“The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it, but survival, and what it takes to survive, there can be humor in that.”
Inside every person, there is a line that separates the humorous from the unconscionably tasteless. The Holocaust is usually where the line exists. Comedians like Louis C.K. and Pete Davidson can tell jokes about 9/11, but the Holocaust remains sacrosanct in terms of comedy. Using the largest scale tragedy in human history for comedic purposes, even in a society that values free speech, is simply unheard of. Ferne Pearlstein’s new documentary The Last Laugh seeks to challenge that assertion. Interspersed with portraits of Renee Firestone, a survivor of Auschwitz, Pearlstein seeks the input of legends of comedy like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, and Gilbert Gottfried.
For the comedians interviewed, it’s a matter of “can it get laughs?” For survivors, the issue is a little hazy. Members of a Survivor’s Convention in Las Vegas find little common ground in terms of what is acceptable to joke about. Robert Clary (Hogan’s Heroes) credits the moments of escapism with saving his life as he recalls the deaths of twelve family members in the camps. Each person’s line is subjective, though, as the rest of the film attests. Brooks and Gottfried cannot stand Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, but the head of the Anti-Defamation League finds it a beautiful message of remembrance. On the reverse side of that is Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried. David Cross would argue that it was a film ahead of its time, but Harry Shearer likens it to a “Tijuana velvet painting of the Holocaust.” None of the talking heads are wrong, but each response is telling. Benigni’s won the Academy Award for his performance while The Day the Clown Cried still sits unreleased. Comedy is incredibly subjective.
The boundaries of “good taste” clash with tackling a lot of the material discussed, but one thing is for sure: Nazi jokes are an entirely different matter. They’re pompous and arrogant; the perfect targets for ridicule. Mel Brooks made some of the finest work of his career lambasting Nazis, but even he admits he could never make a Holocaust joke. The value of a release valve can’t be understated, but each person interviewed in this documentary draws the line someplace different, and understandably so. The human cost of a punchline is constantly reflected in the survivor’s portions of The Last Laugh. At times, the camera lingers on Renee’s face intently as taboo jokes are played out before her on YouTube. Rarely does she laugh at what she sees, but she never lashes out in umbrage either. By including Renee Firestone, Pearlstein takes a documentary that could have been surface-deep and adds pathos to every scene that comes before and after.
The Last Laugh makes its bones by being a specific case-study of linking tragedy with humor, resisting the urge to broaden the range of topics until late in the film. Many events that brought about complaints of “too soon,” such as 9/11, are touched upon, but with so many inclusions, it’s hard to go into such depth as the original point of debate. Sacred cows like Muhammad’s depiction in print or media could have its own entire documentary dedicated to the issue. But these portions of the film are still worthwhile because even interviewees arguing against censorship recognize that there are those who’ll misuse comedy for their own bigotry.
Anyone looking for a definitive resolution the questions asked by Ferne Pearlstein’s film will leave unsatisfied. There are no easy answers at film’s end, and there shouldn’t be. “Tragedy plus time equals comedy” is only a catchphrase, not an end-all to what we seek.