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.