The Last Laugh asks simple questions that provoke complicated answers. Can the Holocaust be funny? Can we joke about it? And therefore, can we make fun of anything? Director Ferne Pearlstein collects insights from a host of comedians (Judy Gold, Gilbert Gottfried, Carl Reiner, among others); the former head of the Anti-Defamation League; a former network head of standards and practices; and most importantly and touchingly, a 91-year-old holocaust survivor, Renee Firestone.
Most of the film follows Firestone, who travels to schools and visits places like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to talk about her experiences as a survivor. She is lucid, vivacious, and refuses to let her experience snuff out her joie de vivre. Actor Robert Clary, from Hogan’s Hero fame, is also featured. He takes note of the irony of being in a situation comedy set in a Nazi prison camp that never once mentions Jews.
Pearlstein intersperses various comedians’ views about taboos in general and the Holocaust in particular. Mel Brooks has no problem making fun of Nazis (clearly), but he will not touch the Holocaust, yet he respects that Sarah Silverman did. According to Silverman, comedy is the light that shines on the darkness to vanquish it. But “It’s got to be funny,” she says. Joan Rivers, being Joan Rivers, had no problem going there, on national TV, no less, and Brooks and Reiner take measure of that as well.
There is a general discussion about humor minimizing the Holocaust’s horror. About the only consensus among the talking heads is that Life Is Beautiful does just that. Boy, do these guys hate this film. (All save for Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who loved it.) There is also mention of the infamous Jerry Lewis debacle, The Day the Clown Cried. It remains unreleased and for the most part unseen, save for a select few. Harry Shearer is one of those who has, and he pontificates on its stunning inappropriateness.
Comedians, as Larry Charles observes, are always going to look for an envelope to push (even Anne Frank is not spared), and audiences are going to use humor to survive and cope. Some Holocaust survivors are accepting of that and some aren’t, as we are shown at a survivor’s convention in Las Vegas, of all places.
This illuminating documentary offers no answers. It is touching, funny, and haunting. Most importantly, Renee Firestone has the sense of humor and good will we should all aspire to obtain. If The Last Laugh is clear on one thing, it’s that.