Humor and the Holocaust? Documentary explores the boundaries of comedy and tragedy

Salon talks to the makers of "The Last Laugh," and a survivor featured in the film, about humor, taboos and time

Published April 26, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh"   (Tribeca Film Festival)
Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh" (Tribeca Film Festival)

Is it inappropriate to joke about the Holocaust? Is it acceptable to make fun of slavery? Can we find humor in topics like cancer and AIDS? Is it too soon to crack wise about 9/11? These are some of the questions raised by “The Last Laugh,” director Ferne Pearlstein’s thoughtful, provocative, and yes, funny documentary about Holocaust humor that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.

Pearlstein, who co-wrote the film with her husband, Robert Edwards, makes her case by using an array of clips from Mel Brook’s audacious “The Producers,” to Sarah Silverman’s outrageous stand-up concert film, “Jesus is Magic,” to even those Holocaust “comedies” such as “The Day the Clown Cried” and “Life is Beautiful.” But she also balances the gallows humor with scenes featuring Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor who has an upbeat, optimistic view of life, but still doesn’t laugh at every joke.

Whether viewers will be amused or angered by “The Last Laugh” remains to be seen, but the writers and actors and comedians interviewed in the film, which include Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Carl and Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Gilbert Gottfried, Etgar Keret, and Lisa Lampanelli, along with Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, weigh in on what’s offensive, and how, why, and where (as well as if) they find humor in the Holocaust.

Salon met with Pearlstein, Edwards and Firestone to see who gets “The Last Laugh.”

I really appreciate that you have made a film about a taboo topic. What made you forge ahead with this project, and what resistance did you encounter, if any?

Pearlstein: We encountered a lot of resistance in a different ways than I think you would expect. In trying to make the film, the first people we came in contact with were people looking for funding, or comedians who would work with us. It wasn’t until all of that was in place that we met Renee, which was 2011.

Edwards: But we had been working on it since 1998. She had been working on the film since 1993.

Firestone: You’re kidding!?

Pearlstein: In the film we talk about how things change over time. Talk about things changing over time—the resistance, or reaction in 1993 or 1998, when we talked about the subject of this film, until now, is dramatically different. Even in 2011, when we met Renee, it was still walking on eggshells. I imagined hate mail and protesting. That’s how much things have changed. I feel like we’re getting a different response. There have been so many types of satire over taboo subjects lately. The world is more schooled in it now.

Edwards: That’s kind of the point of the film—time is passing, and even in the interim of making the film the public response to the Holocaust is different. It’s changing all the time and will continue to change. Some of the examples of humor from the time period, which we researched—which were very shocking then—don’t feel shocking now. 70 years have gone by. You bring up 9/11, or child molestation or AIDS—other issues elicit a shocking response from people.

Pearlstein: Because that’s something they can remember. If you can remember it, it’s still taboo in a weird way.

You alternate a joke with a scene of drama, such as Renee recounting being examined by Dr. Mengele. Can you describe the structure of your film?

Pearlstein: The opening was so hard, because we had to strike that balance, and interweave two film styles. We also had to give the audience permission to laugh.

Edwards: And we also had to let the audience know early on that we were going to do that. Ferne was very adamant not to just have talking heads and clips, but an observational element to it. To combine those is very hard, never mind the subject matter…it was tricky. It was in the editing, not the planning. It was a very delicate process to walk that line.

I suspect Jewish film festivals might be disinclined to show your film. How do you think the Jewish audiences will respond?

Pearlstein: A lot of Jewish film festivals are writing me about the film on a daily basis.

Edwards: It could be the programmers are interested. We don’t know what the audience response will be. This film is not a comedy. It’s about comedy and it’s a film about bad taste. Ferne has made it in a tasteful way, in my opinion. We hope people understand this documentary itself is not trying to make light of any kind of tragedy, but illuminate it in a way that is new and fresh.

Pearlstein: And that’s why it was so important to bring Renee on. Here’s a woman who is not a comedian, but she has a good sense of humor. It shows through in every conversation, every experience she has. She can tell a story about one of her darkest situations, and she will still put a joke in there, almost every time.

Firestone: I remember when Mengele questioned me, “Who in [your] family is Jewish?” I thought it was ridiculous. I laughed at it. He kept asking me about my mother, my father, my grandparents. And I thought go myself: Here I am, with all these Jews. We don’t know where we are going, or what’s going to happen to us, and that’s what he wants to know—whether my parents are Jewish? I mean, what else would I be doing here? If you think about it, it’s really funny. And that was before I knew where I was, or what the place was about. Before my head was shaved, or I was undressed. Humor is not fun. That’s the difference for me. To make fun of something, or laugh about something, it’s different than if you talk about humor. When we looked at each other with the shaved heads, it was funny—we looked ridiculous. We had no idea why they did it to us. It was a terrible what they did to us, but when we looked at each other, we looked ridiculous. We didn’t make jokes about it.

Pearlstein: People look back on that era and close it off to humor, but most of the European Jews who were going to the camps experienced years of discrimination and anti-Semitism. They got off that train, and [experienced] another form of degradation, and it’s terrible. But they didn’t think they were going that day to their death. It’s only in retrospect that we know what happened. So when Renee tells that story, and she says, “I see my friend, and we looked at each other, and they were wearing these huge outfits, and whatever…” it was a little funny.

I like the exchanges between Renee and her friend Elly, two survivors who have different outlooks on life. You can’t deny people their feelings and sensitivities; it is wrong to make jokes that might offend them?

Firestone: Jokes about the Holocaust are not proper. About the perpetrators, I don’t care, but about our situation, nothing is really funny. As I say, to make fun, and to have a sense of humor are two different things.

Several interviewees describe humor as being a coping mechanism for horror. Renee says that when she remembers she cries, but when she doesn’t, she laughs. There is also talk about time passing, which makes taboo humor acceptable. Can you talk about these aspects addressed in your film?

Edwards: When Gilbert Gottfried says in the film, “Why wait!?” [a reversal on “too soon?”], it is funny. But I think we all understand why people wait. We can’t joke about Lincoln’s assassination that night. That’s the joke. The passage of time changes it. It’s context, which is really the bigger issue. We started out talking about this film and jokes and humor feels very different depending on who says it, when they say it, and what context they say it in. If it’s self-deprecating within the group, as opposed to the oppressor making the same joke, it’s all context.

Firestone: That’s true also, that the Holocaust survivors, amongst themselves, will talk about some funny things. They won’t tell it to anyone who wasn’t there.

Pearlstein: That’s right, and children of survivors have a very dark sense of humor amongst themselves. I tried to uncover that [with Etgar Keret]. They will tell jokes to each other, which is also letting off steam. It’s not an easy existence as the child of a survivor. They are survivors of a tragedy they didn’t experience, so it’s bigger in their imagination. And that can be very horrifying. 

Joan Rivers got into hot water for her Holocaust humor, but she defends it as “creating awareness.” Sarah Silverman jokes about the “alleged Holocaust,” mocking Holocaust deniers and gets a laugh. It’s all contextual, but one gets in trouble and one gets by. Can you defend either position?

Edwards: It’s hard to explain why one comedian gets a pass and another doesn’t. It depends on lots of things, like the audience, and their history. But this issue of opening the door to abuse is in the film. Within the community of survivors and the Jewish community, where this kind of humor is somewhat acceptable, there is the fear that once the door is open, the next thing you know is Neo-Nazis adopting the same [humor]. And we get at that with Sasha Baron Cohen, and with “All in the Family.” It is like Sarah [Silverman] says, “Once you tell the joke, it’s no longer yours. You can’t control how it’s inferred.” When people laugh at the wrong thing, then you get into a Free Speech argument: Should you never make these jokes, or any art form for fear it will be misinterpreted? Then you have a really chilling effect.

Pearlstein: Context is really important. We saw Sarah Silverman’s early days of “Jesus is Magic” in a little black box theatre on Bleecker Street, and we laughed. She did 15-20 minutes of Holocaust jokes, and in that community of people, it was very funny. I had Renee watch YouTube clips of Holocaust jokes, and I blanched while I was filming that. The context of seeing these jokes through the eyes of a 90-year-old survivor was different.

Whenever another Holocaust film comes out, a friend of minewho’s Jewish, mind yousays, “Holocaust, Smolocaust.” She finds the topic overworked in cinema. What can you say about people who are tired of hearing about the Holocaust?

Edwards: The point of Holocaust fatigue is another one the movie gets at. The subject feels overworked, but that’s as dangerous as joking about it. When it gets to the point where people roll their eyes and it has no effect anymore, then you have a real problem. We are looking for new ways to approach this topic that feels overworked, and humor is one—because it has hardly ever been approached. Ferne is always mindful of the seriousness of the subject matter and the tragedy, and not let it become fodder for comedy.

Pearlstein: And it’s a way to get eye-rollers in the theater to see something they haven’t seen.

Renee, you have been an activist for other genocides, such as Rwanda. What observations do you have about these tragedies?

Firestone: The difference between genocide and the Holocaust is that none of the other genocides concentrated on children. Most of the genocides are about adults. The [Nazis] concentrated on the children so there is no future. There is no other genocide where they used modern technology to destroy groups of people. Every other genocide was individuals being killed. To date, 1½ million children were put in a room and gassed—it was the way it was performed. It was industrial wholesale slaughter. It’s interesting that Rwanda struck me in a very different way. The Holocaust lasted 12 years, and there were six million murders. But in Rwanda, the genocide lasted only four months, and almost a million Tutsis were murdered.

We just returned from New Orleans, and we toured this plantation with this great guide. And I heard some of the stories that happened to black children, and saw pictures and I thought, “When does the world really learn?” That should have been already a message. Then I found out the plantation was owned by Germans. It blew my mind. [Laughter]. And we’re laughing about it. How terrible!

Pearlstein: This is why I chose Renee. She doesn’t just look at the Holocaust with blinders on. She sees every genocide. She has this experience in New Orleans. She’s had this experience in Rwanda. She’s constantly talking to people about “Never Forget.” But “Never Forget” what happened here, either… 

I like the way you parse out the difference between jokes about the Holocaust vs. jokes against Nazis. Can you discuss this?

Pearlstein: I was filming a bunch of comedians, and I wanted them to bring humor to the interviews, and not feel—because of the topic—that they had to be serious. I wanted to disarm them by starting with “Do you have a Holocaust joke?” And that set a tone for the interview. I didn’t realize this until I had done a couple of interviews. They would always say, “I don’t have a Holocaust joke, but I have a Nazi joke.” So by the time I met Judy Gold, I changed the question. I explained I used to ask for a Holocaust joke, but then I learned about the distinction. She was like, “Oh, I have a Holocaust joke!” She was the first person to claim it and be proud. I thought, Wow!

Edwards: If you look at the two jokes Joan Rivers gets in trouble with in the movie, they are at the expense of Germans. They should be in that tradition of Mel Brooks and Charlie Chaplin. But she mentions the facts—ovens, gas. She dares to bring in the machinery.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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