If comedy is tragedy plus time, when is the right time if the tragedy is of the magnitude of genocide? Can the deaths of millions be fodder for humour, or are certain things simply off limits, the potential laughs drawn at the expense of the memories of those that perished?
These are deeply provocative and philosophical questions at the heart of The Last Laugh. Assembling a veritable minyan of comic legends, from Mel Brooks to Gilbert Gottfried to Sarah Silverman, the question of taste versus chasing the laugh is treated with the mix of serious irreverence one would hope for.
Brooks is always a terrific interview, here telling stories of making Hitler jokes in the Catskills as early as the 1940s. Yet for him one can make fun of the tyrant rather than the tyranny, finding the leadership risible while the actions of the Nazis outside his comfort zone. The fact that the man who made The Producers even has a line is part of the film’s most penetrating moments.
In contrast Silverman, part of a younger generation schooled by Brooks’ antics, draws her own lines much farther along than her mentors, but she does so fully cognizant of the requirements – the joke better be funny, rather than simply shocking. A Holocaust joke that bombs is a deadly deal indeed.
More than just comedians talking comedy (as if that wouldn’t be enough!) the film also provides the voices of survivors, some of whom tell extraordinary and moving tales of life in the camps and how even within the horror the humanity of laughter was able to find some ground. We see those that can still smile, finding the life of freedom the ultimate answer to the horrors of Nazism, while others seem locked in the 40s, constantly conscious of what’s been lost, unable to see what’s been able to survive.
The film swings from true pathos to outright hilarity, no easy thing to do with a film on this subject matter. While the work occasionally meanders, it provides such penetrating insight into the thoughts and feelings of those who survived, along with the reflective ideas from a pantheon of tremendous comedians, that it’s easy to overlook this.
This is a film that asks more questions than it answers and is all the better for it, shining light into a subject that normally would be thought completely off limits. This is the very power that comedy has itself, the power to make one see something from another angle, to poke at orthodoxy and have one confront one’s own prejudices and expectations.
It’s to director Ferne Pearlstein’s great credit that she manages to keep all the balls in the air at once, bouncing between shtick and somber with seaming ease. The most fascinating bits are of course from those who lived through the trials, seeing their own reactions to what these comics are reaching for, as well as hearing their own testimony about their lives under Nazi rule.
At times surreal, at times somber, the film ends up being nothing less than a deep rumination about how one deals with such an event, how a people can come to terms (in a seemingly unique way) with such an atrocity. It speaks to the strength of the survivors, as well as the chutzpah of those that followed, that can thread a needle where one can laugh without ever forgetting the horrors that are being echoed. A truly provocative film that both entertains and educates, The Last Laugh adds to a vital conversation about humour in general and the remarkable spirit of the Jewish people in particular.
Sunday May 1, 1:15pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Monday May 2, 9:00pm, Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday May 7, 10:15am, Isabel Bader Theatre