×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Last Laugh’

An A-list roster of comedians as well as several Holocaust survivors ponder the outer limits of humor and "good taste."

With:
Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Robert Clary, Rob Reiner, Susie Essman, Harry Shearer, Jeffrey Ross, Alan Zweibel, Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Larry Charles, David Steinberg, Abraham Foxman, Lisa Lampanelli, David Cross, Roz Weinman, Elly Gross, Deb Filler, Etgar Keret, Shalom Auslander, Jake Ehrenreich, Hanala Sagal, Aaron Breitbart.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2102508/

“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.

Tech/design contribs are pro down the line.

Film Review: 'The Last Laugh'

Reviewed at Hot Docs, May 7, 2016. (Also in Tribeca.) Running time: 88 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Tangerine Entertainment production. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Ferne Pearlstein, Robert Edwards, Amy Hobby, Anne Hubbell, Jan Warner. Co-producers, Anne Etheridge, Dori Stegman.

Crew: Directed by Ferne Pearlstein. Screenplay, Robert Edwards, Pearlstein, inspired by “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust” by Kent Kirshenbaum. Camera (color, HD), Pearlstein, Anne Etheridge; editor, Pearlstein; music, Joe McGinty; music supervisor, Howard Paar; sound mixers, Richard Fleming, Nico Ruderman, Hilary Stewart, John Slocum, Taj Musco; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Steve Glammaria.

With: Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Robert Clary, Rob Reiner, Susie Essman, Harry Shearer, Jeffrey Ross, Alan Zweibel, Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Larry Charles, David Steinberg, Abraham Foxman, Lisa Lampanelli, David Cross, Roz Weinman, Elly Gross, Deb Filler, Etgar Keret, Shalom Auslander, Jake Ehrenreich, Hanala Sagal, Aaron Breitbart.

More Film

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild Plans for Agency Pact Expiration: 'There Will Be Difficult Moments'

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America have sent members contingency plans for the possible expiration of its agency franchise agreement on April 7 — and admitted that it may be a rocky road. Members received the letter Tuesday from the guild’s negotiating committee as the WGA and agents were about the hold their seventh [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Entertainment One, Universal to Partner on Home Entertainment

    Entertainment One and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment have signed a multi-year, multi-territory distribution agreement. UPHE will serve as the home entertainment distributor of eOne’s offerings across both physical and digital formats. The pact covers film, television, and select family content and includes all sales, marketing, and distribution, spanning the U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, Spain, Australia, [...]

  • Will Smith Jada Pinkett Smith

    AFI, Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation Launch Second Young Women in Film Intensive

    The AFI Conservatory and the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation have partnered to launch the second annual Young Women in Film Intensive. The AFI Campus in Los Angeles will host 45 high school girls for an eight-week filmmaking workshop, where students will receive mentorship from current fellows and working professional alumni of the AFI [...]

  • Paul Davidson

    The Orchard Head Content Executive Paul Davidson Steps Down

    At the finish line of its sale to 1091 Media, distributor the Orchard’s film and TV head Paul Davidson is parting ways with the company. In an amicable split, the creative executive addressed staff in person and in a company-wide memo on Tuesday in New York City to inform them of his decision. “While I [...]

  • Ava DuVernay Toby Emmerich Michael Douglas

    Ava DuVernay, Toby Emmerich, Michael Douglas to Speak at Produced By Conference

    Ava DuVernay, Toby Emmerich, and Michael Douglas will speak at the Producers Guild of America’s 11th Produced By Conference. The event will be held on June 8-9 at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, Calif. Other notable speakers include Netflix executive Cindy Holland; Blumhouse producer Marci Wiseman; “Homecoming” showrunners Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz; Entertainment One [...]

  • Jean Francois Helene Etzi

    Disney's French Chief Jean-Francois Camilleri Exiting, Helene Etzi Upped

    Jean-Francois Camilleri is leaving Disney after more than 30 years and will replaced as the head of its French operation by Helene Etzi. Sources said Camilleri’s departure was his own decision. He announced his exit on Twitter, Tuesday, and paid tribute to his team and colleagues at Disney, thanking them for the “unique adventure.” In [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content