There’s nothing funny about the Holocaust, which is probably why some comedians think it’s about time to start making jokes about it. The Last Laugh, a documentary by director and cinematographer Ferne Pearlstein, reveals, dissects, and discusses the subject of taboo humor in general and the Holocaust in particular. Pearlstein gathers together interviews with numerous comedians, writers, producers, and activists, including several Holocaust survivors, to present their perspective on what can be joked about and what cannot and where, if anywhere, comedy must draw the line.
Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone represents the major argument for laughing in the face of overwhelming evil, as she recalls her experience in the camps and afterwards. She discusses the use of humor within the camps, up to and including cabaret productions by performers that tacitly made fun of the Nazis and the SS guards. While Firestone is the most personally profiled survivor, she is not the only one: other survivors explain how they cannot find humor in their experiences after the fact, and don’t recall laughing during it. But it is Firestone’s perspective that usually gains ascendancy – that laughter is necessary, and that her greatest revenge against Hitler is the fact that she survived, and she can laugh at him now. “You cannot live in the shadow of those crimes,” she tells a fellow survivor. Humor allows her to continue to live her life.
Outside of the more personal narrative of Firestone, the film interweaves film clips, audio recordings, television appearances and scenes, and interviews with individual comedians and commentators on both the need for humor and the need to cross boundaries. Plenty of different perspectives are offered, from Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman, from the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman to writer Etgar Keret. Holocaust survivor and comedian Robert Clary recounts his tendency to clown at the camps as a way of simple survival, and how he used that experience later in his work on Hogan’s Heroes, while Mel Brooks comes to the fore to discuss “Springtime for Hitler,” The Producers, and how Nazi jokes are different from Holocaust jokes.
The Last Laugh’s strength comes from its willingness to present multiple perspectives on the same topic, embracing an expansive understanding of comedy and taboo without necessarily coming down on a single side. While the overarching message is the importance of humor as part of human survival, where that humor comes from and what is appropriate or desirable to joke about is very much up for grabs.
Opinions differ – it’s generally agreed that making fun of Nazis is OK, but questions are raised about making a joke about the Holocaust itself. Generational gaps become prevalent, as some commentators take issue with Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” episode or Borat’s questionable social commentary, while others defend such comedy as necessarily transgressive. The film further grapples with the less successful brands of taboo humor, including Jerry Lewis’s notorious Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried, and the view that Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful inappropriately trivializes the experience of the camps.
In the final quarter of the film, The Last Laugh veers into less charted territory, opening up the discourse to embrace all taboo subjects, from racism to 9/11. It’s here that the movie loses its focus and that the most dissent begins to emerge among its subjects.
Could one joke about 9/11 in the months and even years following it? Can a comedian discuss the AIDS crisis, or comment on race relations? Does the race/ethnicity/sexuality/gender/etc. of the comedian make a difference to what can and cannot be said? The Last Laugh breaks little new ground with these questions, instead relying on familiar cultural arguments that are ultimately still in dispute without giving new spins on them. It meanders between subjects with little rhyme or reason, finally unable to come to any conclusion. The film also unfortunately misses certain major cultural touchstones, including The Simpsons and South Park, both of which are often on the cutting edge of what is and is not permissible in comedy.
If The Last Laugh slightly loses its way at the end, it still succeeds in presenting a provocative and complex portrait of the relationship between humor and tragedy. It’s an intelligent film, a film that provokes questions and provides some answers without attempting to give the last word on its topic. Humor will always be in the eye of the beholder and what is funny, or even appropriate, will continue to be up for debate. But it’s important to be able and willing to make the joke in the first place. As Rob Reiner concludes when asked if a Holocaust joke has to be really funny: “Of course it has to be funny: it’s a joke.”
An entertaining and thought-provoking film, The Last Laugh presents multiple perspectives on taboo humor without passing judgment.