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

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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 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 equaling tragedy plus time, Gottfried quips, “Why wait?”

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

But perhaps those are rather easy things to say for those too young to have lived 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.

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Fri, Mar 03, 2017 6:22pm

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.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Fri, Mar 03, 2017 10:37pm

Maher does not appear in this film.

reply to  Danielm80
Sat, Mar 04, 2017 6:44pm

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.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Tue, Mar 07, 2017 11:02am

Me too, all of that.

Jonathan Roth
Jonathan Roth
reply to  Bluejay
Tue, May 02, 2017 3:24pm

Mel’s son Max Brooks had a very thinly veiled Bill Maher in World War Z. It also includes a line that sums it up well: “I thought he was making a lot of sense, until he started going off about corn syrup and the feminization of America”

Sat, Mar 04, 2017 4:46pm

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.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  bronxbee
Tue, Mar 07, 2017 10:53am

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.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Mar 07, 2017 2:43pm

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

Tue, May 02, 2017 6:50pm

i finally saw this documentary, and admit i laughed in many places; but i’m with Brooks about actually mocking the Holocaust itself. some of sarah silverman’s jokes did take me aback. maybe too soon for me, too. one thing i never realized, that the guy who played the frenchman in Hogan’s Heroes was actually in a nazi concentration camp.