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.

Elly Gross-Ferne Pearlstein-Renee Firestone

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.

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.

 

Facing the gap

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With 6 weeks until my 53rd birthday, I think I finally understand the concept of the generation gap.

You know when you’re with a group of people and two or more share a joke that isn’t funny? You stare blankly as they laugh and laugh and laugh. And when they finally catch their breath, one of them looks at you and says “You had to be there.”

That’s the generation gap.

It’s being faced with events or concepts for which you have little or no context. It simply fell outside of your life experience. And truthfully, it isn’t necessarily about age.

As an example, for months now (and possibly years), I have been struggling with comic book movies. They bore or bother me rather than entertain me, and yet I am surrounded by friends who adore them. Given my childhood fascination with comic books and Saturday cartoons, this just didn’t make sense to me.

Today’s comic book movie characters seem so dark and angry and violent that I leave the movie theatre depressed about the future of the world, not hopeful. Superheroes don’t inspire me anymore.

As a child of the 1960s and 1970s, my Batman is funny and my Superman is pure (for lack of a better word). And the only superhero that experienced anxiety was Spiderman, but he at least met it with self-deprecating wit.

[Note: Speaking of wit, I have an incredible soft spot for Robert Downey, Jr.’s Ironman, who for my money is 1000X funnier than Deadpool.]

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Today, to my eyes, Batman is psychotic. Superman kills people. And Spiderman is neurotic to the point of paralysis.

What I am quickly discovering from my gob-smacked friends is that I completely missed the graphic novel phase of these characters, where shit went south very quickly. My view of these characters is like the classic memory of “the old country”, a snapshot stuck in time.

I have also had a lot of friends rave about the new Netflix series Stranger Things. It hearkens back to classic Steven Spielberg or The Goonies, I hear. It is the 80s, they proclaim.

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That must explain why it is only vaguely interesting but not particularly gripping to me. For all my love of and respect for Steven Spielberg, the 1980s wasn’t my decade and so the references and throwbacks hold much less significance to me than they do to my friends a decade or more younger than me.

So now what?

Well, for one thing, I can stop complaining about this stuff…which is good because I don’t have a lawn to tell kids to keep off of. If it doesn’t talk to me (whatever it is), I need to just accept that and move on. It is nobody’s fault. It is simply a generation gap.

I had to be there, and I wasn’t.

And more importantly, there are plenty of other things that I can enjoy, stranger or otherwise.

Contemplating Toronto street art

I have become a massive fan of street art, lately, taking time out of my day to not only see the art that once was hidden behind my mental blinders, but also to truly appreciate the craft that goes into it.

Perhaps, my awareness is simply a component of my desire to slow my life down and spend more time in the moment. All I know is that I now spend as much time looking behind me, while walking the streets of Toronto, as I do looking in front of me (except when crossing roads).

Walking home from my favourite bacon restaurant – Rashers – the other day, I took the time to wander down a single alleyway just off Queen Street West…a SINGLE alleyway…and captured some of the art I found. Enjoy.

Behold, easily the best of Fringe Toronto

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I may have to give up comedy writing. Based on the sold-out sketch comedy show I saw last night at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern—part of the annual Fringe Festival—I am a flailing hack or self-deluded pretender.

Brought to us by the disturbed mind of Justin Haigh under the umbrella of Spoon vs. Hammer, Behold, the Barfly is a delightful show that is possibly the most consistently funny sketch comedy performance I have seen in ages, and if its run is limited solely to Toronto Fringe, we all lose out.

Trying not to spoil any of the sketches, let me just say that they are all really solid…even the ones that opened weak only to demonstrate that this was done on purpose. As a comedy fan and writer, I often found myself anticipating the direction of a sketch only to be surprised by a solid twist that never felt manipulative or like a bad M. Night Shyamalan moment.

The casting was amazing, each performer bringing his or her unique absurdity to the performance, and presenting the sketches with such vitality that they almost felt improvised (in the good sense). These are performers comfortable with their material, which is critical for sketch comedy.

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Ned Petrie is the classical Everyman who just wants to be loved (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Ned Petrie is clearly the anchor for this show. He does one delicious take after another on the Everyman, a stoic witness to the world gone mad. Eric Miinch is the clown, doing his damnedest to break up his scene partners with ad libs that enhance rather than disrupt the scenes in which he finds himself.

Elizabeth Anacleto is the shape-shifter, becoming whatever her role requires with mercurial fluidity even when required to shift smoothly within a single sketch. Marsha Mason—whom I should note I know personally—is a talent who can say more with a single facial expression than with the best written dialogue.

Jeff Hanson and Steve Hobbs are mesmerizing on stage, each one bringing an intensity to their performances that cannot be ignored, especially in one particularly disturbing turn by Hobbs. Kevin MacPherson and Sarah Thorpe, meanwhile, ably glue the entire construction together, the former largely coming in from left field at every turn.

If I have one criticism of the show, it is that it completely under-utilizes the amazingly talented women in the cast, the male performers generally taking the most significant roles.

As a male comedy writer, I completely understand the challenge of consciously writing female roles without looking like you’re writing female roles. It is not sufficient to simply lop the penis off a male character.

If Haigh and his team are given the opportunity to remount this show—dear comedy gods, let this be so—I would hope he takes time to tap more deeply the talents of these wonderful women.

In the meantime, if I want to keep writing comedy—because it’s all about me—I am seriously going to have to up my game.

Behold, the Barfly Cast

Seamless casting: (L to R) Hobbs, Thorpe, MacPherson, Miinch, Petrie, Mason, Anacleto, Hanson (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Behold, the Barfly continues at Monarch Tavern until July 10. After that, we can only hope.

Historectomy – Brexit edition

Those who do not learn from history represent 100% of the human population.

We have plenty of examples where ignoring history has preceded disaster, and in some cases, preceded a very similar event or process. But correlation does not indicate causation. For one thing, I cannot think of a single example where someone stood up and cited something from history, thereby averting a disaster.

That said, I adore the study of history and so playfully offer the following commentaries on recent efforts to “make Britain great again.”

GreatImmigrationLordy

 

 

12 Days of Gratitude – Ned

Ned Hickson

I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ned, perhaps the greatest man that I have never met…well, not in person or on the phone at any rate.

A great wit in a world stuck in the Witless Protection Program, Ned is a loving father, husband and friend who not only writes heartfelt humour but also gives of his time to protect his community as a volunteer firefighter. And yet, for as much as Ned gives, you are never left in doubt that he has time and energy for you.

I look forward to the day Ned and I finally meet in person…and likely discover we hate each other’s guts.

P.S. You can follow Ned’s insane perspectives on life on his blog: Humor at the Speed of Life (also the name of his book, available on Amazon)

(Part Six of my 12 Days of Gratitude…because the rest of the news sucks)