Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Tribeca ’16: The Last Laugh

With The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin tried rather unsuccessfully to re-appropriate his toothbrush mustache. In the process, he established an unofficial rule of comedy that has been pretty scrupulously observed until recent years. You can mock Hitler (see John Cleese in half the episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus), but you cannot joke about what he did. Many popular comedians and also Sarah Silverman discuss and debate the last taboo in their business throughout Ferne Pearlstein’s The Last Laugh, which screened during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

There is no consensus of opinion among the survivors featured in Last Laugh. Some claim they never could have endured without the subversive power of humor, whereas others say they never found anything funny about the Holocaust—end of story. Despite Chaplin in Dictator and Bugs Bunny in Herr Meets Hare (which Warner Brothers withdrew from general circulation after the war ended), Hitler jokes were still a little iffy until Mel Brooks scandalized polite society with The Producers.

Frankly, you have to marvel at Brooks’ fearlessness when he discusses his long “relationship” with Hitler. Obviously, French Holocaust survivor and original Hogan’s Heroes cast-member Robert Clary has a very personal perspective on the issue as well. There is also a healthy disagreement regarding Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, with the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman taking a “pro” position and just about everybody else lining up against.

Yes, Mel Brooks is still funny and Silverman still isn’t. As a result, there are some mid-sized laughs sprinkled throughout Pearlstein’s doc, but her cafeteria style approach makes it feel more like the pay cable special it should have been. However, the double-secret bootleg footage of Jerry Lewis’s notoriously off-key Holocaust comedy, The Day the Clown Cried (pointedly contrasted with Benigni’s mawkish shenanigans) is a coup that should attract curious gawkers.

Pearlstein is sensitive in the way the film presents tasteless humor, so it is unlikely to offend any viewers. Last Laugh also moves along rather snappily, but it never delivers the deep revelations of its implied promises. Yet, the film will serve an important purpose as a benchmark to measure the further evolution of comedic standards. Considering the rise in anti-Semitism (driven by immigration trends and anti-“Zionist” activism), would anyone be surprised if Holocaust jokes were to become common place in five years? Pearlstein never asks that question, which is a lost opportunity. Sometimes amusing and sometimes informative, The Last Laugh is a mostly competent attempt to take our cultural temperature on a critically significant subject. It screens May 1st, 2nd, and 7th during this year’s Hot Docs following its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.