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.

the-last-laugh-brooks

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.

the-last-laugh-2016-sara-silverman

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.

Write…as rain

I write.

I write because I love playing with words.

I write because my head will explode if I don’t.

I write to explore ideas.

I write because I’m interested in a lot of stuff.

I write because I’m a narcissist.

I write because the stories flow through me.

I write because I’m funny (some of the time).

I write because I have thoughts worth expressing.

I write because the blank page beckons.

I write to release my pain.

I write to share my joy.

I write to add beauty to the world.

I write to keep moving.

I write to share the magnificent visions I see.

I write to exorcise and exercise the voices.

I write to play.

I write because I am a writer.

 

Why do you?

Giving Feedback – The Reviewer Strikes Back

Okay. So, now that we’ve discussed asking for and receiving feedback, is there anything we should consider before giving feedback.

We’ve all been on the other side, awaiting a kind word or a withering criticism from a respected compatriot or senior, so we should all be aware of the power of the right word at the right time. You have been given an honour by the recipient and should give him or her and the work the respect they deserve.

Below, I offer some thoughts on how to approach the feedback process when asked, but (sorry for the broken record) I want to hear what you think too.

Feedback is personal. It reflects who you are, what you believe and how you feel. Don’t try to make it otherwise, lest you lose any value it provides. The writer asked you for very specific reasons. To give them anything less than you is a disservice.

Make sure, however, that your feedback is more than just opinion, even though that forms the basis of it. There is a world of difference between superficial criticism and thoughtful critique. Criticism is about saying what you feel. Critique is about asking yourself why you feel that way and discussing what it means with the writer.

Ask questions. Be sure to ask questions both before and after you’ve completed your analysis. What kind of feedback are you looking for? Is there anything you specifically want me to keep an eye out for? What was your thinking behind this scene or character?

Without knowing the answers to these kinds of questions, I don’t think you can offer the most effective feedback. Likewise, the answers may provide you with a framework on which to build your feedback or tell if you’ve misunderstood something significant.

Be honest. Never be afraid to tell the truth, no matter how brutal. You’re the best judge of what you think the writer can handle, but by the same token, they’ve asked for your help and holding back may be counterproductive. It’s possible to be honest without crushing someone, and I don’t mean making a shit sandwich (good news-bad news-good news). Rather, walk them through your thinking as you read their stuff and, even if they don’t beat you to the conclusion, at least they understand your reasoning.

And wherever possible, don’t leave them hanging. Offer suggestions as to how the work could be improved or fixed. If you have no ideas pre-emptively, brainstorm it with them. If nothing else, it will show the writer that you’ve invested in his or her work.

DON’T COPYEDIT. That’s not feedback, it’s copyediting. Unless the spelling of a word or the punctuation of a sentence significantly impacts the meaning of a sentence, leave it alone. It ends up being a distraction from the important conversations. If their climax sucks (you’ll want to be more specific), who cares that they should have used a semi-colon or incorrectly used “its” instead of “it’s”?

Put it in writing. Even the most seasoned writer will miss important tidbits of information while scrambling to take notes on your feedback. By writing your feedback out, preferably within the manuscript itself, you give the writer the chance to follow what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, rather than focusing on the details of the feedback, which they can do at their leisure.

Look for the bigger picture. As you compile your feedback, look for trends or commonalities. As with receiving feedback, ask yourself if any groups of notes refer to the same issue; e.g., a lot of scenes take too long to get started or could be started later without losing the story. Be ready to provide examples, of course, as the bigger picture is typically less obvious, but try to avoid getting stuck in the weeds.

Besides, if there are fundamental issues with the story or its presentation, then all of the nitpicky stuff is unimportant and you’ll be wasting your and the writer’s time.

Your feedback; the writer’s work. Even if you inscribe your comments on stone (see “burning bush”), the writer does not have to agree with you. It is important as you analyze someone’s work that you remember it is their work. Although you can help them develop their voice and style, it is not your task to change their voice or style. Likewise, and more importantly, it is not your job to convert their work to your voice.

Me acting like I could ever teach anything about comedy to the very funny ladies Nicole Rubacha and Megan Mack

Me acting like I could ever teach anything about comedy to the very funny ladies Nicole Rubacha and Megan Mack