Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, CompuServe Film d-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Ferne Pearlstein
Written by: Ferne Pearlstein, Robert Edwards, inspired by Kent Kirshenbaum’s “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust.”
Cast: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Renee Firestone, Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, Larry Charles, Abraham Foxman
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/13/17
Opens: April 12, 2017
An 87-year-old Jewish woman living in Miami Beach wins the 200 million dollar lottery. She’s asked what she would do with the money. “I would build a statue of Adolf Hitler!” “Adolf Hitler!” replies the journalist? “Sure,” she replies holding up her bare arm. “Where do you think I got the number?”
Do you think this joke is a) unfunny and inappropriate, b) funny but inappropriate, c) funny and appropriate? Your answer to this question could determine your response to a number of other gags on Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary, “The Last Laugh.” While most of us would probably think it’s OK to have fun with the Spanish Inquisition because of the number of centuries that have passed, others will hesitate to want to hear about an event so recent and so devastating as the Nazi Holocaust.
An array of current comedians, mostly Jewish, tackle the subject, some with object lessons in their stand-up acts, others facing the camera and answering queries about their attitudes. The one person who is not a comedian and who is used here to act as a judge is Renee Firestone, a California-dwelling 89-year-old survivor who spends her time actively speaking to audiences such as the one in high school shown here in which the students looked riveted (you can tell because not one tried to text). She does not hate the Nazis because, she says, hate kills and what’s more, though that six million Jews were killed over a twelve-year period 1933-1945, in just four months a million Tutsis were massacred by Hutus in Rwanda. Never again?
There is a consensus that if you’re a Jewish comedian, you have the right to break through taboos and tell gags about the death of six million just as you’d have to be a black man to use the “n” word (we hear enough of that today, mostly from young, African-American males). Even Lenny Bruce was dug up in the array of archival films, spouting just about every pejorative in the business, using offensive words against Jews, blacks, Irish and Hispanics, and arrested for his troubles—something that would not likely happen today in America, where bigots are not only tolerated but can even be elected president.
Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner and others stand firm for free speech, Ms. Silverman once shocking even me in a stand-up show by riffing on Jesus’ crucifixion. Even Abraham Foxman who heads the Anti-Defamation League, gives humor about Jewish tragedies a wide berth. The biggest caveat, one expressed by several participants, is that when comedians send up victims, actually though satirizing the oppressors rather than the down-and-out, people will go away taking them literally rather than ironically.
Half the jokes fell flat in my view seeming not to be worth the trouble to relate them, and to a Muslim, jokes about the prophet would likely lead to the throwing of a bomb in the buildings housing the jokers. Otherwise, I doubt that free speech allowed to Jewish comics leads to anti-Semitic outbursts. Haters of Jews need no comedians to provoke their sickness. What should be permanently out of bounds? Some agree that child molestation can never be a laughing matter. Many believe that 9/11 should be off limits for humor. What do you think?
Unrated. 89 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Comments, readers? Agree? Disagree? Why?