We’re big fans of satirical American news organ The Onion here at BS Towers. One of the reasons I love it is its ability to pretty much mock just about anything. To this day, I still remember reading its first post 9/11 edition, release a fortnight after the attacks on the World Trade Centre. One of the headlines was the inspired ‘American Life Turns into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie’. The article concluded: ‘But one thing is clear: No Austrian bodybuilder, gripping Uzis and striding shirtless through the debris, will save us and make it all better. Shocked and speechless, we are all still waiting for the end credits to roll. They aren't going to.’
I bring this up as Ferne Pearlstein’s fascinating documentary, The Last Laugh, poses the question, how far can you go when you are being funny? The focus of the movie is on comedians’ approaches to Holocaust jokes and in general Hitler’s slaughter of six million Jews during the Second World War. Fertile land for some knockabout humour, right? Well, as it turns out, yes. But you have to be 1 - very careful, 2 - very funny and 3 ideally very much Jewish.
Pearlstein brings together an impressive roster of talking heads to discuss this taboo subject (Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman to name but a few), but, in a very successful effort to ground the documentary in real life, she also has Renee Firestone - a survivor from the camps. It’s this introduction that really marks this out as a movie worth seeing. It’s interesting to hear Mel Brooks talk about where his boundaries lie (surprisingly reserved for a man who made The Producers) but the really touching and human elements of the movie come from Renee and her attempts to comprehend the humour available around the horrific events of 1939 - 1945.
There’s a number of reasons this works so well. Firstly, Renee is a wonderful individual. Resolute and composed when discussing events that are horrible beyond all comprehension, she is also something of a cheerleader amongst fellow survivors for making the most of life. Contrasted against the humour that comes out of surviving tragedy, her stories and attitude are all the more emotional.
Of the subject itself, Pearlstein’s charges are engaging and intelligent. It’s endlessly fascinating to hear the line between laughing at somebody, laughing with somebody and laughing at how people react to somebody. Borat singing ‘Throw the Jews down the well’ is obviously not even remotely funny, witnessing a bar full of rednecks happily singing along and cheering him on is funny - we laugh at their cretinous behaviour, not the content of the song. But it’s a fine line and an elastic one at that. Mel Brooks makes the point eloquently when he discusses his skit on the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody is troubled by the humour due to the huge length of time that has passed. So what’s the correct amount of time? The wonderful answer is of course ‘….it depends…’
In The Last Laugh, Pearlstein has put together an endlessly fascinating and extremely brave movie that asks some very pertinent questions about our relationship with grief and how humour helps us to face unimaginable tragedy. At turns laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking, there is much here to admire.