Should comedians avoid crossing social and political red lines? Are they bound by society’s taboos?
These are the overlapping questions implicitly posed by Ferne Pearlstein in The Last Laugh, a probing documentary that examines the Holocaust from a completely different point of view.
Pearlstein’s movie, which will be screened by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, October 30, assembles a cast of comedians, comedy writers and Holocaust survivors to grapple with these morally difficult issues.
Mel Brooks, of The Producers fame, dances around them until he finally reaches a firm conclusion. “Nazi jokes are OK,” he observes solemnly, “but Holocaust jokes are not.”
Elaborating upon his theme, Brooks contends that comedians have a right to exact revenge on Nazis through ridicule. Which is precisely what he did in The Producers, a film that was converted into a successful Broadway play.
Brooks was telling anti-Nazi jokes long before they were acceptable. Working as a standup comedian in the Catskills in the late 1940s, just a few years after the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, Brooks skewered Nazis in his sardonic routines.
“I was very brave then,” he recalls, admitting that his jokes were in “questionable taste.”
With the passage of time, he goes on to say, Nazis could be lampooned. The television comedy, Hogan’s Heroes, was a prime example of this genre.
As Pearlstein points out, Hollywood movies were poking fun at Nazis long before Brooks appeared on the scene. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a cutting parody of Adolf Hitler and his fascist movement, was released in 1940, a year before the United States entered World War II. To Be Or Not To Be, starring Jack Benny, came out two years later, when the Holocaust was already a bitter reality.
Humor even surfaced in Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Nazi footage of a cabaret skit, featuring Jewish performers who were subsequently murdered, is proof of that.
One Holocaust survivor claims she couldn’t have survived without humor, the proverbial weapon of the weak. But another survivor vehemently disagrees.
As the son of Holocaust survivors, I know that humor did not provide much, if any, succor to Jews caught in the Nazi net of genocide. The age-old adage “laughter through tears” goes only so far.
And yet contemporary comedians, like Sarah Silverman, think nothing of making absolutely tasteless jokes about the Holocaust. Consider this gem: “What do the Jews hate most about the Holocaust? The cost.”
The late Joan Rivers, in a joke about a German-manufactured car requiring a repair, was equally guilty of this kind of insensitivity.
The Italian Oscar-winning film, Life is Beautiful (1997), takes its knocks in The Last Laugh, with Brooks describing it as “the worst movie ever made.” He may be exaggerating, but Roberto Benigni’s film was certainly hyped and overrated.
Pearlstein plays back a scene from Larry David’s TV show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, to illustrate the degree to which the Holocaust has entered the modern entertainment arena. And he makes a quick reference to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
She deals fleetingly with Jerry Lewis’ misbegotten 1950s film, The Day the Clown Died, which was never released because audiences were simply not ready for it. A commentator suggests his movie may have received a better reception had it been released decades later.