Can the Holocaust be funny? A new film says, ‘Why not?’

First Published      Last Updated Apr 19 2017 10:54 am

Two Jews set out to kill Hitler, intending to ambush him at 8 o'clock.

Eight o'clock comes and Hitler doesn't show. Then 9 o'clock. 10. No Hitler.

The first Jew turns to the second Jew and says, "Gee, I hope nothing happened to him."

Whether that joke, or any joke about 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo massacre or rape can be funny or is always in bad taste is the subject of "The Last Laugh," a new documentary film from Ferne Pearlstein.

In it, Pearlstein asks superstar comedians Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Sarah Silverman and Gilbert Gottfried (the author of that "kill Hitler" joke), among others, to consider whether an epically horrific event like the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were murdered, can, or should, be fodder for fun.

The consensus is summed up by Gottfried when he says, "Somebody once said, 'Tragedy plus time equals comedy.' And I always felt, why wait?"

The documentary, which Pearlstein began filming in 2011, had its genesis about 20 years earlier when she and her friend Kent Kirshenbaum discussed "Maus: A Survivor's Tale" by artist Art Spiegelman with an elderly Holocaust survivor.

The survivor, who had not read the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, was upset that it was published (and mistakenly assumed it was humorous).

"Her response was there is nothing funny about the Holocaust," Pearlstein recalled. "She said, 'You can't cover it in the funny pages.' "

That conversation stuck with Pearlstein throughout her graduate studies in film at Stanford University. Kirshenbaum, meanwhile, also inspired by that conversation, wrote a 40-page paper about humor and the Holocaust as part of his graduate work.

That paper, also titled "The Last Laugh," became the foundation for the film.

The film intersperses interviews with people in the business of funny with the story of 93-year-old Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone.

Firestone, who now lives in Los Angeles and frequently speaks to students, was taken from her home in Hungary to Auschwitz. There, she encountered Josef Mengele, who experimented on her younger sister, Klara. Klara did not survive.

"Whenever I remember, I cry, and whenever I don't remember, I laugh, I smile," Firestone says in the film as she looks at photos of her family before the war. "And I am glad that I am able to smile and laugh. It would have been a horrible life for me for 70 years to just cry."

In the film, Firestone watches some of the comedians tell their Holocaust jokes. Some she finds "not funny," while others she pronounces "true." But most earn her high, Minnie Mouse giggle and floodlight smile.

Not everyone in the film finds the Holocaust so funny. Asked if he has a Holocaust joke, Mel Brooks — whose film and Broadway show "The Producers" is about a Hitler musical — says: "No. I can't go there." And at a survivors' convention in Las Vegas, one woman says: "I am sorry, I didn't find any humor at all. Just sadness and tragedy."

A man in a white yarmulke seated next to her says: "We were laughing. We were all miserable. But without humor I don't think we would have survived."

That is the consensus of many in the film. Author Etgar Keret concludes "humor is a way of bearing an unbearable reality," while Silverman — who has won both approval and condemnation for Holocaust jokes in her material — says, "Comedy puts light on to darkness. Darkness can't live in the light."

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