Is Holocaust comedy taboo?

Documentary on Shoah humor to air on US public TV next week.

Mel Brooks in The Last Laugh. (photo credit: FERNE PEARLSTEIN)
Mel Brooks in The Last Laugh.
(photo credit: FERNE PEARLSTEIN)
Comedians regularly come under fire for jokes that seem tasteless, offensive or “too soon.”
But where are the redlines? Is it possible to joke about one of the most horrible atrocities in human history? These are the questions director Ferne Pearlstein asks in her newest documentary, The Last Laugh, which will premier on US public television next Monday.
The film, which opened at theaters in New York and Los Angeles last month, features an allstar cast of comedians discussing the taboos of Holocaust humor.
While the movie’s premise is a jarring thought for many, it is handled with sensitivity and thoughtfulness, provoking discussion as opposed to offering answers.
“The Holocaust itself is not funny, there’s nothing funny about it,” said comedian and director Rob Reiner. “But survival and what it takes to survive – there can be humor in that.”
Filmmaker Mel Brooks, known for The Producers – the film and later Broadway show satirizing Hitler – echoed Reiner.
“Anything I could do to deflate Germans, anything, I did,” he said. But he always stopped short of other Holocaust humor, though he didn’t castigate those who did not.
“Comedy puts light onto darkness, and darkness can’t live where there’s light,” said Sarah Silverman, who offers some of the most jolting humor in the film. “So that’s why it’s important to talk about things that are taboo.”
From Reiner and Brooks to Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Jeff Ross, Judy Gold, Susie Essman and more, a wide range of comedians offer differing viewpoints.
But none have the impact of the comments from Holocaust survivors Renee Firestone and Robert Clary, both of whom were imprisoned in concentration camps and lost most of their immediate family members.
One of the film’s most poignant moments involves the pair arguing about being cremated once they die. Firestone is horrified at the idea, but Clary insists it is what he wants. “The rabbi told me, ‘You cannot do that,’” he said. “‘What about my parents?’ And that cut him down.”
Firestone serves as a moral compass of sorts throughout the film, scoffing at some jokes she deems unfunny and providing chilling testimony of her own experiences.
She recounts, while laughing, meeting with the infamous Dr.
Mengele at Auschwitz.
“‘If you survive this war, you really ought to have your tonsils removed,’” he told her. “Is he insane? Tomorrow I may die, I’m worried about my tonsils?” The comedians debate some intriguing topics, including if it is “too soon” to make jokes about the Holocaust.
“Time makes a difference,” said Essman. “Obviously, nobody cares if you do Inquisition jokes.”
But Gottfried disagreed.
“Somebody once said tragedy plus time equals comedy. And I always said, ‘Why wait?’” The comedians also discuss the ability to poke humor at a much more recent atrocity: September 11. Many agreed with Gottfried’s feeling that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, they felt there would “never be comedy again.”
Other figures weigh in alongside the comedians, including the ADL’s Abe Foxman, Israeli novelist Etgar Keret and Roz Weinman, former heads of standards and practices at NBC.
Weinman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, laments one of her decisions, which allowed for the creation of the now-famed “Soup Nazi” storyline on Seinfeld.
“I think the notion of ‘Nazi’ being used as a very mild pejorative does trivialize that experience,” she said. “And I had no clue at the time that that would enter the lexicon the way that it has.”
The film offers no conclusions, content with provoking thought and offering varied ideas on such sensitive matters.
No moment was more sobering than watching Firestone in a gondola ride in Las Vegas with fellow survivor Elly Gross.
“Always I remember the children screaming... the selection...
You cannot forget!” Gross says.
But Firestone interjects: 'You cannot live in the shadow of those cries. You have to remember it. But you cannot live in those shadows.”
“I don’t live in the shadow, but the shadow is following me all of my life,” Gross replies.
“You know I speak about the Holocaust all the time, but I enjoy life,” Firestone counters.
“I’m so happy that I have three great-grandchildren. Could Hitler imagine that I will survive and have three great-grandchildren? I mean, that’s my revenge.”