Directed by Ferne Pearlstein
No one has the right to declare something funny or unfunny; it is all a matter of personal taste. One would think something as simple as comedy would not be such a hot topic but it is. In today’s ultra PC world, it is hard to defend yourself when someone else is offended regardless of your intent behind the words. Topics such as rape, abuse, pedophilia, race and religion are all difficult to discuss but in the hands of skilled comedians they can make a crowd of thousands roar in laughter.
Ferne Pearlstein’s film The Last Laugh covers the delicate topic of handling harsh real world issues/events and combining it with comedy. Although the idea of making light of such topics might be considered taboo, as many comedians in this film state “It has to be funny!” Although the previous topics I mentioned are very serious this film mainly deals with the idea of the Holocaust and if… jokes can be made of such a horrible event. One thing is very evident: the Holocaust itself, not so funny, Hitler and Nazis can be very comical; from cartoons starring Bugs Bunny, as well as shorts with The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers. Mel Brooks, considered one of the greatest comedy directors, begins the film with a short comb portraying Hitler and Joseph Stalin stating, “Stalin is nicer, easier. I stick with this guy (Hitler) he made me money”. Brooks’ film The Producers deals with two men putting on a Broadway play called “Springtime for Hitler” where Hitler prances around while singing and dancing. Released in 1968 people were shocked with the material and did not know how to receive it, fast forward thirty years later and the play is a massive hit on Broadway that starred Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane.
This leads to another question, how much time needs to pass before something is funny? Mel Brooks’ film History of the World Part One contains a musical number entitled “The Inquisition” with a song and dance routine making fun of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition ended in the mid-19th century so to say people were offended would be absurd. In 2001 after the 9/11 attacks no one knew what would happen. One of the most notable things on television occurred on Saturday Night Live just 3 weeks after the attacks when executive producer Lorne Michaels had the NYPD, FDNY and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on. Michaels asked one question “Can we be funny?” and Giuliani responded “Why start now?’. Fast-forward 12 years later and Chris Rock is on the same stage making 9/11 jokes.
The film follows two Holocaust survivors: Renee Firestone and Robert Clary. As stated by Renee’s daughter the survivors have the worst gallows humor of anyone she has met. Watching these two, you would never think they had to go through such a horrific ordeal. Renee lost her younger sister who she later found out was experimented on then executed. Robert lost 13 immediate family members and was only able to survive due to his entertaining qualities; at first performing for prisoners then later on performing for soldiers. Robert and Renee joke how the Nazis needed something to laugh at because of what they were doing. They make it a constant reminder that without humor they could not have survived. Laughter acted as a distraction to the horror surrounding them or as actor/director Rob Reiner says “What it takes to survive, there can be humor in that.” Robert even starred in Hogan’s Heroes, a comedy sitcom that ran for 6 years about a group of American prisoners in a German prison camp during World War II. This was twenty years after the Holocaust ended yet was still a delicate subject to handle and Robert’s response was that they were making fun of the Nazis, not the camps or the events themselves.
Does this mean that everything a comic says is funny? Of course not. As a member from the Anti-Defamation League reinforces “How you do it makes a difference.” Even the king himself Mel Brooks was taken aback from jokes made by comedians Sarah Silverman and Joan Rivers. That does not mean the jokes are not funny just once again put into the realm of personal taste. Renee and Robert enjoy life and everything that it involves but other survivors are not the same. The ordeal was too much for some, finding humor and happiness in life is not as obtainable as it is for Renee and Robert. While attending a survivor’s counsel in Las Vegas Renee enjoys a gondola ride with another survivor as the gondolier sings an operatic Italian song. Renee sits in enjoyment while the other is visibly unamused. The other woman states how can she be happy with everything she went through and that others are unable to do as they do. Renee’s reply is simply in that they are not here but we are. Renee and Robert live their lives because they can, they were granted an opportunity that many were not. Both have lived and enjoyed every moment they can and as Renee says “I have three grandchildren, could Hitler think I would have three grandchildren.”
Comedy is a powerful tool that can heal, it can help us deal with unimaginable circumstances and without it we are unable to shed light on situations that we may otherwise not know how to tackle or discuss. Whether something is funny or not is not the concern. In this instance it is more so that everything holocaust survivors have experienced it is survivors like Renee and Robert that in the end can have the last laugh.
3.5 out of 5
Releases in NY March 3, 2017 & LA March 17, 2017 w/ National Roll Out to Follow