A few years ago, David and I were invited to the opening night of "Old Jews Telling Jokes" at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago. It was a totally delightful --- and hilarious --- experience. Many of the jokes we had heard before, but somehow that didn't make them any less enjoyable. In "The Last Laugh", documentarian Ferne Pearlstein, filming comedians using some of those very jokes, takes it upon herself to address the Holocaust, and what is acceptable humor --- and what is not.
Pearlstein features a multitude of comedy legends such as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Harry Shearer, Jeff Ross, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, Larry Charles and many others in an effort to assess the taboo of finding comedy in the Holocaust. How far does the idea of free speech reach into such indelible subjects.?
Renee Firestone is a 92-year-old Auschwitz survivor. She and her daughter, Klara, are integral in Pearlstein's exposure of the truths of the Shoah. Klara has founded '2nd Generation of Los Angeles (2GLA), a group representing the children of survivors. She and Renee are instrumental in navigating the issues of humor for Pearlstein, coming from the perspective of survivors, as only they are able.
But, "The Last Laugh" is not what one may think. It is imbued with outright laugh-out-loud humor, as one can surely expect from such comedy greats as Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Brooks details his involvement in "The Producers" which is arguably one of the most outlandish, outrageous and funniest indictments of Hitler and his Nazi minions.
And, of course, Silverman doesn't hold back --- nor would anyone wish for that. She has always pushed the boundaries of acceptable humor, and here she doesn't disappoint.
"The Last Laugh", as amazingly humorous as it is, made me cry, too. The tragedy of the Holocaust, and many other similar episodes of genocide, are beyond comprehension. At times, it seems sacrilegious to find humor in these despicable events. But, freedom of speech is paramount to a FREE society --- in times such as the ones in which we currently find ourselves --- and we need to appreciate the humor and revel in it!
Opinion: See It Now!
When is a serious subject --- particularly one steeped in the nadir of crimes against humanity --- allowed to be ridiculed, mocked and otherwise joked about for public consumption? A new documentary, "The Last Laugh", poses such a question with regard to the Holocaust. The query is answered by a melange of veteran comedians, Holocaust survivors and their offspring.
The impressive list of contributors includes Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried --- personally, I would laugh any time he opens his mouth --- David Steinberg and Harry Shearer. Robert Clary of "Hogan's Heroes" fame talks about his real-life role entertaining Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners as a teenaged boy. Larry Charles, director of Sacha Baron Cohen vehicle "Borat", appears, along with irreverent stand-up comic Lisa Lampinelli.
Director Ferne Pearlstein and her husband, Robert Edwards, produce, write, edit and provide the cinematography. But it wasn't until Rob Reiner agreed to come on board that the flow of celebrity comics was realized. Pearlstein acknowledges "a whole world opened up to us because of the universal love and respect for him".
The handful of Holocaust survivors and their children mostly agree on the importance of living life to its fullest, otherwise Hitler has the "last laugh". This is, of course, the same mantra today, to live without fear lest the terrorists win. So is it possible to find humor in one's darkest hours? The general consensus agrees that it's basically the only way to survive in a situation where death and destruction reign. This is why it's called "gallows humor".
But everyone in the movie agrees on one thing: it's okay to make fun of the Nazis --- oppressors yes, victims no. No piece of entertainment makes this point more provocatively than the 1997 film "Life is Beautiful" and its Oscar-winning lead star Roberto Benigni. As further evidence, the filmmakers splice in archival footage of old TV shows, and movie clips from Brooks' classic satire "The Producers" and its hilarious signature musical number "Springtime for Hitler".
Pearlstein addresses the "too soon" unwritten rule. No one in 2017 will likely be offended by jokes about the Spanish Inquisition, but 9/11 is still taboo just 16 years later.
It is Brooks' closing comment, "Comics are the conscience of the people, and they're allowed a large berth in any direction ...even if it's in bad taste", which sums things up nicely. Good advice for comedians of today.
Opinion: See It Now!