Jews have debated exactly that (including about that exact musical) for the more than seven decades since the Holocaust ended. The Last Laugh, directed by Ferne Pearlstein, delves into whether we can laugh about the Holocaust—and if so, when—in a series of interviews with comedians and Holocaust survivors (especially the complex, stunning Renee Firestone), and comedic clips from over the years. At turns hilarious, cringe-worthy, and tear-jerking, its uncondescending Aristocrats-style investigation deconstructs that seemingly intractable question into several related, but not identical, issues. Echoing the discursive, free-ranging form of a lenient-leaning sugya of Talmud, The Last Laugh considers what I categorize as three relatively easy issues and four trickier ones—progressively shrinking the pool of objectively unconscionable Holocaust humor until it is hard to know what to condemn.
First, time. Most obvious, Steve Allen’s now-trite observation that “Tragedy plus time equals comedy” helps explain generational gaps such as that which existed between my Bubi and me. But The Last Laugh also examines humor as a key defense mechanism in the camps themselves. Since one cannot begrudge Holocaust survivors the jokes that might have saved their lives, it seems that either temporal extreme of trauma offers an excuse.
Second, topic. From the 1930s on, the Nazis have been fair game for some of the best satire ever (Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges are just a few early examples), but some, like Mel Brooks, draw the line at Holocaust jokes. Making fun of Nazis, definitely okay; the Holocaust, maybe not.
Third, context. Even by 1948 Brooks was doing a mock-Hitler routine in the Catskills—but he succeeded in part because his entire audience was Jewish and felt safe laughing within the community at the joke. This out offers relief for, say, the informal shabbos dinner party, but seems less relevant now that nearly every comedic act gets shared online.
But then there are the tougher questions: must the comedian be Jewish? For instance, Lisa Lampanelli’s infamous Comedy Central roast is easy to reject since it yields the cringe without the chuckle, but what if Lampanelli had told a funnier joke—would it still have been taboo? Does reception—whether the joke inadvertently contributes to or combats anti-Semitism—matter or is it, as Sarah Silverman argues, not the comedian’s responsibility? Is there an absolute red line (like Anne Frank) or no single disqualifying factor? And, most Talmudically, do we actually have an obligation to laugh at Holocaust jokes to get “the last laugh” at Hitler? Do comedians, as what Brooks self-christens “the conscience of the people,” have an obligation to opt for the uncomfortable material?
The last criterion that The Last Laugh confronts—and, by many accounts, the most important—is whether the joke is sufficiently funny. Judy Gold says it best: “You can’t tell a crappy joke about the biggest tragedy in the world.” Indeed, this seems like the most important factor, but also the least objective. Abe Foxman loves Life is Beautiful; Mel Brooks hates it. They each claim this has to do with the Holocaust question, but maybe it’s simply a matter of taste. This factor may also be unhelpful for comedians because it provides an answer only after the fact: you can tell a Holocaust joke if it got enough laughs. And if it fails, no worries, you weren’t the first and you won’t be the last.