It’s Holocaust Remembrance Day — we thought it would be the best day on which to recommend The Last Laugh, Ferne Pearlstein’s thoughtful 2016 documentary which simultaneously tackles the meaning and import of the Holocaust, and the role of comedy in life.
Is it okay to make a joke about the Holocaust ever? If so, when, on what occasions would that be permissible? What kind of jokes? Jews possess perhaps the only culture on earth that would even ask that question, and ask it so relentlessly, because they are questioners. But even among some of them this is an open and shut case. “What?! No! Never!” Even among the comedians, even some of the more ribald ones, that is so. Mel Brooks, for example, famous for making humor at the expense of Nazis, balks at the concept of including the Holocaust (the massacre of six million Jews) as a comedy subject. Even the edgier ones who’ve actually gone there, like Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman and David Cross, (and the late Joan Rivers, in archival footage), seem to venture gingerly out on to that thin ice, and, in the context of this movie anyway, seem a little embarrassed and ashamed in talking about it. And then some comedians, like Jerry Lewis and Roberto Benigni, have made dramatic films, with elements of comedy, set in the camps. Charlie Chaplin showed the persecution of Jews in The Great Dictator, at a time when the world was in ignorance about the “Final Solution”. Should we still watch it?
The actual event is obviously only funny to psychotic monsters. But is it possible to even mention it in a joke, or use it as a historical backdrop, or whatever? And it IS a question worth asking. There’s a bit of a Catch-22 involved; to close your mind to it, is to close your mind — the ultimate Nazi concept. And ultimately, if anyone is allowed to answer it, it would only be those who survived it. One gentile comedian, Lisa Lampanelli, took a lot of heat for making a Holocaust joke; that one seems an obvious call, an unambiguous no-no. At the other end of the scale, Robert Clary was an Auschwitz survivor who later was a regular on Hogan’s Heroes, albeit the setting for that show was a P.O.W. camp and not a concentration camp. But he still received plenty of criticism for it over the years, and has his own rationalizations. But the film also follows several survivors among the civilian (non-comedian) community, and they are, not unexpectedly, divided, as are many Jews too young to have been there. Laughter is life; the Holocaust is death. But ordinarily death is part of life, but not death on THAT scale, and so we go around and around.
And let us not forget the danger in taking it lightly — in a world where Holocaust deniers are a thing, and Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Even if it’s morally okay to joke about, is it wise? Is it smart to seem to downplay the seriousness of it? Maybe, maybe not.
Other comedy folks in the film who have worthwhile things to say include: Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Judy Gold, Jeff Ross, David Steinberg, Larry Charles, and former SNL writer Alan Zweibel. I loved this movie — there may be more somber ways to observe this day, but none more thought-provoking.