By Kyle Wooldridge
The old saying goes, “tragedy + time = comedy,” but is this really the case? Is it ever appropriate to joke about tragedy? If so, how much time needs to pass before it is appropriate? These are the kinds of questions that comedians have to ask themselves every day in order to do what they do. One of the biggest and most controversial topics in this regard is the Holocaust. This is a particularly sensitive issue for Jewish comedians, as they obviously have direct ties with this particular event. In the documentary The Last Laugh, these issues are tackled head-on by some of the most famous and influential Jewish comedians of all time.
The Last Laugh is a documentary focused specifically on Holocaust jokes, the morality of them, and experiences with them from esteemed comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks. Not only do the filmmakers interview famous comedians, but they also include testimonies from a few Holocaust survivors in which they talk about their experiences and how humor played into their lives, whether it be in the concentration camps or after the Holocaust.
While I liked that the filmmakers get many different perspectives in their interview subjects, I was a little confused by the main interview subject, Renee Firestone. She is both the first and last person onscreen, and the film cut to interviews of her throughout. Firestone is one of the Holocaust survivors in the film who isn’t in the entertainment industry. While I don’t mind that the documentary has a primary subject to focus on, and although I do think she provides some interesting insights and anecdotes, she seems a strange choice for a documentary that seems to be about the entertainment industry and its use of Holocaust jokes.
This ties into my biggest issue with the film, which is its structure. At the beginning, the film presents us with the ethical dilemma of Holocaust jokes, and starts to move in a direction of telling us a history of such jokes, how they have been used in Hollywood, and their reception. After that, things start to get fuzzy. It feels like the film loses direction, like the subjects just start talking about whatever pops into their heads so long as it related to the subject. While I didn’t think that they get severely off-topic too often (although there is a weird tangent about 9/11), I prefer for documentaries to maintain some sense of direction because I think it makes them easier to watch and strengthens the point the filmmakers are trying to convey.
While the structure isn’t the best, the film makes up for it with great interview subjects. A film that heavily features Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, and Mel Brooks is bound to be funny, but every other subject in the film also provides a different insight in his or her own way. I was really fascinated to hear what all these people had to say, and they do not disappoint. My own bias came into play a bit here because I have always been a huge Mel Brooks fan. I saw Spaceballs at probably too young of an age, and have loved him ever since, so when I saw that he is in this film, I knew I had to see it. He does not disappoint either. Not only does he come out firing with the comedy and the Hitler impression, but he offers some really interesting perspectives on how and why he used Holocaust jokes to make a name for himself.
A smaller issue I had with the film was that, while I thought the interviews are very good, they are relied upon too heavily. Every once in a while they cut to a good clip that serves as an example of what they are talking about, but for the most part we are just listening to and watching people talk. I’m not really sure how to fix this in this case, as it would be hard to retroactively get footage for this documentary, but I still would have preferred more variety in the footage we are shown. However, I think this is only a minor issue because I did really like the interview locations and how they are varied to keep things interesting.
I think the topic of The Last Laugh is really interesting, and the people involved make the film very entertaining to watch. There are many good jokes in the film, and it leaves you thinking. The film doesn’t provide a definitive yes or no answer on whether or not it is acceptable to joke about these kinds of topics, and I think that’s a good thing. Rather, it provides information to its audience and lets them draw their own conclusions about whether it is right or wrong. I wish the film’s structure was a little better, but if it had less interesting people in it (i.e. no Mel Brooks), I would probably be angrier about it. As it is, I think this film is fun to watch, and I definitely feel like it provides some unique perspectives and insights into an issue that most audiences likely don’t think about too much.