Tragedy Plus Time Almost Equals Comedy: A Note on Holocaust Humor & “The Last Laugh”

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Critics argue that Woody Allen’s Crime and Misdemeanors (1989) is his best film, in part, because it addresses the Holocaust in many different ways that have nothing to do with humor.  It is one of his most serious films.  However, in one scene Alan Alda, who plays Lester – a successful filmmaker that Woody Allen’s character, Cliff Stern despises –  explains that “comedy is tragedy plus time.”   It prompts a very important question, which is one of the main subjects of Ferne Pearlstein’s new documentary on Holocaust Humor, The Last Laugh (2016): when can one tell jokes about the Holocaust?

What makes the documentary so special is the fact that it juxtaposes the views of comedians and comic writers – such as Mel Brooks, Gilbert Gottfried, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Sarah Silverman, Etgar Keret, Sussie Essman, Larry Charles, David Cross, and Shalom Auslander   (amongst many others) – with the touching and tragic life story and contemporary outlook of Renee Firestone (a Holocaust survivor).    Also included in this juxtaposition is Abe Foxman – the former director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) – and the reactions (in one important scene of a gathering in Las Vegas) – of many different survivors.    The juxtaposition helps the viewer to properly think through whether or not now (or any time) is right for Holocaust humor.  Is there an amount of time that gives one enough distance to joke about one of the most tragic events in history?

Of the comedians and writers who spoke to this issue, I found that Mel Brooks made the most compelling observations about the limits of Holocaust humor.  And he has every right to do so since his film, The Producers (1967), broke a lot of taboos about Holocaust representation. But his main subject was not Jews who survived the Holocaust or the Holocaust itself so much as the Nazis.  Holocaust jokes were never front and center.  Brooks points out how – before he made the film – he used to tell Holocaust jokes in the back rooms of Borsht Belt hotels.  In the documentary, Carl Reiner recalls the joke nearly word-for-word.  Pearlstein juxtaposes the two recountings so as to give the viewer a sense of how unique and taboo the joke was.  Brooks draws the line with Holocaust humor.  He worries about it.

As many of the comedians in the documentary point out, comedians like Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK, have all made jokes about the Holocaust.   The reactions to these jokes varied.  Mel Brooks said that though he loved Sara Silverman, he found some of her Holocaust jokes problematic.  He also found Joan Rivers’ Holocaust humor to be offensive.  Sussie Essman – of Curb Your Enthusiasm – also found them to be offensive.  Other comedians did not. While their opinions may or may not sway us, when Perlstein shows us Renee Firestone’s reaction, we pause.

Firestone wasn’t crazy about some of these jokes.   While she chuckles at the comical depection of Nazis, she doesn’t like all the Holocaust jokes she hears.  You can see it her face and not in her words.  The subtlety of her gestures strikes the viewer, bodily.  While the audience, where I saw the film, laughed throughout the film, there were many parts where they were deathly silent: these were the moments when Firestone winced.   The silence in the theater was palpable.

What I found most interesting about this audience was the fact that since it was screened in Toronto, it was highly likely that the audience (which was, on average, between 50 and 80 years of age) may have consisted of Holocaust survivors or children of survivors.  (Toronto has one of the largest Holocaust survivor populations in the world.)  One wonders how a younger audience – which has grown up with Louis CK, Sara Silverman, et al – would react to these scenes.

In an essay entitled, “Is Life Beautiful? Can the Shoah Be Funny?” Sander Gilman argues that a film like Life is Beautiful (1998) is inappropriate because it doesn’t balance comedy with tragedy.  It erases it by over-emphasizing comedy. It focuses – predominantly – on the comedic antics of the actor, Roberto Begnini, not the Shoah: “Throughout the film, indeed up to the very end, Roberto Begnini’s physical comedy underlines the childlike nature of the actor and the necessity of representing the image of innocence” (p. 81, Jewish Frontiers).  In contrast to this, Jurek Becker’s book made film, Jacob the Liar (1999) – starring Robin Williams – does something different: it maintains the tension between the comic and the tragic (91).  Citing an interview with Robin Williams, Gilman points out how the actor was fully aware of how comedy needs to be kept in check (“trapped” as Williams says) if it is not to efface the event.   Unlike Silverman and Rivers (may she rest in peace), Williams shows how Holocaust humor cannot be unbridled.

But in this documentary it is ultimately Renee Firestone – and not this or that comedian or commentator – who marks this limit (strangely enough, Foxman actually thought Life is Beautiful was a good film and that its humor was appropriate).     But when she – like so many survivors – passes away we need to remember that even though time + tragedy = comedy, the meaning of that equation needs to be carefully thought through.  When will the event, through comedy, be erased and when will it be kept…in tension? That formula would look more like this: tragedy + time almost equals comedy.  And that prompts the question that lingers in the title and throughout the film, a question that deals with time and comedy: Who will have the last laugh?

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