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 here; 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?”
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, 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.