52nd Chicago International Film Festival Screening #13: “The Last Laugh” (USA)

“The Last Laugh” (USA)
Directed by Ferne Pearlstein

renee_firestone“The Last Laugh” is a joyful, yet occasionally difficult, documentary that picks up in some ways where “The Aristocrats” left off…analyzing a very specific subset of humor in Western culture. However, in this instance, rather than detail a specific joke, “The Last Laugh” asks the question, can you successfully perform a joke about the Holocaust?

To counter the irreverent discussion of an extremely reverential topic, the film follows Renee Firestone…a survivor of Auschwitz who has been outspoken about the need to enjoy life post-internment. She acts as a kind of ultimate arbiter…judging jokes as funny, distasteful, or most often, just not funny in or out of context,  while watching them on YouTube. But the talking heads are where the film shines. Mel Brooks, Rob & Carl Reiner, Gilbert Godfrey, Sarah Silverman, Jeffrey Ross and on and on (including actual Holocaust survivor, Robert Clary)…a virtual who’s who of comics willing to step off the ledge of good taste in hopes of landing a laugh…or, at least, willing to discuss the ins and outs of post-WWII humor as it relates to Jews..and, among other things, the differentiation of Nazi jokes versus Holocaust jokes…and/or if there can even BE a Holocaust joke.

In the Q&A with director, Ferne Pearlstein, after the screening, she mentioned that the film really didn’t come together until she was able to interview the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman. While she may feel this way, I thought his presence undercut much of the film…although one moment of judgement, closely following those of the great comics, is quite hilarious.

This is a very, very funny film, and you will learn, quite quickly, which side you land on when answering the “can there be a funny Holocaust” joke. And if you find them funny, you will also learn, just as quickly, how other audience members regard you. In other words, I received quite a few menacing stares when I laughed at a joke or two or three. I would think anyone has a right to laugh if the joke is funny, but if I weren’t a Jew, would I feel okay about others laughing? Looking inward to answer that question is, to me, where the film’s true power lies.

Highly recommended – no matter what religion you practice or eschew!

Written on 11/1/2016

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