Every few months, it seems, a brief but noticeable rumbling sounds after a comedian “goes too far” on some topic in their SNL opening monolog or latest stand-up special. The Last Laugh, the latest feature documentary from Ferne Pearlstein (a veteran doc cinematographer and director of Sumo East and West), tackles the issue of how far is too far in comedy, particularly when it comes to jokes about the Holocaust. It should go without saying that some believe the Holocaust is off limits, but if that’s true, what else is off limits and is that line of thinking an impingement on free speech? Others believe that nothing is over the line as long as the joke is funny.
Pearlstine wisely expands the score of The Last Laugh to include other taboo subjects, featuring countless clips of gifted stand-up artists like Sarah Silverman, Louis CK, Gilbert Gottfried, and the legendary Mel Brooks, the man who wrote a couple variations of “Springtime for Hitler” and The Producers, but still believes jokes about the Holocaust go beyond his personal limits. As if to underscore the theme of the film but also act as a gauge for humor, the filmmaker tells a great deal of this story through the filter of Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone, who isn’t afraid to get a laugh from off-putting humor about Jews during World War II.
The film also explores the phenomenon of cabarets established in certain concentration camps to keep the morale of the prisoners up to a degree, which naturally leads into a discussion of the Oscar-winning Italian film Life Is Beautiful, which divided audiences, many members of which thought the film was making fun of the survivors, while others thought it was an accurate portrayal of the lengths a father would go to to protect his children. Another movie that inevitably comes up in conversation is the unreleased Jerry Lewis-directed and -starring The Day the Clown Cried (Harry Shearer, one of the few human beings to have ever seen the finished film, is also interviewed here).
Shot on Super 16mm, The Last Laugh touches upon the comedy surrounding AIDS, 9/11, racism, sexism and sexuality, but it always comes back to issues about the Holocaust, with additional commentary coming from the likes of Jeffrey Ross, Larry Charles, Susie Essman, Alan Zweibel, David Steinberg, Carl and Rob Reiner, Lisa Lampanelli, Judy Gold, David Cross, as well as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. It’s one of those rare docs that is almost at war with itself as to whether it means to make you laugh or make you think. Director Pearlstein makes it easy on us to decide by making the film both hilarious and thought-provoking.
A special screening of The Last Laugh is happening at the Music Box Theatre tonight, December 1, at 7:15pm as a part of a preview night for DOC10 Film Festival, scheduled for March 30-April 2, 2017, also at the Music Box. The area nonprofit organization Chicago Media Project supports the screening, which was specifically curated by DOC10 programmer Anthony Kaufman, who also programs the documentary film selections for the Chicago International Film Festival. Kaufman will also moderate a post-screening Q&A with the The Last Laugh director, Ferne Pearlstein and producer Robert Edwards. Details and advance tickets can be found at the Music Box Theatre’s website.