Have you heard this one? A guy walks into a bar and...6 million Jewish men, women and children get slaughtered.
Not a knee-slapper? Would it help if I told you the guy in question had a nerdtastic mustache? The Holocaust, along with other grave subjects like rape, 9/11, and AIDS, are often taboo topics for humor. And while these things are beyond horrible and tragic in real life (#duh), should these heart-wrenching realities be off-limits in the realm of comedy? That’s the question explored in Ferne Pearlstein’s new documentary, The Last Laugh, in theaters now.
I’m a feminist, a product of acquaintance rape, a sexual abuse survivor, and a Jew, and I have laughed at jokes that dealt with all these issues. Do I take these things seriously? Hell yes. I am the original gangsta liberal, women’s libber buzzkill. First of all, the jokes have to be good. Really good. (I mean, Anthony Jeselnik good.) But there’s something else. The jokes cannot mock the victims, or perpetuate as true false tropes about the nature of the atrocities. For example, I would never laugh at rape, but I relish ridiculing rape culture. Implying children who’ve been molested had it coming: reprehensible. Mocking Michael Jackson or Woody Allen — they do have it coming. And while for me, attacking Jews is abominable, illuminating the realities of anti-Semitism can be pretty hilarious.
Jews, as a people, are known for being funny. You can’t swing a cat at a comedy club without hitting a Jew. (But please, do not swing cats. See, told you how buzzkill-y I am.) Face it, we Heebs slay at sidesplitting. But the legacy of crushing at comedy also runs parallel to a long track record of being just plain crushed. Maybe there’s a connection? As Rob Reiner says, “The Holocaust itself is not funny. There’s nothing funny about it. But survival, and what it takes to survive, there can be humor in that.”
As its name implies, The Last Laugh suggests that being able to laugh at life’s horrors puts you in the “Fuck you” position of power. To the victor goes the spoils of spoiling all the assholes evil intentions; Nazis, you didn’t wipe us off the earth, and you can’t wipe this grin off my face. The film interweaves comedy clips with interviews with comedians like Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Judy Gold, Gilbert Gottfried, Susie Essman, as well as perspectives from Auschwitz survivors, writers, and groups like the Anti-Defamation League.
I had a chance to recently sit down with director Ferne Pearlstein and get her insights on making movies, making people laugh, and making fun of the so-not-funny.
What was the origin of The Last Laugh?
In 1990, my very good friend Kent Kirshenbaum and I were in Miami with a group of journalists who were being given a tour of the city’s then-new Holocaust Memorial, led by an elderly survivor. We had both just read Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus and started a conversation with our guide about the ground-breaking graphic novel, which had been the first of its kind. She was angry about entire conceit and told us: “You cannot tell this story through the funny pages! There is nothing funny about the Holocaust!” We realized she hadn’t read it and tried to explain that, although Maus used the comic strip form, the story of Spiegelman's father surviving Auschwitz was completely reverent and not funny at all. The only “comic” moments were perhaps in the complicated interactions between Art and his father in his present-day story. But the survivor was not moved.
The following year, Kent and I both went back to school to pursue our respective degrees. While I was getting my Masters in Documentary Film from Stanford, Kent was off getting his PhD, and along the way he wrote a lengthy paper called “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust.' In the spring of 1993, he handed it to me in and said, “Make this into a movie!” Eighteen years later I finally did!
What were some of the stumbling blocks to getting it made?
In the summer of 1998, I met my now husband and producer, Robert Edwards, when he hired me to shoot a documentary he was making. We started working our first written proposal for The Last Laugh that fall. Around the time we completed our first draft, Life Is Beautiful came out, which made us step back for a couple of years. That movie just changed the landscape of the topic too much to allow for a balanced survey at that time. So we decided to wait a while until Benigni’s movie sort of settled into its proper, permanent place in the larger cultural context. Then in 2006, we saw The Aristocrats, which tread on some of this ground in terms of taboo humor. When we heard audiences gasp — but also laugh — at the 9/11 jokes in that movie, we knew the Zeitgeist had changed and the time was right to go back to TThe Last Laugh. Then it still took 5 more years before I could raise the start-up funds to begin production.
Do you think certain topics should be off-limits or are “too taboo” for humor?
I think it’s subjective. Most people have some sort of line. Robert and I remember seeing Joan Rivers perform at a small club in New York, working out new material just a few short months before she died. She did 20 minutes of Holocaust jokes and got big laughs for it, but when she turned to AIDS jokes and her audience got very upset. She didn’t let the crowd off the hook and called them out on the logic (or illogic) of why they drew the line where they did. Like: “Oh, you’re okay with the Holocaust jokes but I can’t make any gay jokes?” But again, it’s subjective and even I have a line.
What insights have you learned about both the Holocaust and about the nature of humor?
What drew me to this story were the facts my friend pointed out in his paper, for instance, that even in the darkest situations there were people that were able to find a way to laugh, even if it was just on the inside. When I read what Deb Filler wrote about her dad, that 'if you were funny before the camps, you were funny in the camps,' I felt like it was that that made it okay to make this film.
Check out the Last Laugh in theaters now. And just think, one day we’ll be able to laugh about Donald Trump. “A pussy-grabbing douche walks into the Oval Office...”
Dixie Laite is a writer, content strategist and editorial and branding consultant. She’s worked for a variety of major media outlets, including Nickelodeon, Oxygen, Oprah, AMC, and PBS. She’s written preschool songs for NOGGIN’s Moose A. Moose and Zee, a piece on fellatio for one of BUST’s early issues. Dixie’s an inveterate hard-boiled feminist, animal loving softie, and intermittent blogger at lostartofbeingadame.com. You can find her @DameStyle, Facebook, and in front of the TV watching Law & Order.
Photos by Anne Etheridge
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Dixie Laite is a writer and branding consultant living in midtown Manhattan. Having been Editorial Director for a variety of TV networks, she now works at home along with 2 dogs, 5 parrots, and the ever-present soothing strains of Law & Orderre-runs. Dixie has pledged to start focusing on her blog, Dametown, which aims to celebrate vintage women and, especially, women of a certain vintage. (Feel free to crack the whip, sisters!) She’s been writing for BUST since the 90s, her earliest feature describing her predilection for fellatio. You can find her @DixieLaite, and at the Dametown Facebook group.