The joke is so good — so sly, yet so full of Jewish feeling — it takes two comics to deliver it.
Two Jews sent on a mission to assassinate Hitler get secret intelligence about where he’ll be at a certain time, explains Gilbert Gottfried, sitting at a table in a cozy dive of a restaurant. So they stake out his home, continues Rob Reiner, looking professorial in a plush red seat in a darkened theater. An hour goes by, no Hitler. Several more hours go by, no Hitler, says Reiner. Then Gottfried, in that impossibly nasal whine of his, delivers the goods: One Jew turns to the other, the comic says, putting a hand to his face in mock concern: “Gee, I hope nothing happened to him.”
That question — simple yet profound — lies at the heart of Ferne Pearlstein’s new documentary, “The Last Laugh,” which probes the idea of whether humor and the Holocaust can be used in the same sentence. For Pearlstein, a veteran Manhattan filmmaker who has directed documentaries about sumo wrestling and Imelda Marcos, simply getting to that question — Can anything about the Holocaust be funny? — was a long ordeal. She spent several years getting financial backing and interview subjects. Sponsors for documentaries, and people able to make time to appear on camera, are typically hard to find, but this was a particularly tough sell, she told The Jewish Week in a recent phone and email interview.
“The Last Laugh,” which premieres March 3 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, is the first major English-language documentary to treat the apparent oxymoron. (A screening will take place the day before at the Friar’s Club.) “Many people were skeptical and skittish when we first described this project,” Pearlstein said. “We had to convince them of our credibility … and our good intentions. Many people said they were willing to be interviewed, but didn’t want to be the first to do it. That all changed when Rob Reiner agreed to be filmed.”
Pearlstein would begin her interviews with the A-list celebrities and authors who finally agreed to participate — including Reiner, his father Carl, Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, Judy Gold, David Steinberg, Susie Essman, Jeff Ross, Mel Brooks, Lisa Lampanelli, Robert Clary, Edgar Keret, Shalom Auslander and the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman — with a counterintuitive question: “Do you have a Holocaust joke?”
Nearly all, it turned out, did.
The jokes are respectful, sympathetic jokes, since most of the men and women interviewed on camera are Jewish or philo-Semitic. There’s no black humor here.
And the jokes illustrate Pearlstein’s premise — that humor was a major coping tool among many victims of the Third Reich, and that the spiritual value of such humor is coming to be increasingly recognized by members of the current, post-Holocaust generation.
Brooks’ movie “The Producers,” controversial when it came out in 1968, 23 years after the end of the Holocaust and World War II, led to a wildly successful Broadway play in 2001. The most-memorable part of both: a production number to the music of “Springtime for Hitler,” featuring high-kicking dancers in Nazi uniforms. “In poor taste,” said the critics.
In time, the film became a cult classic. The play, showing the resilience of human spirit, was the only Broadway play to draw large crowds in the days after 9/11.
The different reactions reflect a change in American society, and a greater acceptance of boundary-pushing humor. What was verboten in entertainment in ’68 — sex, nudity, blue language, etc. — was boffo box office in ’01. Funny Nazis were no longer shocking. Nor were movies that introduced humor into the subject of the Shoah – witness, Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful.”
This is the milieu in which Pearlstein made “The Last Laugh.”
The documentary’s overall message is that life goes on. Though her production is about humor, it is, in the end, not humorous. She strikes a balance between the theory and the practice of comedy; between the Holocaust-themed patter of such performers as Silverstein and the late Joan Rivers, and the reminiscences of Los Angeles-based survivor Renee Firestone; between people who saw a place for the light of laughter in the darkest of situations, and those who didn’t.
Firestone is shown debating the pervasiveness of Holocaust humor with a fellow survivor, and watching some comedians’ routines and declaring, “Not funny.”
Foxman adds on camera: “I understand why we” — the Holocaust victims and survivors — “were laughing. Why are they” ITAL — outsiders, non-Jews — “laughing?”
In other words, can someone who is not black use the N-word?
“We’re allowed” to joke about the Holocaust, says Alan Zweibel, author and former “Saturday Night Live” writer. By we, he means Jews — the Shoah is Jewish turf.
Pearlstein’s work, done in collaboration with husband, Robert Edwards, was whittled down from 3,000 minutes of filmed interviews, in addition to historical footage and excerpts from movies and cartoons, to about an hour and a half.
“The Last Laugh” contains few Holocaust-era jokes, which were usually, with a theme of the Nazis’ eventual demise and the victims’ victory; and none of the black-humor variety that emerged from the concentration camps and ghettoes. Rather, Pearlstein offers an extended discussion of the limits and propriety of humor, some examples of how survivors employed humor as a coping tool and form of resistance, and a look at how the very mention of her topic would have been unacceptable a few generations ago.
The documentary asks several questions about the ultimate taboo: Is anything about the Holocaust funny? Is there an acceptable way to makes jokes about the Shoah? When is too soon? When does a joke go “too far” and cross a line of good taste? Who can tell such jokes — only Jews, only survivors themselves?
Scholarly books and academic conferences pose similar questions.
Pearlstein — who does not appear on camera in this cinema vérité production that features interviews and historical footage — does not offer any definitive answers. Rather, in 85 minutes, she provokes discussion on a topic that was considered universally off-limits in the immediate decades after World War II and remains out of bounds in many survivor and academic circles.
Many of the jokes “The Last Laugh” features are not, strictly speaking, about the Shoah, but about the wider Third Reich.
In Israel, home to a dying community of survivors, authors are mining this material in such current books as “It Kept Us Alive: Humor in the Holocaust” and “Is it OK to Laugh About It?: Holocaust Humour, Satire and Parody in Israeli Culture.”
Pearlstein lost no family relatives in the Shoah; the documentary grew out of a tour that she and a friend took of Miami’s then-new Holocaust Museum in 1991. The conversation turned to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel centered on the artist’s Holocaust-survivor father.
The museum guide, a survivor, “reacted very strongly” against the Shoah being depicted in comic form. “You cannot tell this story through the funny pages,” the guide said. “There was nothing funny about the Holocaust.”
Inspired by the survivor’s comment, Pearlstein’s friend wrote an academic paper about humor and the Holocaust, which formed the basis for “The Last Laugh.” The documentary project received a “modest grant” from the New York State Council of the Arts, and the bulk of its funding from an anonymous donor.
Although her film has a firm historical and academic foundation, Pearlstein, in an effort to avoid making a stuffy exchange of professorial opinions, turned to the people who know what funny is: comedians and directors. “I didn’t want this to be just a talking-heads-and-clips film,” she said.
One of the performers featured in the documentary is Deb Filler, a writer-comic from New Zealand whose Polish-born father was a Holocaust survivor.
Pearlstein said Filler’s father said his experiences during the Shoah were consistent with the humorous routines Filler does about life growing up as the daughter of a survivor — “If you were funny before the camps, you were funny in the camps. If that’s your nature, you don’t change.”
Staff writer Steve Lipman is the author of “Laughter in Hell: The Use of humor in the Holocaust” (Jason Aronson, 1991).