“Putting the ‘Ha’ in Holocaust”: The Last Laugh

The-Last-Laugh-2016-Mel Brooks

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The Last Laugh
Directed by Ferne Pearlstein
Opens March 3 at Lincoln Plaza

Hey, heard the one about the mass extermination of Jews conducted by the Nazis in the 1930s and the 1940s? Sorry, no punchline here—just thought I’d open this review with the totally unfunny fact that underlies The Last Laugh, Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary about the history and ethical implications of so-called “Holocaust humor.”

Because that’s what all such humor comes back to, does it not? Making light, in one form or another, of genocide. Interviewing a Who’s Who of mostly Jewish-American comedy legends—from Mel Brooks to Robert Clary to Sarah Silverman—Pearlstein explores whether and how the Holocaust can serve as fodder for a chuckle or bust gut. At first the results are disappointing. Artists are often poor critics of art, and the comedians in The Last Laugh mostly use a bevy of clichés—“Comedy shines light through the darkness,” “Comedy is tragedy plus time”—to justify the ultimate in gallows humor.

But then different, and sometimes radically contentious, takes on the subject emerge. Almost all the interview subjects agree that there’s nothing wrong with mocking Nazis, though The Last Laugh unfortunately glosses over the film that set the gold standard for such mockery, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be (1942), in order to spotlight Brooks’ now-quaint-and-commercialized The Producers (1968). Opinions diverge, however, as to whether the Nazi’s greatest “achievement,” the Holocaust itself, should be a comedic target. Brooks refuses to go there, but others sure do: Joan Rivers, Lisa Lampanelli, and Silverman see the Final Solution as fair game, though all agree that if you’re going to use the Holocaust in or as a joke that joke better be damn funny.

A few non-comedians offer judgments as to whether various Holocaust jokes “work.” A former NBC Standards & Practices V.P. regrets having not fought the Soup Nazi episode of Seinfeld on grounds of Holocaust trivialization, while Former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman censures Rivers and Sacha Baron Cohen for unintentionally promoting rather than critiquing the anti-Semitism at the heart of Jew-killing jokes. Foxman’s misgivings are complicated, however, not only by his consistent humorlessness but also by his status as a Holocaust survivor. On one hand, Foxman’s the kind of guy who actually sees merit in Roberto Benigni’s disgustingly mawkish Life Is Beautiful (1997), a film rightly denounced in The Last Laugh by Brooks (“The worst movie ever made”), David Cross (“A shittier version of [Jerry Lewis’s infamously unreleased] The Day the Clown Cried”) and Gilbert Gottfried (“Seriously, the blurb should have read ‘He puts the “Ha” in “Holocaust”’”). On the other hand, Foxman says his parents helped him survive the Holocaust in part through their Life Is Beautiful-esque humor and optimism—given that in comparison the worst problems of my life amount to a stubbed pinky toe, who am I to say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

The best critic is Renee Firestone, whose story as a Holocaust survivor and educator is interwoven throughout The Last Laugh as a sort of hardline reality check. Pearlstein depicts Firestone visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC (where she sees a photograph of her sister, who was murdered by the Nazis), lecturing middle school students, meeting with other survivors, and watching stand-up routines by Lampanelli and Silverman, as well as clips from Curb Your Enthusiasm, that touch on the Holocaust. Firestone deems none of them funny, and I agree—not because they’re offensive, but because they’re lame. In short, Firestone possesses sharp comedic radar.

Of all the jokes surveyed in The Last Laugh only Silverman’s “What do Jews hate most about the Holocaust? The cost!” crosses the line into out-and-out anti-Semitic territory. Jews are cheap—get it? This is where I wish The Last Laugh was a little more sociological in its study of Holocaust humor. I wouldn’t call Silverman anti-Semitic (again, she’s Jewish), but I would call her, on many occasions, opportunistic. The fact of the matter is that between The Producers’s lampooning of the showbizification of Nazism and the recent mainstream success of comedians and clownish celebrities who traffic in pre-packaged Am-I-racist-or-am-I-kidding? “controversy”—from Amy Schumer to Milo Yiannopoulos—actual humor seems to have taken a backseat to self-promotion. Whereas Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks targeted taboo words and topics in order to criticize political and social conventions, someone like Silverman frequently exploits taboo subject matter to portray herself as too-ironic-to-be-outraged. To use a phrase from Yiddish showbiz, that’s her shtick. Sure, we’ve all told or laughed at dead baby jokes, Polish jokes, Ethiopian starvation jokes, etc., but in an age where manipulated outrage has become a distracting sideshow to the difficult complexities of real life, such a shtick cannot stir the pot. In this sense only Larry Charles among The Last Laugh interviewees seems to understand that truly subversive humor wouldn’t be sanctioned by society at all, and suggests that the last comedic frontier is anything having to do with Muhammad. Forget issues of bad taste, “too soon,” or “this is my turf” (the idea that only Jewish comedians should make Holocaust jokes)—mocking Muhammad, as the Charlie Hebdo incident sadly proved, may very well cost you your life.

Ultimately, what I came away with from The Last Laugh is that Holocaust humor, or any humor centered on mass death and suffering, is rarely successful. If the Holocaust is used as a punchline for a joke that mocks something else (Lampanelli at a roast of David Hasselhoff: “David, your singing is huge in Germany. If they had played your music in Auschwitz the Jews would have sprinted for those ovens.” Wa-WAAAAA), then it acts as a lazy attention-getting contrivance while simultaneously abstracting the reality of immeasurable horror. Yet if the Holocaust itself is mocked then the joke isn’t funny unless you’re a neo-Nazi or a fan of pointless shock value. Most effective are jokes that make fun of the trivialization of the Holocaust (The Sarah Silverman Show’s “Holocaust Memorial Smackdown”: “Auschwitz? You’ll be saying ‘Wowshwitz’!”) or else the absurdity of incorporating the terror of Nazism and the tragedy of the Holocaust into everyday routine (Gottfried delivering a classic in which two Jewish assassins impatiently await the arrival of Hitler: “Gee, I hope nothing happened to him”). But for the most part, and despite some superlative exceptions to the rule, Holocaust jokes contribute to that very trivialization and absurdity.

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