As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed more conversations and thinkpieces about what topics are off-limits for comedians, such as racist jokes, jokes about rape, jokes about The Holocaust, and so on. This might stray into a larger conversation about trigger warnings and political correctness, but what it all might come down to is matter of taste. The scale of personal offense differs from person to person, and what one person might find acceptable for joke fuel (so long as the joke is good) may be terrible to someone else.
During one scene in Ferne Pearlstein’s documentary The Last Laugh, Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone watches a few stand-up comedians do their Holocaust jokes. Renee doesn’t find them funny, and nor should she. And yet, is it wrong to laugh, even just out of audacity, knowing full well how tasteless the joke is? Similarly, knowing how offensive the material may be, should comedians make those sorts of jokes?
The Last Laugh
Director: Ferne Pearlstein
Release Date: TBD
It seems a cop out to say your mileage may vary, and yet that seems the only viable answer. Mel Brooks appears in the film doing an excellent Hitler impersonation using a black comb. (A subtle adjustment of the comb and he becomes Joseph Stalin–tada!) Brooks will mock Hitler relentlessly and delights in it, but could never make a joke about The Holocaust itself. It’s his personal limit. The Spanish Inquisition is fine, though–jokes are all about the timing. Sarah Silverman, on the other hand, goes all out. There’s even mention of the mixed response to Hogan’s Heroes and Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, with polarized opinions coming from comedians, filmmakers, and a representative from the Anti-Defamation League.
The discussions aren’t particularly new since any discussion of the uses of comedy has to consider the limits (if any) of comedic material. There’s the idea of inflicting ridicule as a type of power for the powerless and the idea of hope and the idea that certain communities and groups are able to make certain kinds of jokes while others aren’t–with Holocaust jokes, the suffering is a Jewish experience and so should be the comedic catharsis. What’s interesting is the juggling act between Firestone as a survivor and an speaker at museums who shares her pain and the comedians who never had to live through her experiences. A generational aspect is added to the subjective one. Yet the two sides don’t quite gel, which makes the movie feel like a bit of a Venn diagram–two separate docs with something common between them.
There’s probably a more substantive discussion about comedy, its limits, and what comedians should consider when making jokes about oppressed groups or about a particularly dark period in history. The Last Laugh might not delve much deeper into that discussion about the art of comedy, but that’s fine. It gives a human face to a survivor of the worst indignities of the 20th century. That Renee smiles is hopeful. We can’t possibly laugh at her, and it’s presumptuous to say we laugh for her just given the subjectivity of humor. We laugh with her because she’s still able to do so herself; maybe we laugh because otherwise we’d just cry.