Overview: Documentarian Ferne Pearlstein interviews numerous comedians, historians, and genocide survivors to answer two simple questions. One: Is it right to make jokes about the Holocaust, even as a coping mechanism? Two: If the answer is yes, who gets to make them? Journeyman Pictures; 2016; Not Rated; 88 minutes.
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One…: Didja hear the joke about the Holocaust survivor who won the lottery? So, an old concentration camp survivor buys a lottery ticket and wins $200 million. A reporter comes up and asks him: “What are you going to do with the money?” The old Jewish man says, “Well, I’m going to erect a gigantic statue honoring Hitler.” And the reporter replies, “Wait, you were in the concentration camps! Why would you erect a statue honoring Hitler?” And the old Jew goes . . . well, actually, I’m not sure I have the chutzpah to finish this particular joke. Jewish comedian and noted shock-comic Gilbert Gottfried shares no such scruples, delivering the punchline with grinning glee near the end of Ferne Pearlstein’s The Last Laugh, a documentary that uses the relationship between Jewish comedy and the Holocaust as a spring-board to examine broader taboos about what can and what cannot be joked about. The climax of Gottfried’s joke is as witheringly repulsive as it is anathema to any semblance of good taste. It’s also undeniably, inescapably hilarious. But does that make the joke itself okay?
Gottfried’s joke is, after all, making fun of one of the most notorious genocides in world history. It’s not joking about fascism, about Hitler, about Nazism, or about World War II; it’s about the Holocaust itself. For many famous comedians, that is where they draw the line in the sand. Mel Brooks, perhaps the most famous Nazi-lampooner in history, can’t bring himself to joke about it. It’s one thing to mock Hitler, his foot-soldiers, and the fascism they espoused. It’s quite another to make light of millions upon millions of men, women, and children being systematically executed. We see this conviction first-hand during footage of Sarah Silverman’s infamous roast of Mel Brooks at his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony in 2013. When Silverman jokes that “a lifetime achievement award is just another way of God telling you to wrap things up,” Brooks loses himself in self-deprecating laughter. But when she follows up that joke with an oddly unrelated quip that the thing the Jews hated most about the Holocaust was the cost, Brooks looks for a moment like she socked him in the mouth before politely guffawing and turning aside.
Renee Says No: Pearlstein’s cadre of comedians come to few conclusions about the propriety of Holocaust jokes, which is partly why they are counterintuitively the least interesting part of The Last Laugh. Sure, it’s fun to hear the likes of Rob Reiner, Brooks, and Gottfried expound about what they think is and isn’t taboo, but their intentions are inherently selfish. Silverman can go on and on about how “comedy puts light onto darkness . . . darkness can’t live where there’s light,” but in the end she was never in a camp; all her sermonizing serves solely to validate her own career. The same cannot be said for Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor who serves as the mostly silent centerpiece of Pearlstein’s documentary. Accompanied by her daughter Klara, Renee visits decrepit Nazi bunkers, memorials, and a Holocaust Survivor’s Convention—in Las Vegas, no less—where she reflects on the role of humor in her life in and after the death camps. In Auschwitz, humor was a tool of self-preservation.
But looking back, even the memories of the laughter shared between the inmates is bittersweet. In a twist that would make Werner Herzog proud, Pearlstein has Renee and Klara watch footage of comedians do jokes on Nazis and the Holocaust. One of the most uncomfortable moments in the film: the two of them watching the notoriously non-Jewish comedian Lisa Lampanelli perform at David Hasselhoff’s 2010 roast. “David, your singing is huge in Germany,” Lampanelli trumpets. “If they had played your music in Auschwitz, the Jews would have sprinted for those ovens.” Renee doesn’t seem shocked, surprised, or even phased by the joke. She just shakes her head, “I don’t think it’s funny.” (For the record, Lampanelli, who was interviewed for the film, takes the position that if comedians don’t point out the absurd in life, who will?)
The Last Laugh is somewhat restrained by the inherently inconclusive nature of its subject. In truth, there’s can’t be a consensus on whether or not jokes about Nazis and the Holocaust are funny. But Pearlstein’s explorations are nevertheless fascinating. There’s Robert Clary, a Buchenwald survivor who escaped the gas chambers by performing song-and-dance numbers for his SS guards who later went on to be one of the main characters in Hogan’s Heroes, an American sitcom set in a Nazi POW camp. Does Clary’s ability to make fun of the Holocaust cancel out Renne’s inability? And what of Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League who argues that Jewish entertainer Jack Benny’s skinflint TV persona (“Your money or your life!” “Let me think about it!”) did more to normalize antisemitism in the United States than the Nazis ever did. Or consider Roz Weinman, the woman in charge of standards and practices at NBC while Seinfeld was on air. Her biggest regret? Approving the Soup Nazi episode. Why? Because she claims that it transformed the word “Nazi” into a particularly hyperbolic and absurd insult.
Overall: The Last Laugh doesn’t have many answers. But the questions it raises are worth their own sake.
Featured Image: Journeyman Pictures