The Last Laugh: Comedy? Drama?
By Ferne Pearlstein, Director of The Last Laugh
I made a film questioning the fundamental nature of humor, but the tricky question that’s nearly impossible to answer is: “Is it a comedy or a drama?”
My film, THE LAST LAUGH, is a documentary about taboos in humor, proceeding from the premise that the Holocaust would seem to be one of the ultimate off-limits topics for comedy. But is it? History shows that even the victims of the Nazi concentration camps themselves used humor as a means of survival, resistance, and counterattack. Still, any use of comedy in connection with the Shoah inevitably risks diminishing the suffering of millions. But if we make the Holocaust off limits, what are the implications for other taboo subjects — AIDS, racism, 9/11 — in a society that prizes freedom of speech?
To me, the answer to “Is it a comedy?” is clear. The documentary is about comedy, but in itself it is absolutely not one. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want THE LAST LAUGH to be funny. The sheer presence of so many comedians that we interviewed for the film, acting as a Greek chorus — starting with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Alan Zweibel, Jeffrey Ross, David Steinberg, and so many others — suggests that there are going to be laughs. And they all say in one way or another: if you’re going to make a joke about a taboo subject, it absolutely has to be funny. According to Harry Shearer: “The higher the stakes, the higher the standard for how good the joke has to be.” So it stands to reason that to make a film about taboo humor, and to make it work, the film itself has to be funny.
So does calling it a comedy suggest that THE LAST LAUGH is “making fun” of the Holocaust? On the contrary, the film I set out to make — which opens with the Holocaust but goes on to explore other taboos such as slavery, the “N” word, 9/11, AIDS, and child molestation — might make you laugh, but it also reminds you what you are laughing at. We like to say that we made a movie about bad taste, but we made it in good taste.
In the film, Mel Brooks speaks of comedy as a social barometer. “Comics are the conscience of the people. They tell us who we are, where we are, even if it’s in bad taste.” Of course, THE LAST LAUGH is not simply about “bad taste.” It’s about the line between what is acceptable material for comedy and what is not…which is to say, where bad taste — and worse — begins. When it comes to the Holocaust, a crass, disrespectful joke at the expense of the victims is not merely in bad taste, it’s complicit in the wanton trivialization of a horror almost beyond human comprehension. As Rob Reiner says in the film, “There’s nothing funny about the Holocaust. But survival — there can be humor in that.”
Now if we’re talking about who can make these jokes, and for what audience, that is where the issue gets really complicated. George Orwell wrote, “Every joke is a tiny revolution.” For inmates of the death camps, humor was perhaps the only opportunity they had to resist the Nazis. The main interview subject of our film, Renee Firestone, 92-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, recounts being examined by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. After the examination, just as Mengele was about to depart, he stopped and told her, almost off-handedly: “If you survive the war, you should have your tonsils removed.” Then he walked out. Renee recalls: “At the time I thought, ‘Is he insane? Tomorrow I might die — I should worry about my tonsils?’ But when I survived, and thought about it when I came back, it was funny!”
Renee’s story poses a stark question about the nature of humor as a means of addressing tragedy. Many somber observers have argued that by opening something so terrible up to humor, we run the risk of minimizing its horrors. At the same time, few people would begrudge a Holocaust survivor any glimmer of light they might find to help them endure. Renee’s daughter Klara agrees. “Most people don’t expect survivors to have a sense of humor,’ she says, “but that’s not actually the case. The survivors actually have some of the worst gallows humor ever….and I guess they’re the only ones allowed to do that.”
But is there a difference between a survivor of Auschwitz using humor in response to his or her firsthand experience, and a second-generation American Jew doing the same? What about a non-Jew? What about a neo-Nazi? As George Carlin says, “It’s the comedian’s job to draw the line and then cross it.” But context is everything, especially in the current climate, where hate, divisiveness, and the like are on the rise. The same joke told by different individuals can reverberate with radically different meanings and moral implications. Jokes that appear to belittle the nature of the Nazi menace may be subject to co-option by anti-Semites and revisionists and even Holocaust deniers.
Sacha Baron Cohen, an observant Jew, is infamous for crossing the line with his scabrously anti-Semitic character Borat. But would Borat’s anthem “Throw the Jew Down the Well” — which ridicules anti-Semitism but also risks fomenting it — still be funny if the man playing Borat was not Jewish? What if Cohen sang “Throw the Muslim Down the Well” instead? A comedian like Ricky Gervais, who is not Jewish, is on dangerous ground when he jokes about the predatory skills of sharks and Nazis, no matter how funny the bit. (“A shark would’ve caught Anne Frank like that!” he argues, snapping his fingers.) The far — and frightening — end of this spectrum is represented by someone who doesn’t even pretend to have good intent, like the openly anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonné, who has repeatedly violated anti-hate speech laws in France (and been arrested for it). But his legal troubles have only made him more popular.
Which raises another question: In placing the Holocaust beyond the purview of even the darkest humor, do we not only make it alluring as “forbidden fruit,” but also risk giving power to its perpetrators and those who would follow in their path? As Sarah Silverman says in her interview, “It’s important to talk about things that are taboo, because otherwise they just stay in this dark place and they become dangerous.”
If humor is truly a means not only of coping, but of fighting back, shouldn’t it be available to us in dealing not only with the Holocaust, but with tragedy and trauma and taboos of all stripes? Former Anti-Defamation League President Abraham Foxman disagrees, arguing: “I don’t think we’ve reached yet the millennia where we can use humor to defuse prejudice.” However, Silverman counters that we “should be writing a thank-you note to comedy that talks about the Holocaust. In a world where headline news changes every 30 minutes, it’s the last place things are remembered.”
As we discuss in the film, time alone transforms how we approach tragedy. “Comedy is tragedy plus time” is such a truism that it was memorably parodied in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, as spouted by Alan Alda’s pompous TV producer. But it is undeniably true. “No one complains if you do Inquisition jokes,” Susie Essman observes. But how much time and distance is appropriate before humor is acceptable? If you couldn’t joke about Lincoln being shot on the day he was shot, why can you joke about it now? Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was instantly and rightly acclaimed as a brilliant satire, but Chaplin later remarked: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator. I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
Have we been numbed to a horror if we can laugh about it today? Or is our humor a tool for coping and empowerment, our laughter a form of triumph over a tragedy long past? But the role of humor in Renee’s survival is undeniable. As she eloquently states: “Whenever I remember I cry, and whenever I don’t remember I laugh, or smile. And I’m glad that I’m able to smile and laugh. It would have been a horrible life after the Holocaust for 70 years to just cry and be sad. To raise my daughter, I had to laugh with her. I didn’t want her to mourn with me the rest of her life. So you learn to do what you have to do. To live. To survive.”
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