That there’s a big difference between Nazi jokes and Holocaust jokes is one of the insights gleaned from Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary concerning taboos in comedy, especially those concerning that generally forbidden topic. Offering plenty of laughs in its thoughtful examination of the issue, The Last Laugh, receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, should find appreciative audiences in limited theatrical release, although VOD and cable exposure seem like more fruitful prospects.
A major advantage to making a documentary about comedy, even a serious one, is that it provides the opportunity for many funny people to crack wise. Such is certainly the case with this effort, which begins, not surprisingly, with Mel Books, whose 1968 film The Producers was considered by many to be the ultimate in bad taste when it premiered.
Brooks, after doing a brief Hitler impression for the camera, comments, “Stalin was nicer. But this is the guy who made me money, so I stay with him.”
Defending his satire of Hitler and the Nazis as “revenge through ridicule,” Brooks informs us that the film’s original title was Springtime for Hitler, but his producer insisted that it could not be put on a marquee. Yet even Brooks has his limits, saying of a Holocaust joke which Joan Rivers cracked on The Tonight Show that, while he admired her courage, he could never have gone there.
Numerous comedians offer piquant observations. Susie Essman points outs, “Time makes a difference. Nobody cares if you do Inquisition jokes.”
Gilbert Gottfried disagrees. “They say that tragedy plus time equals comedy,” the whiny-voiced comic comments. “I say, why wait?”
(Interestingly, the film ignores one of the most notorious moments of Gottfried’s career, when he was lambasted for telling a 9/11 joke, shortly after the horrific events, at a Friars Roast.)
Satirizing the Nazis goes back many years, as demonstrated by vintage clips from films such as The Great Dictator and To Be or Not to Be and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Holocaust survivor Robert Clary, who starred on the Nazi POW camp-set TV series Hogan’s Heroes, talks about using his own experiences performing in the camps as a young man to inform his role.
Clips are shown from Jerry Lewis’ notorious and never-seen film The Day the Clown Cried, in which he played a circus clown imprisoned in a concentration camp. It’s contrasted with the similarly themed Life Is Beautiful, which somehow won the 1998 Academy Award for best foreign-language film.
“Life Is Beautiful is the worst movie ever made,” declares Brooks. “It puts the ‘Ha!’ in Holocaust,” Gottfried says sarcastically. “It’s absolutely brilliant,” says Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, proving that he made a good decision not becoming a film critic.
The doc includes interviews with several Holocaust survivors, who offer differing opinions as to whether their experiences are appropriate fodder for humor. Elderly survivor Renee Firestone, who’s given the most screen time, does offer one bitterly funny, true anecdote involving her encounter with Josef Mengele. The notorious camp doctor told her that if she survived the war, she should definitely have her tonsils removed.
Toward the end, the film loses focus by wandering into other taboo subjects for comedy, including 9/11 and the “N word.” The legal travails of Lenny Bruce are also glancingly touched on. The numerous digressions, although not entirely unrelated to the main topic, only serve to dilute its focus.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight)
Director-editor: Ferne Pearlstein
Screenwriters: Robert Edwards, Ferne Pearlstein
Producers: Ferne Pearlstein, Robert Edwards, Amy Hobby, Anne Hubbell, Jan Warner
Directors of photography: Ferne Pearlstein, Anne Etheridege
Not rated, 88 minutes