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.
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.
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.
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.
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.