The Last Laugh – review

Last Laugh poster

As I sat in Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, munching my popcorn and sipping my soda, I started to get the sneaking suspicion I had accidentally seated myself in a Synagogue, such was the nature of the audience who slowly closed in around me.

And as the theatre lights dimmed, I realized that they were here to see a documentary about the Holocaust, while I was here to see one about comedy. We were both in the right place.

For me, the central theme of The Last Laugh is the question: Is there any topic that is off-limits to comedy?

For the others, it was probably more a question of whether any humour could be found in something as horrific as the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews.

Through a series of interviews with comedians—most Jewish—and Holocaust survivors, centering on the thoughts of Renee Firestone, The Last Laugh pivots back and forth between heavy discussions about survival under unreal conditions and light-hearted attempts to understand the dark humours arising from those conditions as expressed by the generations of comedians that followed.

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As Mel Brooks pointed out, if he had tried to produce “The Inquisition” sequence of History of the World, Part I back in the late 1400s, he probably wouldn’t have fared as well in 1981. Likewise, other comedians pointed out that when The Producers was released in 1968, the concept of “Spring Time for Hitler” was scandalous, whereas people seeing the Broadway musical now are apt to sing along with the music.

For many, it was a matter of timing. How much time had passed since the original horror? For others, it was a bit more complicated, and it was generations more than years that needed to pass, citing examples where the children of Holocaust survivors—people who themselves did not experience and therefore release the horrors—were more apt to get upset about Holocaust jokes than their parents.

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Interestingly, Brooks himself was quick to note that the Holocaust was a line he could not cross himself, but that if someone else made a funny joke, he could laugh at it.

Going back to survivor Firestone, it was very interesting to see her perspectives on this question and the various attempts by comedians like Sara Silverman to touch the subject. For Firestone, none of the jokes seemed to come across as funny, but some she acknowledged were very close to the truth of the experience or how society now thought of it.

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Writer/director Ferne Pearlstein (centre) with survivors Elly Gross and Renee Firestone

And she could see in hindsight the humour of some of the camp activities as the prisoners (I am at a loss for a better word to describe those held captive) tried to maintain a grip on sanity within the camps, whether it was preparing imaginary dinner parties or performing musical revues.

Countering opinions also entered the fray as people debated the merits of the film Life is Beautiful, most of the comedians considering it terrible and an ironic whitewashing of the horror, or bringing in other recent events such as Jim Crow racism or the events of 9/11.

Life is Beautiful

Ultimately, while I’m not sure the question of off-limit topics was ever really answered, everyone who watched the documentary was affected by it.

Where your heart was broken by a recounted memory, it was shortly thereafter mended by quip.

Where your breath caught in your chest at a recalled horror, it quickly burst forth in a gush of laughter.

After 88 minutes riding waves of conflicting emotions, the audience was neither depressed, nor bemused, but likely to a person, they had asked questions they had never considered before. Can’t really ask more of a documentary.

With my compliments

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Have you complimented someone today? This week? This month?

It’s amazing what a few words of support and kindness can do for someone who feels like he or she is uncertain or struggling to accomplish specific goals or develop certain skills.

And those kind words are particularly important when they come from someone who is in a position of authority in that subject.

I am an amateur photographer; a good one, in my own opinion. And I am eternally grateful for and happy to hear friends and loved ones tell me when they like a particular photo or group of images.

But recently, I have received some very kind comments from other photographers, whose work impresses the hell out of me, and who, in a few cases, don’t know me beyond what they have seen of my work on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.

Earlier today, someone I did not know stopped by my Instagram account to comment on an image I posted recently.

Simply wonderful! You got what it takes for a good photographer!

I immediately jumped over to his account and realized that I was being complimented by someone who I believe has amazing talent. This is someone making a career as a professional photographer.

I have likewise built a nice friendship with one of the official photographers for my beloved Toronto Marlies; a man who will periodically compliment me on a particularly good shot. I have told him as much, but I’m not sure he believes how much his kind words and encouragement mean to me.

When someone does well, I like to let them know I think so. I think my compliments are most powerful, however, when they related to writing; my particular strength.

What is your area of expertise or authority?

When was the last time you took a moment to tell someone further down the development chain that he or she had done a really good job on something or that you found his or her work impressive?

Trust me; it will make their day to hear that.

And if you are already spreading encouragement and passion, thank you for that. We need to make sure this spreads.

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You never know what people will like…so don’t try to anticipate; just create

Obnoxiously happy

 

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Dear World,

My apologies if my happiness has gotten a tad obnoxious of late, but my life is blessed in so many ways that I simply cannot keep the joy inside, nor truthfully do I wish to.

Alongside the wonderful gifts I am given every day, I am routinely presented with insane opportunities to express and explore the passions that light up my soul, whether it is writing or photography or sharing knowledge.

But beyond even that, I sit in complete awe at the wondrous passions of the people around me; people with amazing visions of who they are and how the world can be.

I know painters and actors and writers and musicians; parents and partners and children and pets; athletes and industrialists and service workers and technicians. And every single one of those people bring me insane joy simply by following their own passions, whether within their titles or not, and allowing me to be witness and in some cases, participant.

Even watching perfect strangers experience their worlds, or Nature express itself from day to day, brings a beauty and elegance that I simply did not choose to see in my former life but do now.

So how can my heart not burst forth, my spirit soar and the laughter ring forth?

I am both a newborn child seeing things for the first time and an ageless ancient finally understanding the patterns that have always splayed out before my once dulled eyes.

That is my joy. That is my happiness. That is my love.

And unasked, that is what I share with the world.

The Incoherent Blues

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As I rode the streetcar home last night, a streetcar busy with revelers heading downtown to party in the various bars and clubs, a louder-than-expected noise rose from the front. The sound was vaguely human and from its rising volume, I could only assume was approaching my area in the back.

Suddenly, an awkwardly rampaging bear of a man burst through the crowd, intent more on maintaining his feet than malevolence. It was just one of the many street denizens that populate Toronto, and this one was exceptionally inebriated, and loudly so.

Proving the theory that if you fall in all directions at the same time, you will stay on your feet, this tottering mass of humanity somehow lurched itself to a seat near the back of the streetcar, announcing to everyone—real or imaginary—that he had arrived.

His volume remained ear-splitting and mentally crushing, yet despite sounding like he was irritated with someone or something—Why are curse words so easy to enunciate under even the worst of conditions, while every other word remains a garbled mess?—he remained relatively harmless.

Had this been the extent of the interaction, he would have remained white noise in my background (I’m not sure, but perhaps I should be ashamed to admit that), and I would have blissfully gone back to contemplating the photos I had just taken at a hockey game or taken in the sights that passed outside my window.

But something changed.

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From somewhere within the mental and chemical maelstrom that struggled to maintain its physical if not social integrity behind me, beauty arose in the form of music.

Even though the man himself remained incoherent, magic happened when he placed a small harmonica against his lips. Riffs of Blues music poured forth in brief bursts.

Between these bursts, he continued his bilious bellowings; there was no attempt at lyrics to the best my ear could discern.

But the man mountain’s inner song rose slowly, incidental music to a life of struggle and dysfunction, signs perhaps that at one time, this free-range citizen was more free spirit.

The tide of revelers ebbed and flowed around the music man for several minutes as we continued our way across the city, most doing their best to ignore the intruder other than to throw incredulous glances or bemused smiles to one another.

Eventually, the music stopped as the human-encased chaos plunged out the back door into the night.

And if only in the smallest way, he left me changed as what otherwise would have been a self-indulgent ride across the city became a wondrous duel between incapacity and limitless capacity.

I hope he found repose.

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Demystifying Expertise

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Each of us tends to undersell (or completely disbelieve) our expertise on subjects that are near and dear to our hearts. Expertise, we believe, is something other people have.

And yet, I am convinced that we are more expert than we think. And fortunately, we are living in a time where methods to convince others of our expertise has never been easier.

Watch my recent Facebook Live video Demystifying Expertise and see if you agree.

 

Artists I adore (and you should follow)

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Barnaby Dixon – puppetry

As many of you know, I am nutso for puppetry and have somehow managed to know some amazingly talented puppeteers. But as much as I adore my friends, one fellow blows me away not just for his skill as a puppeteer, but also as a puppet designer.

For a guy that looks like he’s 12—I’m over 50, so you all look 12 to me—Barnaby Dixon seems ancient in his craft and wisdom. From the very first YouTube video I watched, he has dazzled me with his love of the art form, his ability to bring the inanimate to life, and his presentation style that draws you in and makes you feel like this is a private conversation. Stellar!

Visit Barnaby’s web site, Facebook page and Twitter account

 

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Baram & Snieckus – comedy

I know, I know. I have to get past my addiction to these beautiful sketch and improv wunderkinds. But I can’t help myself.

Apart, Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are wonderfully funny and vulnerable and endearing, but together, they rocket off the charts.

As I have reviewed previously (see below), Baram & Snieckus are to the modern era what Stiller & Meara and Nichols & May were to theirs, people who express the challenges and wonders of social awkwardness, allowing us to laugh at the things that frighten us in our daily lives.

No one is more neurotic than Matt…until Naomi erupts in her own mental mushroom cloud.

And that this husband-and-wife team are beautiful, friendly, giving, caring people is an absolute bonus.

You can follow Matt & Naomi on their web site, Facebook page or Twitter.

 

See also:

You and Me Both – A revue review

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

 

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Filippa Levemark – visual arts

As a photographer, I adore nature. As a writer, I adore bizarre or interesting juxtapositions. Thus, I had no choice but to fall in love with Filippa Levemark’s work.

With the seemingly simplest of compositions, Filippa combines nature and human infrastructure to powerfully demonstrate that the two worlds are one and the same. Try as it might, humanity cannot hold itself as distinct from the wildlife that surrounds us, nor should it.

Her work is beautifully approachable and yet is rife with meaning, offering depths that may be missed at first glance.

Based in Sweden, my greatest hope is to find a way for her to bring her works to Canada.

You can follow Filippa on her web site, Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

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Irene Carl Sankoff & David Hein – musical theatre

As a student at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre several years ago, I had the great fortune to meet and do improv with a gorgeous and talented actress named Irene Sankoff, a truly giving performer.

Years later, I heard that Irene and her husband David Hein had created the somewhat autobiographical stage musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which played to wonderful reviews in Toronto. What I didn’t realize was that the musical would explode in the theatre world both in Canada and abroad, setting these two up as a creative force of nature.

And just this past year, they have repeated (and likely surpassed) that success with a new musical Come From Away, based on events in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 when hundreds of air passengers found themselves suddenly grounded.

The musical just completed a spectacularly successful run in Toronto and begins Broadway previews on Feb 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, where it is sure to sell out quickly.

But like my Baram & Snieckus comment above, what makes these two particularly special is that they are genuinely wonderful people and have such love for their craft and for the people who come see the show.

Recently, on a frigid Toronto morning, the pair brought coffee and donuts to fans waiting for rush tickets to their final Toronto performance (Toronto Star article). The pair and performers from the show entertained the small crowd, singing songs and chatting with the chilled throng. That is simply beautiful.

Follow Irene & David’s adventures on their web site, Facebook and Twitter.

 

Whither the losers

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History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.

Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.

It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.

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Faces or a vase? Old woman or young?

Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.

If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.

What happens when you don’t follow the model?

What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?

Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.

Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.

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Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.

(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)

You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.

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And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.

Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).

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See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)