The overarching question that The Last Laugh posits: is it in poor taste to make Holocaust jokes? Director Ferne Pearlstein rounds up prominent Jewish figures in the entertainment industry, comedians and several Holocaust survivors to try and offer viewers some answers.
Interviews with the likes of Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Robert Clary, Judy Gold, Gilbert Gottfried and Sarah Silverman are intercut with footage of concentration camps, clips from classic and contemporary pop culture, and the personal story of Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor.
The documentary begins with the words, “Whoever has cried enough, laughs.” It’s easy to be swayed by such uplifting words, particularly when they are paired with the very convincing opinions of such lauded comedians. Everybody knows that there is no humour in The Holocaust itself, which Rob Reiner rightfully acknowledges. But in the same breath he also concedes that certain aspects of human survival can be made humorous. Initially, the consensus certainly seems to be that if you are going to broach a taboo subject like The Holocaust, 9/11 or Aids, your joke better be damn well funny. Sarah Silverman also makes a compelling case ““ it’s better to discuss a taboo subject to keep it from becoming too dark and too damaging. Elger Keret echoes this sentiment, attesting that humour is “a way of protesting reality.”
Of course, then the discussion morphs into a question of how much time has to pass before it becomes appropriate? The theory introduced here is that tragedy plus time equals comedy. Mel Brooks was comfortable depicting the Spanish Inquisition in History of the World: Part 1 because the events had taken place hundreds of years ago. The Producers expertly satirises Hitler, but much like the musical within the film, audiences would never have warmed to the sardonic humour if it were made only a few years after World War II. A comparison is naturally drawn to 9/11, an event that is widely acknowledged as a subject to never joke about, even if a few comedians boldly attempt to “go there.” Will this change in our lifetime? Perhaps, but most likely not for decades to come.
The Last Laugh is grounded by Renee Firestone’s presence and at times I found myself looking to her for permission to laugh. Renee’s daughter admits that her mother can sometimes have a gallous sense of humour, emphasised during her lunch with Robert Clary when they discuss gas chambers and his choice to star in Hogan’s Heroes despite his own time in a concentration camp. However, we are humbly reminded again of the devastating and lasting tragedy of The Holocaust when other survivors admit that they cannot make light of history, that there experience was nothing but extreme sadness. It’s near uncomfortable to watch Renee sit through video clips of Sarah Silverman’s stand-up or an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which mine the taboo subject for comedy. I did laugh at Silverman’s jokes about her Nanna (a survivor) and Ricky Gervais’ crack about Anne Frank being too lazy to write a sequel, but seeing that Renee plainly didn’t find these gags funny made it all the more uncomfortable.
So, is it in poor taste to make Holocaust jokes? The Last Laugh recognises that this isn’t a question with a straightforward answer, but one that spawns a dozen more: Is it in even poorer taste to laugh at these jokes? Is it only okay for the Jewish community to make jokes about it? Did anyone actually laugh at Joan Rivers’ horrendously offensive joke about Germans? Fern Pearlstein’s documentary is a carefully crafted, thought-provoking piece that explores the subjectivity of humour, while retaining the respect required to tackle such sensitive subject matter.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10
Screening at the 2016 Jewish International Film Festival.