“Without humor I don’t think we would have survived,” an elderly man says at a Holocaust survivors convention in Las Vegas in Ferne Pearlstein’s The Last Laugh. “Sorry, I didn’t find any humor at all, just sadness and tragedy,” a senior citizen sitting next to him counters. In 1993, Pearlstein’s friend Kent Kirshenbaum gave her a forty-page college paper he had written entitled “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust,” telling her to make a film about it. Pearlstein’s resultant thought-provoking, poignant documentary, which focuses on the limits of bad taste in comedy, has been playing the festival circuit all over the world and is now opening March 3 at Lincoln Plaza. In the film, Pearlstein speaks with such comic greats as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Harry Shearer, Jeffrey Ross, Lisa Lampanelli, David Steinberg, Susie Essman, writer Alan Zweibel, writer-director Larry Charles, and Rob Reiner, as well as former Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman and author Shalom Auslander, who share their views on the relationship between comedy and tragedy. “The thing about a joke about the Holocaust, the AIDS crisis, 9/11 — it’s all about the funny,” Jewish lesbian comedian Judy Gold explains. “It’s gotta be funny.” Sarah Silverman, who has never met a boundary she wouldn’t dare to cross, notes, “Comedy puts light onto darkness, and darkness can’t live where there’s light. So that’s why it’s important to talk about things that are taboo because otherwise they just stay in this dark place and they become dangerous.” And Auschwitz survivor Robert Clary, who starred as Corporal Louis LeBeau on Hogan’s Heroes, the controversial 1960s sitcom set in a German WWII POW camp, laughs as he points out, “You have to have a sense of humor. If you don’t have a sense of humor, just go to your grave or get cremated or something.”
The heart and soul of the film is remarkable Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone, whom Pearlstein follows as she visits her husband’s resting place, stops for lunch in an old Nazi bunker with her daughter Klara, goes to a Holocaust museum, watches stand-up comedy online, and does the dishes while discussing her encounter with Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who performed experiments on Jewish men, women, and children, including Firestone’s sister, who was killed at Auschwitz. “Most people don’t expect survivors to have much humor after the Holocaust, and that’s really not the case at all,” Klara says. “The survivors actually have some of the worst gallows humor ever. And I guess that they’re the only ones allowed to do that.” The Last Laugh, which shares its name with F. W. Murnau’s 1924 German Expressionist classic, was inspired in part by the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, about an industry-secret improvisational taboo joke that Gilbert Gottfried surprisingly revealed to the public shortly after 9/11; he had told what many believe to be the first professional 9/11 joke and, not getting any laughs, quipped, “Too soon?”
Pearlstein, who directed and edited the film and wrote and produced it with her husband, Robert Edwards, includes clips from such television shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Da Ali G Show, All in the Family, The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, and Chappelle’s Show and such comics as Louis CK, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Ricky Gervais, and Joan Rivers, who died two days before she was going to be interviewed by Pearlstein. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is watching these expert comics talk about the crafting of a joke, what makes it work — and where it can go wrong. The film highlights Brooks’s The Producers, which is about the faux Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, and his 1978 comedy special, Peeping Times, consisting of home movies of Adolf Hitler as portrayed by Brooks. “Anything I could do to deflate Germans — I did,” Brooks proudly proclaims. There’s also footage of concentration camp entertainment from Theresienstadt and none-too-favorable explorations of Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful and Jerry Lewis’s infamous, never-to-be-seen The Day the Clown Died. “You can do jokes about Nazis,” Gottfried says, sitting in Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse on the Lower East Side, “but if you say ‘Holocaust,’ then it becomes bad taste.” But maybe Carl Reiner sums it up best: “I don’t have a philosophy about it. I just know that it’s much more fun to laugh than not to laugh.” Pearlstein will be at Lincoln Plaza for Q&As following the 7:30 show on March 3 and the 5:15 screenings on March 4 and 5.