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'The Last Laugh' doc': Nazi jokes? Sure! Holocaust jokes? Not so much

Director Ferne Pearlstein and Mel Brooks in
Director Ferne Pearlstein and Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh."
Tangerine Entertainment
Director Ferne Pearlstein and Mel Brooks in
David Cross in Ferne Pearlstein's "The Last Laugh."
Anne Etheridge

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Just how far are comics allowed to go when it comes to the Holocaust?

That's a question that director Ferne Pearlstein explores in her new documentary “The Last Laugh." In the film, many comedians and directors weigh in. The opinions are varied and the examples are plentiful. She looks at scenes from Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat”, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and the soup Nazi from “Seinfeld.” There’s also footage from WWII work camps – as opposed to death camps – where Jewish prisoners put on subversive cabaret shows in front of the Nazi guards.

Pearlstein also features Renee Firestone and her daughter Clara Firestone in the movie. Renee is a Holocaust survivor and her perspective provides a counterpoint to the comedians. When she and Pearlstein joined The Frame's John Horn in the studio this week, Ferne told said that the film was inspired by a friend’s college dissertation on the subject and that it took more than 2 decades to get the movie made.

Interview Highlights

Making a comedic film about the Holocaust isn't easy:

Pearlstein: There's this assumption that it's going to be laughing at the holocaust, which the film doesn't do and never intended to do. I don't think people can get their heads around it and even funders especially are worried about that. Maybe Renee can talk to that.

Firestone: After the Holocaust, much later of course, I have done five films. It's interesting because the first film was called "The Last Days." It was a Steven Spielberg movie. This one is called "The Last Laugh." So I think this is probably the last movie I'm going to make. I'm glad that I did it because this is my favorite.

Holocaust survivor, Renee Firestone, in
Holocaust survivor, Renee Firestone, in "The Last Laugh."
Anne Etheridge

Why having a Holocaust survivor who could laugh was important to the film:

Pearlstein: I contacted another woman who lives in L.A. Hanala Stadner, who wrote "My Parents Went Through The Holocaust and All I Got was this Lousy T-shirt" — she agreed to be interviewed and I said, maybe you could help me find other people. I'm looking to speak to a survivor who doesn't think it's okay to laugh, a survivor who does think it's okay and children of survivors. I was uncovering this dark sense of humor there that people don't really know about. She said, I have the perfect mother and daughter for you. Her daughter Clara started Second Generation Los Angeles. She's an activist in her own right. Her mother goes around the world — Renee — talking about the Holocaust. They're very funny and have a great sense of humor. We spoke fifteen minutes later and we knew right away. I had been looking for this observational story and I didn't know that was going to be it until I got them on the phone and it all clicked. 

How Renee assesses if a joke about the Holocaust is funny:

Firestone: If it reminds me of me being there, then it's not funny. If it reminds me of any of the soldiers or any of the military men that killed my parents, that's not funny. But, if you talk about some of the things that actually happened in the camp and some of the things that the survivors did to survive, some of it is funny. 

Mel Brooks in Ferne Pearlstein's
Mel Brooks in Ferne Pearlstein's "The Last Laugh."
Tangerine Entertainment

The difference between a Nazi joke and a Holocaust joke:

Pearlstein: You can make fun of the perpetrators — you can make fun of the Nazis — but you can't make fun of the victims or the camps. That's what many people think. It wasn't until I started heavily researching my interview for Mel Brooks that I really understood that he made such a strong distinction there. It's funny because when I first started to interview the comedians, because it's such a serious subject, I wanted to make sure that they were going to be themselves and be comedians in the interviews and not just conversational. I had this idea where we would start every interview with, do you have a Holocaust joke? And I started to find this really interesting thing that was happening because they'd say, I don't have a Holocaust joke but I do have a Nazi joke. And then they'd say the joke. Then it wasn't until the fifth or sixth interview that I realized there was this pattern. Everybody that I spoke to has their own personal line except for Gilbert Gottfried. When I presented that joke to him he was like, there was a Holocaust? Nobody told me. He doesn't make that distinction at all.

Jokes reveal just as much about the audience as the comic:

Pearlstein: My European premier was in Munich (laughs). I think there are different levels of free speech and I don't think you can laugh at a Holocaust joke, you know? And it's ingrained. During those jokes you could feel the — I don't know if it was tension, but you could feel it. The only time they would allow themselves to joke was maybe if Renee or Robert Clary made a joke. It was sort of like they gave them permission. The other times that they laughed was when there were cheap Jew jokes, which really made me uncomfortable. I was probably the only Jewish person in the audience two nights in a row and there's also the tension of holding it in so long that they laugh so incredibly loud and there was no connection to, oh we shouldn't be laughing at this.

Sarah Silverman in Ferne Pearlstein's
Sarah Silverman in Ferne Pearlstein's "The Last Laugh."

Humor is one way to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive:

Firestone: I do believe that. I do believe that whether it's humor or just a sad story about the Holocaust, it reminds us that there was one. Most of the world forgot. The trouble is that humanity really forgot about the Holocaust and that's why the world looks the way we look today.

"The Last Laugh" is in movie theaters on March 17th and on PBS April 24th. To hear the full interview click the play button at the top of this page or get The Frame podcast on iTunes.

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