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by Esther Cohen
Discussed in this essay: The Last Laugh, documentary film directed, photographed and edited by Ferne Pearlstein, with jokes by Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Robert Clary, Rob Reiner, Louie C.K., Susie Essman, Harry Shearer, Jeffrey Ross, Alan Zweibel, Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Larry Charles, David Steinberg, Abe Foxman, Lisa Lampenelli and many others. 2016, 88 minutes.
I GREW UP loving jokes, Jewish jokes especially (although when I saw Richard Pryor live, that changed a little, I loved him too). Jokes were a significant part of my family values. We laughed in order to survive, to help us survive. We laughed because that was how we knew to enjoy life, and that’s how we knew we could always put whatever was happening into perspective.When I made friends in school, friends later in life, friends now, I always hoped for funny. I know, for instance, that I might not have worked for Moe Foner at 1199, might not have been in a position to know that he and the union and his ideas about culture could shape my own life, if Moe hadn’t been so incredibly funny. Funny drew me, and still does, Funny is what I need to live.
But funny has changed, in my lifetime. Today, in this odd time of extreme political correctness and political incorrectness, when sensitivities abound, it’s fascinating to watch a film that asks the question: Can anything be funny? Can everything be funny? What about the Holocaust? Or 9/11? Or AIDS? Should some subjects be off limits?
My answer is no, but that’s not the answer of everyone in the film. The line between humor and censure is what The Last Laugh is about.
It opens with Gilbert Gottfried, one of the great joke masters (we saw him live at Caroline’s, a comedy club in Times Square, years ago. He bar mitsve’d his microphone. It was a masterful five minutes I will never forget) and Rob Reiner telling the same joke. About Hitler. (Gottfried tells it better.) It’s funny. Very funny.
Mel Brooks has a lot to say, and listening to him is always good. His classic movie, The Producers, has the memorable song, “Springtime for Hitler.” Still, Brooks says that he can’t imagine the Holocaust being funny.
People agree, and disagree, throughout the film. While telling jokes.
An odd dimension to the film, maybe to give it legitimacy, maybe for another reason that’s a little hard to understand, is an Auschwitz survivor named Renee Firestone, who emerged from the trauma with her humor intact. She’s okay with holocaust jokes, but some of her friends are not.
Throughout The Last Laugh, people disagree. Mel Brooks, for instance, calls Oscar-winning Roberto Begnini’s film Life is Beautiful “the worst movie ever made”, while Abe Foxman, head of the ADL, says it’s “absolutely brilliant.
Stakes rise with subject matter. Lenny Bruce, Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, and many others talk about what’s appropriate and what isn’t. More than one comedian says that if you’re taking on a taboo subject, the joke better be very good. Many Last Laugh jokes qualify.
Esther Cohen’s books include Don’t Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies, illustrated by Roz Chast.