This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!
Are there certain jokes that should never be told? That’s the central question of the new documentary The Last Laugh from director Ferne Pearlstein. The film uses interviews with numerous Jewish comedians and writers, like Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and Gilbert Gottfried, as well as Holocaust survivors, to intelligently interrogate comedy taboos, particularly those surrounding Nazis and the Holocaust.
The film opens with a quote from 20th-century German novelist Heinrich Mann: “Whoever has cried enough, laughs.” This idea, that laughter is necessary in even the most difficult of times, carries through the film, but there is no consensus between interviewees on the acceptability (or not) of particular jokes. For example, Brooks, who famously wrote a fictional musical called Springtime for Hitler in The Producers, argues Nazi jokes are fair game because humor can illuminate the ridiculous beliefs they hold. At the same time, Brooks says he could never make a joke about the Holocaust. He concedes that a funny joke about the Holocaust may be possible, but that he’ll never be the one to write it. Even for him, it’s going too far.
Thanks to careful editing, viewers can tell the filmmakers asked many of these performers the same or similar questions, and as a result, multiple perspectives are melded together at once, some people contradicting each other immediately. This is why the film succeeds: Instead of seeking one hard-line answer, it allows for a nuanced discussion. The Last Laugh acknowledges that even those who live through similar hardship, tragedy, and oppression react to it differently, and that ultimately time, our own perspectives and experiences, and the comedians’ identities influence whether or not we laugh at jokes about taboo topics.
Renee Firestone, an educator and Holocaust survivor, argues with another survivor about the necessity of finding humor and joy in life after living through unthinkable horrors: ”Living well is the best revenge against Adolf Hitler,” she says. But she doesn’t laugh at the Nazi- and Holocaust-related jokes her daughter shows her from contemporary comedians. For her, laughter comes in spite of tragedy, not from it.
You could argue that our current political realities make these kinds of conversations quaint and irrelevant; the film was, after all, made before 45 was elected. But there are literal white supremacists in the White House now. Anti-Semitic threats are on the rise around the country. We need to talk about how we talk to each other, how we deal with a vocal resurgence of the same hatred that led to genocide 90 years ago. Could humor help? According to The Last Laugh, we all must decide that for ourselves.