THE LAST LAUGH (2016) review
written by: Robert Edwards and Ferne Pearlstein
produced by: Jan Warner, Amy Hobby, Anne Hubbbell, Robert Edwards and Ferne Pearlstein
directed by: Ferne Pearlstein
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: April 18, 2016 (Tribeca Film Festival), March 3, 2017 and March 17, 2017 (limited)
Have you ever laughed at a joke and then immediately felt bad about it, realizing the joke was in poor taste, touching on subject matter that is sensitive or taboo? Ideally, a comedian or comedy writer should be at liberty to go wherever they feel the laughs are, taking events and people from the past or present and finding something humorous about them to share. But is there a line that shouldn’t be crossed? Are there some subjects that should be off limits? In the documentary “The Last Laugh”, director Ferne Pearlstein has found a subject that has caused many to take a step back: The Holocaust. There’s certainly nothing funny about it, but it’s come up in comedies and stand-up bits. Pearlstein’s film looks at the limits of comedy, talking to various comedians, writers and concentration camp survivors to determine when and how The Holocaust could be funny and how certain landmark tragedies elicit specific responses.
Pearlstein has admitted that without the involvement of actor/filmmaker Rob Reiner and his actor/writer/producer father Carl Reiner, as well as comedy icon Mel Brooks, “The Last Laugh” couldn’t have been made. That’s understandable when you think about it. After all, finding financial backers to support a documentary that is essentially asking whether or not The Holocaust is funny would be quite difficult. I’m glad it worked out though or else I never would’ve encountered the heart and soul of the documentary, Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor who has spent most of her life sharing her experience with others. Pearlstein follows the lively octogenarian, who is often seen alongside her daughter, Klara Firestone (who is the founder and president of Second Generation in Los Angeles), as she shares how she survived her ordeal, educating and enlightening listeners with an easy-going, peaceful and sweet disposition.
Her stories are amazing – from her encounters with Joseph Mengele to her recollections of the plays and musicals the prisoners used to put on at the camp (called “Comedy Cabarets,” prisoners managed to bring some entertainment to the masses with stage shows, trying to distract from misery through song and dance) using laughter as coping mechanism. Renee is seen at a Holocaust museum, discussing life in Auschwitz with her mother and younger sister with young people, hoping to produce an understanding of such determined evil, concerned that such punishment and extermination of a race has never truly ended around the world. Throughout the film, Renee is asked about comedy and used as a barometer for hot topics such as The Holocaust, watching stand-up acts and television clips with her daughter that attempt to navigate the lighter side of genocide. Although she finds some material funny, Renee bluntly states that she is displeased with much of what she sees.
Interweaved through “The Last Laugh” is a compelling look at taboo smashing, with the director deftly working her way through a wide range of interviewees as they touch on a variety of controversial subjects (a provocative examination of 9/11 as a target for one-liners can be found in the midsection of the film). We hear from actress/comedian Sarah Silverman, writer/producer/director Larry Charles, actor/comedian Gilbert Gottfried, television writer/producer Alan Zweibel, stand-up comic Judy Gold, and actor/writer Harry Shearer, as well as the two Reiners and Brooks. These talented people have enough combined input on gallows humor to produce a documentary of their own revolving around their opinions, experiences and perspectives, but Pearlstein has knowingly chosen just the right footage to serve the film’s overall needs.
The documentary delves into the history and current state of Holocaust comedy, with guests producing a distinction between poking fun at the extremity of Nazism and the agony of mass murder. We hear from 90-year-old French-American actor Robert Clary, himself a concentration camp survivor, who’s best known for his work on the television program “Hogan’s Heroes”, which was set in a WWII German POW camp. He recollects his own memories of the humor of the show and how such a project managed to get away with such an impossible tone of silliness despite its setting. Clary also shares his memories of performing in extremely depressing surroundings, who participated in the programs in the Catskills, where comics tried out dark humor in a post-war environment.
There’s also a somewhat heated discussion of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” and the notable contempt for the Oscar-winning dramedy set in a WWII concentration camp, with certain comedians (and survivors) sharing their disdain of the film’s saccharine treatment of The Holocaust, while others are not as upset, acknowledging the film’s theme of sacrifice. The inclusion of this film was fascinating to me since I was not aware of the controversy surrounding it and how some are vehemently opposed to it. It definitely made me rethink my own stance on the film.
However, there is dramatically less of a divide when the unreleased movie “The Day the Clown Cried” – written, directed and starring Jerry Lewis – is discussed, in which the comedy icon plays a circus clown who is imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Shearer is one of the few who’s actually seen the movie (he saw a rough cut in 1979) and even he’s baffled with Lewis’s attempt to make the Holocaust funny. According to Wikipedia, in a May 1992 Spy magazine interview, Shearer shared that the closest way to describe his viewing experience was “if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You’d just think ‘My God, wait a minute!’ It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly-held feeling.”
“The Last Laugh” is that rare film that covers plenty of ground, yet never once feels scattered and credit for that goes to Pearlstein, who edited the film herself. A memorable highlight is a look at choice footage from “Borat” and “Seinfeld” which offers an uncomfortable albeit entertaining offerings dangerously close to condoning forms of evil and anti-Semitism. Another highlight is the considerably candid time spent with Mel Brooks, who may be the man who wrote “Springtime for Hitler”, yet an adamant revulsion and distaste toward any attempts at finding humor in The Holocaust. It’s a revelatory solemn side to Brooks, proving that even someone known for crude, assumedly boundless humor, has his limits.
My favorite moment though brings us back to Renee Firestone, where we tag along as she visits a Holocaust Survivors Convention in Las Vegas. The specific interaction she has with a fellow survivor, who doesn’t share the same life perspective as Renee, is a case study in kindness, patience and acceptance. By just being herself, Renee unexpectedly becomes the film’s hero.
Sharply edited and researched, “The Last Laugh” uncovers more than just whether or not certain humor is a matter of personal taste. It’s a film understands the need for levity during dark times and one that undeniably asks us to look at comedy from all sides, but most importantly it calls for more empathy and understanding in our everyday lives.