The idea that humor can be found in tragedy has been an age-old question for many comedians. Charges of “too soon” or concerns over sacred territory both morally compel or tempt the comedy artist with a conundrum: to react or withhold. It’s a strange mental minefield to navigate but a challenge many find both stressful and fulfilling.
With The Last Laugh, documentary filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein focuses on the ultimate dark joke in Jewish humor: The Holocaust. It features such Jewish comedy greats as Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner and Sarah Silverman tackling the touchy subject and how to deliver any joke relating to the terrible 20th century event with both finesse and sensitivity. The degree of their success apparently varies with whom you ask, so Pearlstein does something quite ingenious: she introduces an audience surrogate, a Holocaust survivor named Renee Firestone.
The movie is filled with famous talking heads like those mentioned above. It even features scenes some may be familiar with from films, like Brooks’ The Producers. Also, a past comedy great makes an appearance. In 2013, when the Anti-Defamation League protested a Holocaust joke she made during her TV show, “Fashion Police,” Joan Rivers refused to apologize. “That’s how you get through life,” she said on CNN later. “You laugh, you can deal with it.”
That sentiment speaks very true to Firestone, someone who has learned to deal with surviving the Holocaust for most of her life. Pearlstein trains her camera on her as she watches clips via YouTube by comedians like Larry David and Ricky Gervais. She casually tosses out simple critiques like, “I don’t find that funny.” But there are times she does find the humor. Pearlstein, presents these scenes from a respectful distance via a vérité, omniscient camera that keeps the documentary grounded in an earthy quality of existence, which brings attention to the human inconsistency of being alive and that includes laughing at things that should not be funny.
The celebrities interviewed add insight to the conversation, as they tangle with the nuances of humor and tragedy and where the metaphorical line exists. However, what really makes this documentary great is the inclusion of the alternate narrative featuring Firestone. Her story — which includes a personal horror not revealed until near the end of the movie — adds powerful poignancy to the documentary. It is her story that transcends the humor, as she embodies what it is to live with a tragedy that defines one’s identity. In the end, The Last Laugh presents sharp pictures about the complexities of living a life defined by tragedy, where humor is essential to easy its pain.
The Last Laugh runs 89 minutes and is not rated (but contains adult language). It has its official Florida premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival this Saturday, Jan. 21, at 8 p.m. at O Cinema Miami Shores and plays again on Monday, Jan. 23, at 8:30 p.m., at the Regal Cinema South Beach. Director Ferne Pearlstein, Producer Robert Edwards and Performer Jake Ehrenreich (A Jew Grows in Brooklyn) will be in attendance to introduce the film and participate in an extended conversations after the screenings.