DocEdge 17 | The Last Laugh

the last laugh

Is it ever acceptable to make jokes about a real tragedy? This is the question at the heart of Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary The Last Laugh, which focuses on humour and the Holocaust. The documentary includes interviews with a range of comedians, directors and actors, from the legendary Mel Brooks to Judy Gold, Carl Reiner and Sarah Silverman. It also explores a number of musicals, films and skits that address the Holocaust in a comedic light. Examining the fine line between bad taste and successful comedy, the documentary pushes viewers to consider the concept of free speech in our increasingly PC world

To clarify one thing, in no way is The Last Laugh trying to claim that the Holocaust itself is funny. “But survival, and what it takes to survive…there can be humour in that,” Reiner points out. Furthermore, humour can be an avenue for coping with trauma: “it’s a way of dealing with an unbearable reality,” writer Etgar Keret says. “It’s a way of protesting [and] keeping your dignity.” Is it then simply a matter of time that makes it acceptable to joke about extreme tragedy? Does time make a difference, or will it never be okay? “You cannot forget,” claims one survivor at the Holocaust Survivors Convention in Las Vegas. “The shadow is following me all my life.” To her, and several others at the convention, it is wrong and deeply offensive to joke about the Holocaust. However as Renee Firestone, another survivor who features throughout the documentary, notes, you have to learn to live your life away from the shadow. Mentioning her three great-grandchildren she laughs, claiming “that’s my revenge” against Hitler.

Does this mean it is then a question of who can tell a story? Is it acceptable for Jewish survivors to joke about the Holocaust, but implausible for anyone else? The documentary looks at other examples to broaden the scope of the argument, comparing the situation to 9/11, the aids epidemic, slavery and white supremacy. It’s certainly thought-provoking, begging the question that, in a world of supposed free speech, are the people who have experienced a tragedy the only ones qualified to publicly address it?

Regardless, the interviewees all agree on the difficulty of joking about such a tragic historical moment. There is far more pressure for risky comedy of this nature to be humorous, Gold claims. “You can’t tell a crappy joke about the biggest tragedy in the world!” Despite the risk, Silverman believes that comedy should be used as a way of contemplating devastating occurrences. “It’s important to talk about things that are taboo,” she says. “Otherwise they just stay in this dark place and they become dangerous.” By discussing a topic only through education, museums and other ‘acceptable’ channels, do we lose sight of its importance and relegate it to a thing of the past? Perhaps. The Last Laugh will make you consider all of the above questions and then some. Maybe, however, we should just maintain Reiner’s personal view: “I don’t have a philosophy about it,” he states. “I just know that it’s a lot more fun to laugh than not to laugh.”

 

The 12th DocEdge Festival takes place Auckland 24 May – 5 June – www.docedge.nz