When director Ferne Pearlstein was interviewing comedians for her new documentary The Last Laugh, she always began with the same question: “Do you have a Holocaust joke?” Surprisingly, nearly all of them — from Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman — said no. “People would say, ‘I don’t have a Holocaust joke, but I do have a Nazi joke,’ and they would tell it,” the director told Yahoo Movies. “And then after the first five interviews I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a difference!’”
Watch a trailer for the documentary ‘The Last Laugh’:
This is the kind of thorny distinction explored in The Last Laugh, a provocative look at humor and the Holocaust opening in limited release this month (go here for details). Through interviews with Holocaust survivors and entertainers, and footage of film and TV comedies (including The Great Dictator, Hogan’s Heroes, Life is Beautiful, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “survivor” episode, and the infamous Jerry Lewis project The Day the Clown Cried), Pearlstein investigates how Jews used humor in the concentration camps, how Nazi jokes went mainstream, and whether it’s okay for comedians to find humor in history’s worst horrors, including the gas chambers, September 11, slavery, and AIDS. It’s an uncomfortable subject, which is one reason that it took the director more than 20 years to get the movie made.
The idea for The Last Laugh took root in 1990, when Pearlstein and a friend were on assignment covering Miami’s new Holocaust Memorial. Their tour guide was a survivor, and the three of them got into a conversation about Art Spiegelman’s 1986 graphic novel Maus, the concept of which deeply offended the tour guide (despite the visitors’ attempts to explain that it wasn’t that kind of comic.) “Understandably, her reaction was, ‘There’s nothing funny about the Holocaust, and you can’t cover it in the funny pages,‘” Pearlstein says. The idea that “there’s nothing funny about the Holocaust” stayed with Pearlstein’s friend, who later wrote an academic paper called The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust, handed it to Pearlstein, and said, “Make this into a movie.”
In 2011, Pearlstein was finally able to secure financing, as well as interviews with taboo-busting comedians like Silverman, Brooks, Carl and Rob Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried, David Cross, Susie Essman, Harry Shearer, Judy Gold, and Hogan’s Heroes star (and Holocaust survivor) Robert Clary. Pearlstein also talked with survivors, children of survivors — “I found that there was a very dark sense of humor in the second generation,” she observes — and the president of the Anti-Defamation League, among others. But the film’s most memorable character is Renee Firestone, a 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor with a remarkable ability to see positivity in the world. “What I loved about Renee is that she doesn’t think everything is funny, but she has a high tolerance for not being offended,” says Pearlstein. The abstract topic becomes personal as Renee looks for humor in her own harrowing story, gently debates another survivor about whether joy is permissible, and reacts to the Nazi jokes that her daughter finds on the Internet.
As for the question of whether it’s ever okay to joke about the Holocaust, everyone Pearlstein spoke to had a different opinion. But a few points of consensus emerged. For the comedians, the quality of the joke trumped all. “If there was one question that everybody agreed on, it’s that it has to be funny,” says Pearlstein. Or as Judy Gold says in the film, “You can’t have a crappy joke about the biggest tragedy in the world.” If there was a line that most comedians wouldn’t cross, it was the one separating jokes about the Jewish victims from jokes about Hitler: the aforementioned Holocaust joke/Nazi joke distinction. But even the most offensive joke earned respect from other comedians if it made them laugh. (One example from the movie: the late Joan Rivers, who was Jewish, saying of Heidi Klum on Fashion Police, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” “I couldn’t have said it. Doesn’t mean it’s not funny,” Brooks said of Rivers’ joke, which earned a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League in 2013.)
Another thing that became clear to Pearlstein is how important the passage of time is. Mel Brooks’ film The Producers, for example, was considered shocking and offensive (if hilarious) when it premiered in 1967, but was perceived as sweet and nostalgic by the time he turned it into a Broadway musical in 2001. In fact, because modern audiences are 70 years removed from the Holocaust (and perhaps because they grew up hearing Nazi jokes), Pearlstein says that The Last Laugh didn’t resonate with younger viewers until she added a montage of recent controversial humor, including the “black white supremacist” sketch from Chappelle’s Show and Louis CK joking about child molesters on Saturday Night Live.
“It wasn’t until I put 9/11 jokes, or jokes about racism, or even AIDS jokes, that the movie clicked for them,” Pearlstein says. “Isn’t that interesting? I do think that, especially for a younger audience, they need the reference of something that still presently feels taboo for them to understand that Mel Brooks was making Hitler jokes in the Catskills two years after the war ended! [Otherwise] they think of him as lovable Mel Brooks — they’re not hearing how brave and dangerous it was for him to do that.”
In the current political climate, when everything and nothing seems like a joke, it’s hard not to look to The Last Laugh for lessons about how humor can be a weapon for change, rather than a hurtful diversion. The film quotes a Mel Brooks phrase, “revenge through ridicule,” which suggests that a good joke can take power and mystique away from despots like Hitler. As for Pearlstein, she believes that “satire can be helpful and more powerful when it’s aimed at something significant,” but she warns against turning political figures into caricatures. “I think when you just dismiss a politician as a clown, it normalizes them,” she says, “that can be dangerous, if you’re not using humor to really call attention to things that aren’t working.”