’s terms, Holo­caust ma­te­rial that would break if ma­nip­u­lated for laughs. But can such a sub­ject be “bent” in the name of hu­mour and, if so, how far be­fore laugh­ter gives way to dis­taste?

If you find your­self laugh­ing at a Holo­caust joke — es­pe­cially if you are Jewish — you are bound to pon­der, in the af­ter­math, what you were just laugh­ing at, and why.

This is not nec­es­sar­ily to negate the hu­mour, or your laugh­ter. It can be salu­tary. A few years ago, a cou­ple of friends of mine — both Jewish, both writ­ers — went, for pro­fes­sional rea­sons, to see the late Bernard Man­ning in ac­tion. Man­ning, the most de­ter­minedly taboo-bust­ing co­me­dian this side of Lenny Bruce, in­cluded in his rou­tine a se­ries of vaguely of­fen­sive jokes aimed at neg­a­tive Jewish stereo­types and then, ac­knowl­edg­ing the pres­ence of Jews in the au­di­ence, said: “I shouldn’t re­ally make fun of Jews. Af­ter all, my dad died in Auschwitz… he fell out of a watch­tower.” And my friends couldn’t help laugh­ing, in spite of them­selves, thereby en­dors­ing the joke’s va­lid­ity.

While it is ap­pro­pri­ate to ban ma­te­rial be­cause it is cal­cu­lated to in­cite vi­o­lence or ha­tred, or is aimed at a vul­ner­a­ble au­di­ence, it seems to me quite in­ap­pro­pri­ate to pro­scribe any­thing sim­ply on the ba­sis of its sub­ject mat­ter.

Of course, some things are much harder than oth­ers to be funny about. It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a joke about cancer hav­ing them rolling in the aisles. But, like world peace, while ex­tremely un­likely, it re­mains the­o­ret­i­cally pos­si­ble. The prob­lem with the likes of Frankie Boyle and oth­ers among to­day’s blood­less heirs of Bernard Man­ning who are so con­cerned to “push back the bound­aries” is that, more of­ten than not, they are taste­less with­out be­ing funny, which nul­li­fies the whole ex­pe­ri­ence.

This is very dif­fer­ent from dark or sar­donic hu­mour, which can still ful­fil the im­por­tant function of pro­vid­ing perspective. Think of Joseph Heller’s near-leg­endary comic novel, Catch 22 — which gets laughs out of war, per­haps the un­fun­ni­est of all sub­jects. Or the great Ir­ish writ­ers, Sa­muel Beck­ett and James Joyce, both of whom high­light “God’s lit­tle jokes.” The same, gen­tly blas­phe­mous

Can Jews laugh at these jokes about the Shoah?

Char­lie Chap­lin’s The Great Dic­ta­tor

poked fun at Hitler in 1940

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