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movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson

The Last Laugh documentary review: punching Nazis (with comedy)

The Last Laugh green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Analyzing jokes can ruin humor, but not here. This is a provocative, hilarious, and important discussion of comedy taboos, who gets to transgress them, and why.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If there’s one thing we should never joke about, it’s the Holocaust, surely? Mel Brooks — the guy who wrote “Springtime for Hitler” — would beg to differ, of course. As would Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Larry Charles, and a whole bunch of other professionally very funny people. Documentarian Ferne Pearlstein gets them all on camera in The Last Laugh to talk about taboos in comedy mostly as concerns this particular difficult topic, though it clearly has a much wider application.

Analyzing comedy can tend to ruin the humor, but that doesn’t happen heretweet; instead we are treated to a provocative, hilarious (and sometimes cringe-worthy, but far less often than you would expect), and genuinely important discussion of where the boundaries are, when they can and should be transgressed, and who gets to make such decisions. (No one here says that the comedy’s golden rule might be “Punch up rather than punch down,” but that’s pretty much what it comes down to.) “Comedy puts light onto darkness, and darkness can’t live where there’s light,” Silverman offers philosophically; on the old adage about comedy equally tragedy plus time, Gottfried quips, “Why wait?”

“Punch up rather than punch down” is what it comes down to.
tweet

But perhaps those are rather easy things to say for those too young to have live through the Holocaust, so Pearlstein also follows 90-year-old Holocaust survivor and educator Renee Firestone on her own personal exploration of this great comedic taboo. As we first meet her, she tells a joke about Dr. Mengele; later, she journeys to a Holocaust survivors’ convention in Las Vegas for a conversation about humor as a survival mechanism and as a way to retain one’s humanity in a terrible situation, though some of Firestone’s fellow survivors feel otherwise, that there was no place for humor then and still isn’t now around this issue. (A Holocaust survivors’ convention in Vegas? That’s funny, isn’t it? the movie seems to silently ask. All that glitz and neon? Is that as incongruous as the sparkly showgirls of “Springtime for Hitler”?)

This is not a movie about “political correctness” or about justifying heartlessness or cruelty in the name of comedy. The Last Laugh is a wise and funny defense of the necessity of the court jester to speak truth to power,tweet which is just as vital today at it ever was.


The Last Laugh opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in NYC today, with Q&As with director Ferne Pearlstein this weekend. It will open on March 10th in Toronto and March 17th in Los Angeles, with additional cities and dates to come.


green light 3.5 stars

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The Last Laug (2017) | directed by Ferne Pearlstein
US/Can release: Mar 03 2017

MPAA: not rated

viewed on my iPad

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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  • Danielm80

    I don’t see Bill Maher’s name listed, and I’m kind of relieved, even though he seems like an obvious interview subject. I’m actually a fan of his comedy, but his recent, misguided comments about freedom of speech and Milo Yiannopoulos have made me question my affection for him.

  • Maher does not appear in this film.

  • bronxbee

    just the photo of mel brooks above makes me laugh. i once saw a show with a symposium of writers discussing working on the old sid caeser show, and how brooks was constantly making nazi jokes. even the hardened, cynical writers of post WWII were taken aback by him at times.

  • Bluejay

    I soured on Maher quite a while back. I used to like him because of his atheism (which I share), but then I realized he was also a major asshole who subscribes to “clash of civilizations” nonsense and whose critique of organized religion bleeds over into contempt, bigotry, and Islamophobia. And he’s an anti-vaxxer to boot.

  • Brooks talks a bit in this doc about how shocking *The Producers* was when he was trying to sell the idea. The movie was originally titled *Springtime for Hitler,* and there was no way that was ever going to be allowed to happen.

  • Me too, all of that.

  • Bluejay

    The Producers people (musical version) recently did an updated spoof. “Too shocking to happen… until it happens” keeps happening.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OemqVWi_R0k

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