The question of what is and isn’t funny is a vexed one, especially within comedy circles, so it’s brave for a film like The Last Laugh to take its study of Holocaust humour and examine the deep political and philosophical contemplation that underpins the work of so many comedians in America.
The Last Laugh is built around Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor and public speaker, who reflects on her memory of gallows humour as coping mechanism in the concentration camps. Interwoven between this is a more esoteric conversation about the nature of dark comedy, from the likes of Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Harry Shearer, and others. Here, the film is part taxonomy, part historiography, tracing the development of Jewish comedy from cabaret shows in the concentration camps, through resort comedians in the Catskills, to the modern day. Interviewed early in the film, Judy Goldman offers a concise summary saying “The thing about a joke about the Holocaust is… you can’t tell a crappy joke about the greatest tragedy in the world,” and what follows is a succession of meditations on this theme. The film makes no attempt at consensus, and much of its pleasure emerges from sequences where one comedian sketches their distinct philosophy for telling a joke about the Nazis, only for it to be immediately contradicted by the next interviewee.
In this, the film touches on a number of contemporary issues in the ethics of comedy: namely, who is making the joke? And who is the victim of it? The comedians broadly agree that Holocaust jokes are the “turf” of the Jewish comedian, and that there’s a difference between a joke using the Holocaust and one about it (where the latter can be inferred to make light of it, and therefore be off limits), but the differences are so subtle you may miss them. The most interesting element of the film, therefore, is when it deals with the audience, who may—rather than laughing at the subversion—be laughing at the very same anti-semitic sentiment the comedian sought to undermine. A prominent example is Jack Benny, a Jew himself, who did “more than all the anti-semites” in propagating the stereotype of the ‘stingy’ Jewish figure; or an early episode of The Ali G Show, in which Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character compels a room full of people to sing along to a song about grabbing Jews “by their horns”. The effect of this is only amplified when the film zeroes in on a number of jokes and where the audience laughs, usually a split moment before the shift in the joke that would flag the subversion, leading us to believe these jokes (regardless of how they are intended) are simply advancing the problem. Director Ferne Pearlstein does not attempt to moralise on this, and the subjects instead hope for an audience smart enough to see the difference, though the question hangs heavy for the rest of the film.
The film’s problem in the earlier stages is the amount of B-roll they use in linking scenes. So many incisive comments are drowned in in-between moments of driving, cooking and otherwise inconsequential moments which are neither visually interesting nor integral to the film’s progression. There are also moments early on where the film’s montage approach to splicing together interviews impedes the material’s effect. In a film about comedy, jokes need space to breathe, and the early decision to intercut two comedians delivering the same bit (to demonstrate, I suppose, that it’s been absorbed into the consciousness) means that neither instance is actually able to be funny. The film corrects this later on, playing segments of material from films or comedy specials and then inviting the performer to reflect on them, and the best scenes about comedy are when the comedians break down the distinct mechanics of how their jokes work. It is interesting, for example, to see how a joke about the Holocaust is formatted to avoid making fun of the victims, and also how that can go awry with the wrong kind of audience.
Similarly, there is a distinct sense that there are two films at play in The Last Laugh, with only short moments of interaction between them. Renee Firestone’s reflections on the Holocaust are touching, considerate, and utterly harrowing—finding their climax in her revelation that she and her sister had been experimented on. There is more than enough content to justify a film concerning her pursuit of the doctor who did it (which is discussed all too briefly in the film), as well as her continued work as a speaker on her experience. It is especially relevant when placed against the depiction of Joan Rivers defending a (particularly poorly constructed) jokes about the Holocaust to ensure its enduring place in memory, a claim that is questioned by a number of the film’s subjects.1 The second film, about the ethics of joking about the Holocaust is your standard talking head documentary piece, showing successive generations of Jewish comedians and entertainers various bits and asking them to comment, and while the construction is orthodox, the material is quite fascinating. In this sense, there are two solid pieces here, which could perhaps have made the leap to excellent if there was a more holistic marriage between the two, or if they had been severed and allowed a full runtime to themselves. It’s especially difficult to discuss the film’s skeleton (built around Renee) in relation to the film’s thesis (about comedy) as she doesn’t seem to think any of the comedians in the film are very funny.2 Though I suppose the importance of these scenes, of Renee politely mute, watching Sarah Silverman on YouTube, exemplify the disagreement that defines every level of this debate.
In the film’s closing act, it expands again beyond the purview of comedy about the Holocaust to deal with the issue of taboo generally, and this is where the interviewees answers become truly anarchic. One person will say one topic is purely off limits, only to segue into a scene of someone else performing it with aplomb. Part of the film’s charm is in its reluctance to sit on one side of the fence,3 but to instead acknowledge the plurality of experiences and interpretations that make the landscape so rich. Just as no two survivors could be expected to recall the same things, no two performers can be called upon to interpret it the same way—what is important, the film affirms, is that we continue to think about it.