Hot Docs 2016 Review: The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh

When I was 15 years old, I worked at the local movie theatre. One of my coworkers, who wasn’t Jewish, decided he wanted to tell me a joke about Jews. Against my better judgment, I told him to go ahead. “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza?” he asked. I cringed, worried about the answer. “What?” I asked. “The pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven!” He laughed to himself for a solid minute, eventually stopping when I didn’t join in. He didn’t realize I was Jewish, for starters. Nor was he aware that my maternal grandfather had survived a Siberian work camp, having escaped the Nazis that killed his parents and sister: my great grandparents and great aunt. I snapped at him, declaring not only how unfunny the joke was, but also how stupid and insensitive it was to make a joke about the Holocaust. He felt immediate remorse, but still didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to make the joke.

In some ways, this dichotomy, the issue of censorship and a complicated right to jest, is at the heart of The Last Laugh, a documentary that explores humour and the Holocaust. Interviewing entertainers like Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob and Carl Reiner, Judy Gold, Susie Essman and Harry Shearer, director Ferne Pearlstein explores the nature of humour and propriety.

The only thing that separates the The Producers (1967, 2005) from History of the World: Part I (1981), argues Brooks, is time. We have enough chronological distance from the Spanish Inquisition, Brooks suggests, that no one batted an eye at his outstanding musical number. However, when The Producers was released, both its original incarnation and its later Broadway rendition, some Jews were morbidly offended at his audacity. The suggestion is made throughout The Last Laugh, by Brooks and others of his generation, that to mock the Holocaust itself is verboten, but to mock the Nazis was empowering, and still is. Portrayals like that in “Springtime for Hitler”, or Charlie Chaplin’s depiction in The Great Dictator, aim to remove their authority, and therefore their power, through humour and mockery. For this generation, and those surviving the Holocaust, to laugh was to disarm.

In speaking to Holocaust survivors, including entertainer Robert Clary (Hogan’s Heros), we come to understand the integral nature of humour in the ghettos, and the death camps. Survivor Renee Firestone recalls laughing to herself when receiving a full physical exam from Dr. Mengele himself, knowing full well that most of the Jews being examined were about to be gassed. The redundancy of the exam gave her, and others, enough of a giggle to help survive.

Pearlstein brings to the forefront the question of why laugh? How could you find humour in such horror? The answer, resoundingly from survivors, is that without laughter, they would never have survived during or after the Holocaust. The Nazis couldn’t understand finding humour in anything that was happening, so their control was usurped through Jewish laughter.

But in answering the complicated questions of how one could laugh in the face of such turmoil, more questions are unearthed. Who has the right to laugh at such things, and who has the right to joke? Do you jest about the Holocaust, or is it only allowed to make fun of the Nazis? How far is too far? And are only Jews allowed to investigate the murky waters of humour and this particular strife? Are younger generations of comedians incapable of truly grasping the weight of the Holocaust now that older generations of survivors are dying? It evokes issues of censorship that are unavoidable.

In many ways, The Last Laugh raises more questions than it answers. However, it encourages its audience to be thoughtful in their laughter, to ruminate on why they laugh, and what is appropriate to laugh at. To laugh at screaming Jews in an oven, for instance, is grossly insensitive. However, there is humour to be found in Dr. Mengele telling you that, should you survive this, you should have your tonsils removed. They’re rather large.

The Last Laugh has its International Premiere on Sunday, May 1st at 1:15pm at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with two more screenings on Monday, May 2nd at 9:00pm, and Saturday, May 7th at 10:30am.

Cinecast Episode 279 – Tapper’s Bar

Drunken pilots and glitchy princesses are on the agenda today as Gamble saunters in after the intro segment. Should Flight have been an angrier Anatomy of a Murder style morality tale, should Wreck-it-Ralph have swapped it’s Disney Logo to Brave while bearing the Pixar Logo? Should Matt Gamble start using Google+? All of these things and more are contained in this episode; reordered far too late at night for the hosts collective health.

As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!

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Trailer: Take This Waltz


Sarah Polley’s follow-up drama to Away From Here is really, really good. It is kind of similar in its inevitable, conflicted melancholy tone, but that is perhaps even more jarring due to the young age of the characters. It is also likely the most Toronto-heavy film since Bruce McDonald’s Picture Claire (or perhaps Atom Egoyan’s Chloe) but don’t hold that as a value judgement or comparison! The prop-details right down to the brands of micro-brew and eccentric Toronto neighborhoods, including nostalgia stops and touristy attractions reveal that Take this Waltz making a bid for some seriously textured Canadiana. Consider it all easter eggs for the locals, the movie has crumbling relationships and existential crises of happiness on the brain and certainly at the forefront.

The Leonard Cohen song is covered by Feist, and really, that should blow your mind in some small way (albeit it’s not used in the trailer below.) It’s equal parts Blue Valentine and Closer, and if you are in any way familiar with the tastes of Mike Rot, you will in no way be surprised that it was his favourite TIFF film entry from last year. He politely dragged me to see the film when it played at Canada’s Top 10 2011 retrospective and yea, I’m pretty comfortable saying that is indeed really good (lagging only slightly behind Cafe De Flore and Monsieur Lazhar – a strong year for Canadian Cinema). It’s finally getting a cinema release, and that means we are blessed with this fairly linear and standard bit of advertising below.

Take This Waltz will first come to VOD on May 25th and then get a theatrical release on June 29th.

When Margot (Michelle Williams), 28, meets Daniell (Luke Kirby), their chemistry is intense and immediate. But Margot suppresses her sudden attraction; she is happily married to Lou (Seth Rogan), a cookbook writer. When Margot learns that Daniel lives across the street from them, the certainty about her domestic life shatters. She and Daniel steal moments throughout the steaming Toronto summer, their eroticism heightened by their restraint.

Cinecast Episode 236 – Ocular Coitus

While our friend Matt Gamble is still on the mend (not from a boating accident), Kurt and Andrew grew a bit tired of executing these shows together all alone and reached towards the heavens above for this episodes guest host: Aaron Hartung (aka the dude who lives upstairs). Aaron also happens to work for the best cinema chain in town, Landmark Theaters; not only does he seem to know his movie stuff, he’s got a voice for radio to boot.

We missed last week’s episode due to other obligations and illness, there is a LOT to get to this week. From Lars von Trier’s visually rich disaster/depression epic to the long awaited new Alexander Payne film (it has indeed been six years) we cover your auteur cinema-making-guys. But wait, there’s more: Fifties sex icons, furry-little-singing-nostalgia-engines(tm) and a whole lot of early cinema history enshrined in a Martin Scorsese ‘kids film.’ Enjoy this double-digest episode of the show: It’s time to start the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to talk death, depression and the urgent need for knowing our history on the Cinecast tonight.

As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!



To download the show directly, paste the following URL into your favorite downloader:

Full show notes are under the seats…
Would you like to know more…?

I’m feeling kind of lazy and need to get to my night job…

… so, I am just going to throw some names out there. Steve Buscemi. Peter Dinklage. Romany Malco. Sarah Silverman. Tim Blake Nelson. Emmanuelle Chriqui. Oh hell, the first two names should be enough to make you go see this movie on blind faith, but if that isn’t enough for you greedy people, you can watch the trailer for a movie starring all these folks below, from first time director Hue Rhodes. Steve Buscemi doesn’t play enough leading protagonists, but last time that I can think of that he did – 2007’s Interview with Sienna Miller – I throughly enjoyed it. Oh, and PETER DINKLAGE.