“We were all miserable, but without humor I don’t think we would have survived.”
Renee Firestone was 20 years old when she was deported from her native Czechoslovakia to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. She survived the Holocaust and later emigrated to America. Her mother and father “went through the chimneys” of the Nazi furnaces. Her sister was killed after undergoing confidential medical experiments at the hands of Josef Mengele’s team of experimental surgeons.
But in the heart of Hell, Firestone remembers laughing at a meme. She remembers the wry jokes the other women in the camp made, planning the imaginary dinner parties they would throw after the war. She remembers a Nazi doctor telling her to seek out a specialist “if you survive this war,” a thought that struck her as hysterical in its absurdity once the war was over.
Firestone’s story is the spiritual epicenter of Ferne Pearlstein’s thought-provoking documentary “The Last Laugh,” which explored the role of comedy in the face of human tragedy, The Holocaust in particular (though it also touches on 9-11 and other taboos). The film includes interviews with comedians such as Mel Brooks, Rob and Carl Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried, Jeff Ross, Sarah Silverman and others, exploring the use comedy to confront perhaps the most taboo subject of all.
It will begin its theatrical run on March 3 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York and on March 17 in Los Angeles. A national rollout will follow.
The truly fascinating element of “The Last Laugh” is that each of the subjects featured has a different perspective on the boundaries and responsibilities of comedy and comedians. Brooks – the man who brought the world “Springtime for Hitler” – said that he cannot bring himself to make a Holocaust joke, while other contemporaries mine that topic.
“They say tragedy plus time equals comedy. I say, why wait?” said Gottfried.
“It’s all about the funny,” said Judy Gold. “It’s got to be funny. You can’t tell a crappy joke about the biggest tragedy in the world.”
“The Last Laugh” includes interviews from Firestone and other Holocaust survivors. Many (though not all) credit gallows humor for helping them cope with the wretchedness they experienced in the camps. These first-hand accounts are cobbled together with thoughts from stand-up comics and other critical thinkers discussing the philosophical role of comedy in a world where true horrors exist. The result is a captivating film on the nature of comedy and the human capacity for survival.
It also explores the very fine line where humor can either break down prejudices or reinforce stereotypes; and sometimes, that person telling the jokes can’t control which way a joke will be received – the difference between “laughing at” and “laughing with.”
One commentator blames Jack Benny for inadvertently popularizing the caricature of “the cheap Jew” in the U.S., a stereotype that survives today. The film also shows Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat leading a group of rednecks through a singalong of “Throw the Jew Down the Well” and wonders whether if Cohen is mining comedic gold or playing to the worst prejudices in this audience … or both.
“You can’t control how your joke will be inferred,” Silverman said.
Commentators discuss the merits and weaknesses of films like the Academy Award-nominated “Life is Beautiful” (“the worst movie ever made,” according to Brooks) and the infamous “The Day The Clown Cried,” the never-released Jerry Lewis film that has been locked in a fault away from human eyes since 1972.
“The Last Laugh” manages to be both funny and heartbreaking. Survivors like Firestone provide an enlightening look at the concentration camp experience, providing a stark reminder of the real human toll at the undercurrent on the discussion of humor and jokes.
Featuring: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Robert Clary, Rob Reiner, Susie Essman, Harry Shearer, Jeffrey Ross, Alan Zweibel, Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Larry Charles, David Steinberg, Abraham Foxman, Lisa Lampanelli, David Cross, Roz Weinman, Klara Firestone, Elly Gross, Deb Filler, Etgar Keret, Shalom Auslander, Jake Ehrenreich, Hanala Sagal and Renee Firestone, The Last Laugh puts the question about comedy’s ultimate taboo on the table: Are we allowed to joke about the Holocaust?
Watch an exclusive outtake from “The Last Laugh,” in which Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Rob Reiner discuss Mel and Carl’s infamous “2000 Year Old Man” routine.