THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE LAST LAUGH"
George Carlin. Louis CK. Joan Rivers. Chris Rock. They're all comedians who have said extremely controversial things in their stand-up acts. Each of them has touched on taboo subject matter, earning laughs and gasps along they way. They're not the only ones to do this kind of thing. Comedy can (and probably should) be dangerous. The documentary The Last Laugh asks how far humor can push the envelope, using the Holocaust as an example.
Director Ferne Pearlstein explores the subject with a dual POV. Half the time, her cameras follow Holocaust survivor and educator Renee Firestone. She recounts her personal experience at Auschwitz and things she saw around her at the time. Firestone also views YouTube clips of comedians making jokes pertaining to Hitler and the Holocaust. She weighs in on whether they're funny or offensive.
The other half of the documentary features a collection of Jewish comedians – Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Mel Brooks, and more -- discussing the art of “off-limits” comedy. Brooks, for instance, talks about how he made a career out of mocking Nazis in his films. He then explains his own personal line in the sand. “Springtime for Hitler” (from The Producers) is fine because it ridicules Nazis. Actually referring to the gas chambers, on the other hand, violates his personal sense of ethics. Each comic similarly describes how they handle taboo subject matter, as well as what it takes to even begin to broach such things. AIDS and 9/11 are other potential minefields whose use in comedy is explored.
Combining these halves results in an incisive dissection of how and why comedy is formulated out of fundamentally unfunny topics. All the comedians are in agreement that laughter has healing power. Talking about tragedy in a way that induces laughter provides catharsis. When things are too horrific to address directly, a comical approach can offer another way of facing the issue at hand. It can also help, at times, to spur much-needed change or analysis.
What's interesting is that, while the participants all agree on the value of pushing boundaries, they don't agree on the definition of “too far.” One especially enlightening section focuses on Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful, in which he plays a man who tries to shield his young son from the horrors of a concentration camp by making it all seem like a silly game they're playing. Brooks deems it “the worst movie ever made,” claiming that it trivializes the Holocaust. His remarks are countered by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who asserts that Life Is Beautiful calls attention to the atrocities of the camps in a manner that's palatable for audiences.
It's a good thing that there isn't always universal agreement. The Last Laugh challenges the audience to make up their own minds. Pearlstein knows there is no easy, obvious answer, but equally recognizes that having the conversation is important. By contrasting Firestone's story with the ruminations of the comedians, the film proves to be a provocative, probing – and yes, often funny – look at the role humor plays in coming to terms with the darkest, most troubling events mankind faces.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Last Laugh is unrated, but contains adult language and content. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
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