‘The Last Laugh’ Examines the Horror and the Humor of the Holocaust

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The Last Laugh

How is it possible to laugh at the horrors of the Holocaust? Is there a catharsis in laughing at the senseless slaughter perpetrated by the Nazis? Where is that line where you might actually land a joke like Mel Brooks did with “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers or wind up with an astounding embarrassment like Jerry Lewis did with The Day the Clown Cried? That’s the question director Ferne Pearlstein examines her documentary The Last Laugh, which is an insightful examination of humor in the face of horror and exploring just where that un-crossable line exists. The Last Laugh explores comedy and tragedy equally and really taps into that undefined area between a good joke and an offensive attempt at humor.

The Last Laugh assembles an array of comedians, many of whom who are Jewish, to discuss their attitudes towards humor directed at the Nazi regime and the horrors of the Holocaust. In a way, The Last Laugh is an historical documentary that looks at the nightmare of the Holocaust and how the Nazi regime have been lampooned over the years. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator all the way through the modern stand-up of Sarah Silverman are examined. What emerges from these conversations is a sense that most Jewish comedians find little issue mocking the Nazis; after all, there’s something about authoritarian regimes that demand to be taken seriously that is just begging to be mocked. The line that seems to be among the consensus is not to joke about the actual horrors that took place in the concentration camps, though not everyone interviewed shares that belief.

It’s among that dissent that The Last Laugh dives deeper into an issue that many would see as a matter of political correctness but really comes down to being an issue of respect and understanding. Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone spends her time examining how comedians handle their material towards the Holocaust and the Nazis. There’s something inherently comical about 90-year-old woman watching YouTube videos of comedians’ Holocaust material and wryly commenting on whether or not it’s either appropriate or funny. Of course, some may see this as a PC culture run awry with a nonagenarian policing jokes, but it’s really more of an educational tool as Firestone is just weighing in with her perspective of what she considers fair or foul in humor.

The documentary finds a variety in perspectives that balances out the entirety of The Last Laugh, with some saying that any jokes goes as long as it’s funny and others saying that all of these types of jokes are out of bounds. There are other survivors that are interviewed and they give their perspective on how humor helped them cope in those darkest days in humanity’s darkest hours and other survivors who find the even the concept of a joke within that living nightmare unfathomable. Credit where it’s due, Ferne Pearlstein navigates extremely tricky and touchy territory with a deft touch that brings forth deeper understanding of both the inherent sense of humor of the Jewish people and the terrors of the Holocaust.

One segment of The Last Laugh touches upon the most infamous movie never seen, the aforementioned The Day the Clown Cried. One of the few people to ever behold Jerry Lewis’ withheld film, Harry Shearer, gives his recollections of the misguided attempt to tell a story that blended the humor and horror that Pearlstein is examining with her documentary. It’s one thing to talk about The Day the Clown Cried, but to have an eyewitness to this piece of cinematic infamy adds a level credibility to Shearer’s perspective on how it failed so wildly at everything it attempted.

The Last Laugh is thought provoking in its analysis of both the cultural identity of the Jewish people and the anatomy of a joke. With a number of clips from classic comedies and stand-up bits, there are plenty of laughs to be had at the questionable material related to the Nazis and the Holocaust. There are also lessons to be learned about how to navigate risqué material while retaining a certain level of respect. With the way political correctness is nothing more than a tired talking point for those taken back at their bigotry being called out, The Last Laugh is a vital, timely piece of filmmaking that entertains as well as informs. As we look to the current spate of anti-Semitic crimes, it reminds us that “Never again” isn’t a hollow rallying cry. The Jewish people will display great vigilance in the face of hate, and they’ll also relentlessly mock you at the same time. We’ll see who has the last laugh.

The Last Laugh
  • Overall Score
4

Summary

A documentary that informs and entertains, The Last Laugh deftly examines a touchy subject in its examination of how the Jewish people employed humor during and after the horrors of the Holocaust.

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