Review: ‘The Last Laugh’

Hot Docs 2016

Courtesy of Hot Docs

The Last Laugh
(USA, 85 min.)
Dir. Ferne Pearlstein
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

What are the limits of humour? Can one joke about the fascist without belittling the seriousness of fascism? When is it too soon to laugh at a maniac intent on genocide? Is it ever time to find light within the darkness of death? These profound questions are at the heart of Ferne Pearlstein’s entertaining and deeply philosophical The Last Laugh, a work tracing an almost Talmudic quandary – can Jews, or even gentiles, tell jokes about the Holocaust without themselves creating a shonde (or in English, shameful scandal)?

With interviews from a pantheon of funny people including Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried and many more, the documentary deftly covers the grey area between being disrespectful to the memory of those that suffered during the Holocaust and refusing to lose one’s humanity (and humour) in the fact of annihilation. Each comedian finds lines to be crossed or respected, with the overarching mandate being that the joke has to be funny, first, and the rationalisation can come a bit later. Silverman’s shtick is particularly brazen, unafraid to go where even Brooks refuses to travel.

At the same time, the film looks at survivors of the camps and how even during the darkest times, the surrealism of their suffering caused them to find ways of laughing. The contrast between the lives of those that held onto happiness versus those who can’t forget the torment is a telling one, adding a more sophisticated level to the film than otherwise might be assumed by its premise.

Ferne Pearlstein does well to keep the questions coming and the conversation a rich one, presenting to a wide audience the kind of kibitzing that has characterized Jewish comics.

The Last Laugh screens:
-Saturday, May 7 at the Isabel Bader at 10:30 AM