Interview with THE LAST LAUGH director Ferne Pearlstein
You know that feeling you get after you’ve finally caught up with a movie that’s been on your watchlist? It’s a euphoric feeling that comes when you had an inclination that you’d like the movie, but wound up being more satisfied and impressed than you ever thought you would about it. That’s how I felt about Ferne Pearlstein’s “The Last Laugh“, a movie I honestly thought was going to be about Jewish humor, since it had folks like Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, Gilber Gottfried and Mel Brooks in it. But, I wound up being happily incorrect. Pearlstein’s film takes a look at taboo in comedy, specifically whether or not we can laugh at The Holocaust. That’s right, is The Holocaust funny? Can it or should it be? Better yet, is a line being crossed when we even consider joking about certain off-limits subject matter (think 9/11, AIDS and racism) and to not “go there”, is it an impingement on our freedom of speech? These and many other questions are asked in “The Last Laugh”, but I was fortunate enough to offer up my own questions to Pearlstein in a recent phone interview….
David J. Fowlie: This film premiered almost a year ago at Tribeca, right?
Ferne Pearlstein: It did, yeah.
DJF: It’s been a year of screenings at different film festivals and it was at the Chicago International Film Festival, which is where I first heard of it, and I was wondering if the film has taken a totally different life in that time since Tribeca?
FP: I would say it has. Definitely. It came out last April and we’ve been invited to 70 film festivals and we’ve had incredible responses. But as it turned out, a couple days following the election, I was in nine back-to-back film festivals, in Amsterdam, Boston, Philadelphia, Rochester, Silicon Valley and suddenly I was screening a different film. In fact, the first festival I went to was the Thursday after the election and it was opening night at the High Falls Film Festival and one of the programmers said to me, “You know, I watched one film two weeks ago and I watched another film tonight.” It suddenly – at least for those couple of weeks after the election, it was a much more serious film. It hit a little bit closer to home. But people are ready to laugh a little bit more and the film has still encouraged conversation in such an interesting and fascinating way. It’s just, people want to talk more and more about it, which is amazing.
DJF: Yeah, fascinating is a good word for it. What drew me to the film is its synopsis – the idea of when and why a line should be drawn in comedy, in regards to certain off-limits subjects – in this case The Holocaust,
FP: Well, first of all, I had the idea for the film earlier, but I tried to make it into a film in 1998. A lot of time had passed and the response as to how you can deal with satire that touches on difficult topics has evolved. So, when I said it’s been a hard film to fund, it started then. But, it never really got any easier. It was near impossible to get money from traditional grants and I came really close with a handful of very big grants. I was in conversation with the people who ran the grant and they were very concerned about it. I just think people were a little nervous, you know? And really, it was one incredible donor who I’d heard from over the years and she kept hearing about the challenges in making it. So, she just intended to give me some start-up money and she got more and more involved in the film and more invested and wanted to see what we started get made. She just kept being generous and coming through for us.
DJF: That’s great. This movie made me think about the “too soon?” society of climate we’re currently in. It feels like a week cannot go by without someone apologizing publicly about something they said or did – about a line they feel they crossed. Like in comedy, “the line” can be as subjective as the humor. So, I’m curious, what approach do you think comedians/writers/artists should have then?
FP: Do you mean what approach should they have toward dealing with that sort of humor?
DJF: Yes, thank you. Because I feel like comedians, artists, should have free reign to touch on any subject, really. But then again there’s always this “line” and this movie found me wondering “where does that line come from?” Is it the desire to not hurt people’s feelings or offend?
FP: Well, there’s different kinds of “lines”. There’s the kind that makes you feel uncomfortable and you know when it’s “too much” and it’s taboo for you. Larry Charles brought up this thing in his interview and he said, “If it’s REALLY taboo, we wouldn’t laugh about it.” It’s almost like saying there’s a difference between being really naughty and crossing a taboo. I mean, he comes from the perspective of “if it’s REALLY breaking a taboo, there are consequences and you might be thrown in jail or look at the case of Charlie Hebdo and the attacks there. Also, there’s a quote from Mel Brooks in the movie and when he said it, it really stood out to me, because he’s somebody that has a very distinct line. He’ll make a Nazi joke, but he will not make a Holocaust joke. In other words, he will make fun of the oppressors, the perpetrators, but he won’t make fun of the victim. He’s also very respectful of other comedians and their different takes on stuff. He may not agree, but he has respect for them. In response to us having a discussion about that, that’s when he said, “comics are the conscience of the people” and they can potentially tell us who and where we are, even if it’s in bad taste.
DJF: Right. Mel Brooks is part of my next question, coincidentally. I found his inclusion, along with some of the other actors and comedians, to be quite valuable. How did you decide who to include these figures and how much of them to include?
FP: Well, first of all, I couldn’t have made the film without Mel Brooks. I mean, if he had said, “No”, after the dozens of times we tried to ask him, I just don’t think I would’ve had the same film. As for the different voices, I had even more voices and, of course, I couldn’t fit it all into the film and I always joke that I could’ve made this into a five-part series with all the different people I tried to fit in. Mark Garbus, who is a free speech attorney, Martin Amos we interviewed and the original editor of a magazine that often used Holocaust humor. It was just so hard to fit everything in.
DJF: I’d be down with a mini-series of “The Last Laugh”….
FP: Yeah? Wouldn’t you? So would I! (laughs) But I’m not gonna knock on people’s doors again for money. They’re gonna have to knock on mine.
DJF: (laughs) Makes sense. I hear ya on that. Yeah, I have to say it was quite eye-opening to hear from the different perspectives from the actors and comedians you included – especially from Brooks, who based on his work, I would never think that he’d have a line that he doesn’t cross. So, I definitely appreciated those perspectives. For me though, the heart of the film was getting to know and following Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone and especially her interaction with the other survivor that she meets at a Holocaust convention in Vegas. It’s really inspiring and impressive to look at their different responses to what they experienced and also what their dispositions are today. How did you find Renee and what was her response when she found out that you wanted to include her in this documentary?
FP: Well, I had the benefit of so many years of research, because it just took me so long to make the film. So, one of the people I found was this woman, Hanala Sagal, she’s a child of survivors. She’s in the movie, she’s the one who wrote that book, My Parents Went Through the Holocaust and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt. So, what happened was Rob Reiner was the first comedian to say “yeah” – I mean, it was incredible! My husband is a screenwriter, my producing partner, Robert Edwards and we got the money at the end of July, gave the giant list to his agent at CAA and asked, “Is there anyone on this list you can help us get?” We got the money now. And so, he called us back and he said, “Yeah, I spoke with Rob Reiner and he said he could do it a week from Wednesday.” (both laugh) We went from just having money in the bank , no crew, nothing prepared – he was in L.A., we were in New York – and we knew, wow, let’s shoot enough to start making this movie. So, in a week and a half, we scrambled to find anything, looking through the research and the list to get other comedians – and we did, because, of course, Rob Reiner commands so much love and respect, we were then able to get a couple other people to say “yes” on that shoot.
So, in the meantime, I had read about this woman who wrote that book. I called her up and she said, “sure, I’ll do an interview” and, “can I help you find anyone else?” And I said, “Yes, please!” (both laugh) Now, I knew I wanted to find that observational story that would intercut with the interviews, but I didn’t know what it was gonna be. And separately from that, I wanted to talk to a survivor that felt it was okay to laugh and one that thought it was not okay to laugh and at the time, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna interview them in the exact same way that I wound up interviewing everyone else. I hadn’t worked that part out yet. Oh, and I also told her, in my research I had found incredible sense of humor, very dark sense of humor, in the second generation and so I was looking to speak with children of survivors. I was looking to speak with, as I said, survivors who’d think it was okay and survivors who didn’t think it was okay to laugh.
And she said, “I have the perfect mother and daughter for you. Renee Firestone is this anti-genocide activist and speaker on The Holocaust and she’s got an incredible sense of humor and her daughter, Klara, she ran Second Generation Los Angeles, she started it. She put me in touch with them and a half hour later we were on the phone and I knew that they were the story. And the agreed! I mean, Renee is a very open soul and a light and we instantly hit it off. Now, she’s like family to me. They both are. She was very open to the idea. Even, I remember, after a couple years in, when we got so close, I’d ask her, “Are you sure you’re okay with this? You’re not gonna get in trouble for doing this now, are you?” And she was just like, “No, it’s fine”.
But, when I would tell people what my film was about, I don’t think that they thought that it would have this poignant side to it. You know, the sort of sad and darkness. I think they just expected it to be jokes that shocked you.
DJF: I really had no idea going in….
FP: Yeah, even our closest friends, no matter what, they just can’t get their head around their idea of what it’s going to be like when you say “it’s a film that deals with humor in connection to The Holocaust”. You just go to the dark place. But, I always knew it was gonna have the heart, and, my husband and I like to say, “we made a film about bad taste, but we made it in good taste.”
DJF: I think that’s a great line to end it on here. I’d love to talk to you more, but it appears we’re out of time. I want to thank you for the movie. I think it’s inspiring and surprising and it has and will inspire great discussion.
FP: Oh great! Thank you.
DJF: No problem. I’m looking forward to promoting it even more.
“The Last Laugh” is now in select theaters in New Yok, Toronto and Phoenix and is slowly making it’s way to other cities. This weekend, it opens in Los Angeles and will premiere on the PBS show Independent Lens on April 24th. For more info on the movie, click here.