An A-list roster of comedians as well as several Holocaust survivors ponder the outer limits of humor and "good taste."
“The Last Laugh” asks the non-musical question — well, non-musical unless you’re talking about “The Producers” — “Can Nazis and the Final Solution ever be funny? Should they be joked about?” A starry roster of comedians as well as several actual Holocaust survivors weigh in, providing a range of answers that underlines just how personal, and changeable, notions of humor and offense are. The mix of levity, serious themes, marquee names and archival materials in Ferne Pearlstein’s entertaining, thought-provoking documentary should find primarily broadcast buyers in numerous markets.
The Holocaust is the modern bar-setter for topics that by popular agreement are too grave to ever allow trivialization. Yet laughter, too, can be used to make serious points, and the frontiers of what constitutes “good taste” (or at least what doesn’t constitute unforgivably bad taste) continue to be pushed outward.
Even concentration camp survivors have wildly different perspectives on the matter. An Auschwitz inmate turned educator, Renee Firestone emerged from great suffering—including the death of her sister after Nazi “medical experiments” — with joie de vivre intact, perhaps even amplified by so much personal loss. She provides a liberal barometer of what’s permissible in comedy, as she watches a number of comedians riffing on YouTube and elsewhere, deeming some genuinely funny and others simply tasteless.
On the other hand, we see her visit Las Vegas with a friend who can’t seem to freely enjoy the excursion or any other experience nearly 70 years after her own camp experience. Tragedy compounded by survivor guilt has left her living in a world where comedy seems superfluous at best.
Comic talents, authors and others debate narrower issues: Why it’s usually OK to mock Nazis, but not the Holocaust (because ridiculing oppressors is one thing, their victims another); just when the “too soon” rule expires on sensitive subjects (nobody bridles at mocking the Spanish Inquisition, for instance, but 9/11 jokes are still “wrong”); whether Roberto Begnini’s Oscar-winning ego trip “Life is Beautiful” is “absolutely brilliant” (as the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman opines) or “the worst movie ever made” (Mel Brooks, an MVP commentator here); and the divide over current envelope-pushers like Sasha Baron Cohen, whose characters often parody anti-Semitism and other prejudices, albeit in subversive ways that actual bigots might well interpret as confirming their biases.
The eternal battle between humor and censure is illustrated in a brief throwback to Lenny Bruce’s legal battles, and his latterday (if seldom litigated-against) equivalents like Dave Chapelle, Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, “South Park” and so forth, all of whom frequently depend on the shock value of “inappropriate” material.
As more than one stand-up pro notes here, the stakes rise with the bigger risk; if you’re going to joke about a “taboo” subject, it better be a very good joke. Small-screen clips of the late Joan Rivers and others illustrate how an uninspired wisecrack that might’ve otherwise been forgivable can induce channel-changing revulsion when it happens to hinge upon Jews and ovens.
Pearlstein’s very deft assembly manages to raise all these ideas and others for viewer consideration while underlining that there are few, if any, definitive responses to them — humor being the most subjective of values, even when it comes to an apparent moral absolute like the Holocaust. Comedy can be a survival tactic and a means of revenge against tyranny, even as it can also be a tool of crass insensitivity.
Brooks has the last word when he says “Comics are the conscience of the people, and they’re allowed a large berth in any direction…even if it’s in bad taste.”
Archival materials here afford a rich array, from seized Nazi footage of prisoner-performed cabaret acts to Chaplin’s “Great Dictator” megalomaniac’s ballet and behind-the-scenes footage of Jerry Lewis’ still-unreleased “The Day the Clown Cried.” Plus, of course, myriad clips from latterday comedians (including many interviewed here) — and “Springtime for Hitler,” naturally.
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