Larry David’s monologue on Saturday Night Live two weeks ago ignited a national firestorm over the use of humor that invokes the Holocaust. As it happens, that is a topic that filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein has spent more than twenty years exploring, culminating in her acclaimed feature documentary The Last Laugh, which premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, was released theatrically in the spring of 2017, and had its nationwide broadcast premiere on PBS’s Independent Lens series this past April on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
(Full disclosure: Ferne and I dated for a while in the late Nineties. Oh—and we got married sixteen years ago and are raising our daughter together from our home in Brooklyn. I was one of the producers of the film, along with Jan Warner, and Amy Hobby and Anne Hubbell of Tangerine Entertainment.)
Admittedly, this scandal is running a distant third to Donald Trump’s latest outrages and the continuing avalanche of revelations about widespread sexual assault, from Louis CK to Roy Moore. But plenty of people are plenty upset about Larry too. Since this topic is suddenly on the front burner of the American conversation, I’d like to capitalize on Ferne’s years of hard work to make a few points that she and I hope will be illuminating.
It’s easy to understand the uproar over humor that touches on the Holocaust; much harder to understand the ways in which a comedic approach might be not only acceptable but even healthy under the right circumstances.
In explaining the genesis of the film, Ferne speaks to this issue:
“In 1991 I was a documentary still photographer for the New York bureau of a Japanese newspaper, the Tokyo/Chunichi Shimbun, and was invited to Miami with a number of foreign journalists to write about the city. One afternoon we were taken on a tour of the Holocaust Memorial there, which was brand new at the time. I brought along my old friend Kent Kirshenbaum, whose mother was an Italian Jew who escaped Mussolini’s Rome when she was a baby. When the tour was over, Kent and I asked our guide—an elderly Holocaust survivor—what she thought of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which had just finished being serialized and was about to win the Pulitzer Prize. She got very upset at the mere idea and said to us, “You cannot tell this story through the funny pages! There was nothing funny about the Holocaust!” We politely told her that we didn’t think Maus was funny at all except in the darkest sense, that it just used the comic form to tell a very poignant story. But our guide wasn’t moved. She was understandably furious at the whole idea.”
“That moment stuck with us both, and when Kent went back to school to get his PhD, he wrote a paper about that question: can there ever be any legitimate humor at all about this very difficult topic? It was called ‘The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust.’ And a few years later, when I was getting my Masters in Documentary Film from Stanford, he handed me the paper and said, ‘Make this into a film.’ That was 1993. It only took 18 years to find the funding for ‘The Last Laugh,’ and another five to actually make it.”
What Ferne discovered on this journey proved surprising. While on first blush there would appear to be no topic less suited to levity, there is actually quite a lot of humor surrounding the Holocaust, humor that has served many positive functions: to help strip power from oppressors, to expose racism and anti-Semitism, and simply to provide a new avenue by which we might approach such an emotionally charged, much worked-over subject. History shows that even the victims of the Nazi concentration camps themselves used humor as a means of survival, resistance, and counterattack. Few people would object to that, or begrudge survivors any weapon they could grasp to help them endure their ordeal. But from there it gets infinitely trickier.
Needless to say, any use of comedy in connection with this horror is fraught and risks diminishing the suffering of millions. The potential for such humor to turn hostile is also ever-present, especially with the postwar resurgence of attacks on the Jewish people.
But if we make the Holocaust off limits, are we not on the slippery slope to the same suppression of free speech that characterized the very totalitarianism that led to that atrocity? And what then are the implications for other controversial subjects—slavery, 9/11, racism, AIDS—in a society that prizes freedom of expression? More to the point, it is not even a matter of “if” we wish to allow humor about the Holocaust. The fact is, as the Shoah itself becomes ever more part of the distant past, such humor is inevitably becoming less and less charged and more and more common. What are the implications of that development, and how should we deal with it?
The Last Laugh examines these issues through three intertwined threads: the remarkable cinema verité story of 93-year-old Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone; a Greek chorus consisting of interviews with comedians, writers, and thinkers led by Mel Brooks, and including Sarah Silverman, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Susie Essman, Alan Zweibel, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Judy Gold, Jeffrey Ross, Larry Charles, Etgar Keret, Deb Filler, David Cross, Shalom Auslander, Jake Ehrenreich, Lisa Lampanelli, David Steinberg, Robert Clary, Roz Weinman, Hanala Sagal and Abraham Foxman; and lastly, clips from movies, TV, stand-up comedy, and other archival material ranging from The Producers and Hogan’s Heroes to rare propaganda footage of cabarets inside the concentration camps themselves. The film wrestles with the question of whether there is a socially redeeming role for humor in approaching an atrocity on this epic scale, and if so, under what conditions. It then uses the Holocaust as an entry point into a broader question about of the role of humor in confronting tragedy in general.
When it comes to gallows humor, the famous, almost hackneyed formulation is “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” It’s a maxim attributed to many sources from Lenny Bruce to Steve Allen, and memorably repeated by Alan Alda’s fatuous TV producer character in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. But no work of comedy more perfectly exemplifies that effect than Mel Brooks’ first feature film, The Producers, and its trajectory from scandal in 1967 to Broadway smash 34 years later.
In The Last Laugh, the great Harry Shearer neatly captures the irony:
“The whole essence of the joke of The Producers was, how could you possibly think that a musical about Hitler was acceptable? That was the whole maguffin of the picture. But by the time it gets to Broadway, a movie about a spectacular Broadway failure because it was in such bad taste becomes a Broadway hit because it’s not in bad taste anymore! The passage of time alone has made it almost sweet. People sing along with ‘Springtime for Hitler’—there’s no revulsion. If it had been ‘Springtime for Saddam Hussein’ when it appeared on Broadway, it would have had the original kick.”
“Of course time makes a difference,” actress/comedian Susie Essman tells Ferne in her interview. “Nobody cares if you make Inquisition jokes.” Her claim seems indisputable…but as the documentary cuts to Mel Brooks singing and dancing as Torquemada in a Busby Berkeley-styled auto-da-fé from his 1981 comedy History of the World, Part 1, we begin to wonder. In our screenings at over a hundred film festivals and elsewhere we have indeed had one or two audience members stand up and insist that people today don’t realize the horrors of the Inquisition, and that it remains unconscionable to joke about it, half a millennium of distance notwithstanding.
While the passage of time undeniably reduces sensitivities as we grow further and further from the trauma of a given incident, it doesn’t alter the concrete facts of the horror. That dynamic of de-sensitization is accelerated when the last living victim or witness is no longer with us, a moment that is rapidly approaching with the Holocaust. Someday the Shoah will be as remote as the Inquisition is to us now, and likely treated with the same nonchalance. (Although Ferne contends that the existence of film footage and other visceral, documentary evidence not available in 1492 might alter that. Future generations will have to be the judge). Certainly something valuable will be lost, but is it possible that something new can be gained?
Who better to answer these questions than an actual survivor?
The heart of The Last Laugh is Renee Firestone—now 93—who survived Auschwitz, though she lost most of her family, including her parents and her younger sister Klara, who was experimented on by Dr. Josef Mengele’s staff. Early in the documentary, Renee tells a story about being examined by Mengele himself, a story that has the feel and structure of a joke and manages to be both bone-chilling and genuinely funny—hard as that is to believe, until you hear Renee tell it.
After the war Renee emigrated to Los Angeles where she had a remarkable career as a pioneering fashion designer—among other adventures—before turning to anti-genocide activism full-time, in the company of her daughter Klara (named for her murdered aunt whom she never knew). “I always knew that I wanted a cinema verité element in the film,” Ferne explains. “I didn’t just want it to be talking heads and clips. And when I met Renee and Klara, I knew immediately that they were the story I’d been looking for.”
Renee’s mindset toward the topic focuses less on what is offensive than on the value of humor in maintaining humanity. Though not a comedian herself, her vibrant personality and aching wisdom about what she experienced makes her an ideal guide for the story The Last Laugh tells.
Recently a reporter asked Renee what she thought when Ferne first approached her about being in the film:
“I was surprised when she told me it was about humor. But then I thought about it and I figured it’s wonderful. Ferne is the first person that really showed that we were still human beings while we were in the camps. Because if you’re human, you laugh at something if it’s funny, no matter what the circumstances. What was funny was funny. You don’t decide that you’re going to laugh at a joke. Laughter and smiling are things that come to you automatically when you react to something. So I just thought this was the most wonderful thing because most people think of Holocaust survivors as not human. How can you live through such a thing? Well, this inner sense of humor and of wanting to see the good in life, not just the bad, that is what kept me alive. I thought people will think I’m crazy to be in this film, but this is one of the most wonderful Holocaust films I know.”
IN MY TRIBE
Renee’s viewpoint speaks to another of the key issues in this discussion: who has the right to such humor?
The usual guideline is that one can joke about one’s own group—whatever parameters are used to define it—but outsiders cannot. Within one’s own tribe there is the presumption of good intent underlying any humor, however tasteless. But the further one gets from that core the less that presumption holds. Indeed, the exact same joke told by different individuals can resonate with radically different connotations. Holocaust survivors like Renee of course have the widest latitude; their children, like Klaire, a little less; Jews like Ferne with no direct family connection to the Shoah a little less still, goyim who are married to Jew—‑like me—even less but still a little, and on and on down the chain until one gets to Steve Bannon or Richard Spencer telling that same joke, at which point it is, needless to say, a different beast altogether. (Emphasis on “beast.”)
As the legendary comedy writer Alan Zweibel puts it in the film: “I think the initial reaction when a non-Jew makes a Holocaust joke is that they’re making fun of the Holocaust, and who are you to make fun of that? You weren’t there, you weren’t affected. We were, and we’re allowed to joke about it, okay?”
It is hardly surprising that Jewish inmates of the concentration camps would seize on humor as one of the few tools they had to cope with their ordeal. Deb Filler, the New Zealand-born comedian, writer, and performer, who figures in an important scene in The Last Laugh, quotes her late father, who survived four concentration camps including Auschwitz and Buchenwald: “If you were funny before the camps, you were funny in the camps, and you were funny after the camps—if you survived.” In that regard, Holocaust humor is a subset of the important place humor has always held in Jewish culture and among Jews as perennial objects of attack by the outside world. Tribally, humor functions as a means both of bonding and of self-defense, and carries with it all kinds of unspoken protocols. Says the monologist—and child of survivors—Jake Ehrenreich (A Jew Grows in Brooklyn): “Humor healed us. Especially in the Catskills. We would go and my mother would laugh like I had never seen her laugh. There was a release, because it was a kind of community where they felt safe, and they weren’t ‘the Other.’”
But this dynamic turns precisely on membership in the oppressed group. By that standard, only Jews can ever use humor in connection with the Holocaust….and as the reaction to Larry David’s monologue shows, even that is not a blank czech. (You see what I did there?) Another of the interview subjects in The Last Laugh is the eloquent Larry Charles, who wrote for Seinfeld and has directed many episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm (as well as Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous, and three of Sacha Baron Cohen’s movies—Borat, Bruno, and The Dictator—among many other things). Charles notes that “Jews have their turf, gay people have their turf, black people have their turf, and when people transgress those turfs, you can run into problems.”
Yet there are Gentile comedians who do Holocaust jokes with carrying degrees of acceptance. Ricky Gervais has a scabrous routine about Anne Frank (“She had time to write a novel for Chrissakes! And no sequel—lazy!”) that he somehow seems to get away with. (It looks worse on paper than in performance.) By contrast, Lisa Lampanelli’s joke at a Comedy Central roast about the strange popularity of David Hasselhof as a pop singer in Germany (“David, if they’d played your music at Auschwitz, the Jews would have sprinted for those ovens”) raised hackles.
(It does not escape us that six million non-Jews were also killed in the death camps and other machinery of the Holocaust. The claim of Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people, communists, and others to use humor in connection with the Shoah is complicated as well, although the special place of anti-Semitism in Nazi ideology has been discussed elsewhere in these pages. See The Invention of Whiteness: A Conversation with James Carroll.)
The Israeli writer Etgar Keret stakes a claim for humor as the province of all oppressed peoples. “Humor is the weapon of the weak,” he says. “Think about the things that we make jokes about. We make jokes about our bosses, we make jokes about death….It’s a way of dealing with an unbearable reality.” But what happens when that insular, positively-oriented humor is taken as license for all, when it becomes co-opted by outsiders—or worse, by the oppressors themselves—and turned into a weapon of abuse and further victimization?
Once we allow for any humor about the Holocaust, even if only by Jews, we are on the proverbial slippery slope toward tolerance of all kinds of humor about the Holocaust, which runs the very real risk of fueling anti-Semitism, racism, and hate…..a risk that is very much on the American mind at this moment. On the other hand, should we proscribe all humor related to the Holocaust—or any sensitive subject—simply because some people will misunderstand or abuse it? Does that not subject us all to the limitations of the lowest common denominator?
“You can’t control how your joke will be inferred,” says comedian Sarah Silverman in the film. “I had a friend named Tom Giannis who called it ‘mouth-full-of-blood’ laughs, where the audience is laughing at the wrong thing. And that’s hard, but it’s just no longer yours.”
The issue then becomes: what are the acceptable parameters for such transgressive humor? In a society like the United States, where freedom of speech is sacrosanct and protected (for the moment), and presuming the humor does not cross into hate speech, as defined as actual incitement of violence (I mentioned Richard Spencer, didn’t I?), this is not a question of government censorship but of social norms. What kind of humor as a form of free expression do we consider reasonable and acceptable, even if “tasteless”?
PRETTY PRETTY PRETTY BOLD
The reaction to Larry David’s monologue cuts right to the heart of this debate, which is context. Ferne puts it like this:
“I wonder if this joke would have generated this much outrage if it had been in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I think Larry’s audience expects this sort of humor from him, and he has successfully gotten away with what people would consider far more off-limits stuff in the context of his own show. But it plays differently to a more general audience—and a much bigger one—on SNL.
“Naturally it’s totally subjective and there’s no clearcut answer. How you feel about Larry’s bit has everything to do with your familiarity with his comic persona and body of work, his Jewishness and your own (or not), your comfort level with gallows humor, the presumption of good intent in his routine (or not), and loads of related stuff.
“To me, the beauty of Larry David’s humor (and the success of Seinfeld and Curb) is the way he calls attention to the awkwardness of the taboo. Remember the line in Seinfeld about homosexuality, ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with it’? We were laughing because even the characters knew that what they were saying was slightly taboo and they felt obliged to qualify it. In some ways, the joke Larry told on SNL was more about his own crassness—or the crassness of the character he plays—and the inappropriateness of hitting on someone in a concentration camp, than about the Shoah itself. Even the fictional woman in the joke is offended by the fact that he’s hitting on her, so Larry is obviously aware of the transgressive nature of the bit he is doing. But that doesn’t mitigate it for some people, which is totally understandable.
“I think another thing that makes the joke even more difficult to digest is that it was told in the context of what seems like endless revelations of rape and sexual assault we’re surrounded by right now. In our film Larry Charles says that a joke is only taboo is if we haven’t sufficiently dealt with the subject being joked about, and we are very much in the middle of dealing with that topic right now.”
In other words, context is everything. In her interview for The Last Laugh, the TV producer, writer, and former sociology professor Roz Weinman—who headed NBC’s Standards and Practices division for many years, including Seinfeld’s run—describes how showunners often complained to her about material that she had nixed for their shows but allowed on others. Roz says: “I had to explain that I assessed material on a case by case and show by show basis, rather than employing some one-size-fits-all standard. The audience for SNL or Seinfeld was different than the audience for another given show, and vice versa, and I had to weigh the expectations and sophistication of each specific audience.” (Roz, as it happens, is herself the child of Holocaust survivors.)
These days, probably no American comedian takes on the Holocaust with as much boldness and frequency as the aforementioned Sarah Silverman. In one brilliant throwaway bit from her stand-up act, she says that her grandmother was a survivor of the Holocaust, then catches and corrects herself—“I’m sorry, alleged Holocaust”—as she carries on with the main part of the joke. It’s not only a rapier slash at Holocaust denial, but also at deconstructionism and relativism. Even for those who find it offensive, Sarah’s Holocaust-related comedy arguably serves a noble purpose as social criticism, and not just an attempt to get a cheap laugh by means of shock value, as other Holocaust humor sometimes is.
Over a decade ago, Ferne and I saw Sarah do a lot of this material live in her one-woman show Jesus Is Magic. The audience loved it and roared. So did I. But it was one thing to watch that act in a tiny black box theater on Bleecker Street with a bunch of other self-selecting people; it was quite another to stand next to Renee Firestone while she watched the same jokes on YouTube. (“I’m not offended,” Renee concluded, “I just don’t find it funny.”) Admittedly, there is a generational element at play; even without being a survivor, not many ninetysomethings are attuned to Sarah Silverman’s deadpan absurdist sensibility. But Ferne deliberately filmed Renee watching Sarah that way, heightening the awkwardness and the discomfort in order to make that point about context. “I didn’t want to let the audience off the hook,” she says. “I didn’t want them to ever forget—for more than a couple of minutes at least—what they were laughing at.”
FUNNY OR DIE
Larry’s bit on SNL was similar to a genius, Sahara-dry joke Judy Gold tells in The Last Laugh—for my money, one of the funniest in the film—where she says that she sometimes privately wonders, “If I was standing on line, naked, for the gas chambers, would I hold my stomach in?” Yet no one in any of our screenings has ever objected to Judy’s joke, even though it is similarly structured and takes place in the same setting as Larry’s.
The fact that Judy’s joke is so funny to many—myself included—forgives all, a point that also figures heavily in these debates. “If you’re going to cross the line you better be funny,” Susie Essman says. Harry Shearer adds: “A great joke really does trump all rules. But it’s got to be a great joke, and the higher the stakes the higher the standard for how good the joke has to be.”
But therein lies the rub. It’s by no means clear that being funny is a credential that should immunize and authorize transgressive humor (though there is no doubt that if a person laughs, they are far more ready to accept a given bit, almost involuntarily, by sheer virtue of its success). But even if that were the crucial metric, “funny” is inherently subjective. Nazis undoubtedly find jokes about gas chambers funny. So it is no easier to define “funny” than it is to define “offensive.”
In many ways, Judy’s line is a perfect embodiment of the very nature of a “joke” in Woody Allen’s formulation: the surprising juxtaposition of incongruent things, typically the profound and the petty. (You’re not supposed to dissect a joke, but Woody’s analysis strikes me as pretty right on.) Judy’s joke also turns on the highly relatable topic of body image, while Larry’s felt uncomfortable at a time when predatory male behavior is on everyone’s minds. (He led into the bit with an equally fraught observation about his discomfort that so many of the perpetrators being named in the post-Harvey era are Jewish men.) At that point it’s fair to ask, are these jokes even about the Holocaust at all, except tangentially, a technique that presents worries of its own?
Comedian Jeffrey Ross goes to the heart of that question:
“To me, you don’t have a Holocaust joke. You have a joke about dating, you have a joke about politics….for me, the joke’s always about something else, and then the punchline is the shocker. That’s when you mention Hitler, or the Holocaust. ‘Auschwitz’ is a funny punchline—not a funny topic, but a funny punchline. You don’t want to walk out on stage and go, ‘How’s your Friday night going everybody? Let’s talk about Auschwitz!’ That’s not gonna fly. No one’s getting laid after that show.”
Amy Schumer—who appears in a stand-up clip in The Last Laugh—offers another instructive lesson in juxtaposition in this sketch, “The Museum of Boyfriend Wardrobe Atrocities” (which was too difficult to include in the doc). Depending on your perspective, it’s either a highly sophisticated take on Holocaust fatigue—and denial—or a crass use of the Shoah to get laughs about a topic that is astronomically petty by comparison. But per Woody’s definition, the very inconsequentiality of the subject—the absence of fashion sense in the male of the species—is the source of the comedy precisely because it is paired with the profundity of the Holocaust. Does that amount to a trivialization of the Shoah for the sake of a laugh, or an enlightening new take on how we have distanced ourselves from the murder of millions by placing the topic under glass? You tell me.
THE LAST ACCEPTABLE VILLAINS
There is also the issue of who is the butt of the joke, which can lead to some complex gymnastics. Ferne:
“I used to begin all my interviews for this film by asking, as a sort of icebreaker, ‘Do you have a Holocaust joke?’ And many of the interview subjects would think for a moment and then say, ‘I don’t have a Holocaust joke, but I do have a Nazi joke.’ So one of the things that we quickly discovered was that people make a distinction between the two. One is humor at the expense of the perpetrators, which is a longstanding tradition in satire and comedy in general, and nobody bats an eye at. The other is humor at the expense of the victims, and that’s where most people draw the line.”
But even that is not a bright line. Even jokes that are indisputably at the expense of the Nazis can set off outrage just by invoking the imagery of the death camps, as when Joan Rivers on her show “Fashion Police” said of a dress worn by German supermodel Heidi Klum, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.”
Even Mel Brooks winced at that one (though he admitted it was funny). The Anti-Defamation League and others did a lot more than wince. When you parse it, it’s really a joke about the Germans. But just by saying the word ‘ovens’ Joan touched the third rail for many people. It is also true that the furor over the joke may stem from its ephemeral nature, as opposed to one that—however dark—aims to make more substantive social commentary. Although it relies on the same petty/profound dichotomy, the joke’s balance is more extreme than Gold’s or Schumer’s, and accordingly generated much more indignation.
For her part, Rivers fiercely defended that joke and all her Holocaust humor by arguing that it was her way of keeping the memory of the Shoah from disappearing from the public mind. One of her most persistent critics, longtime president of the ADL Abraham Foxman, strongly disagreed, arguing that jokes like that only trivialized the horror.
Not surprisingly the proudly transgressive comedian Gilbert Gottfried rejects and ridicules the distinction between perpetrator-based and victim-based humor altogether, arguing that Nazi jokes are by definition Holocaust jokes. “Like you can separate the two,” he scoffs, “Because the Nazis had nothing to do with the Holocaust.” (Not surprisingly, Gilbert also disregards the “tragedy plus time” rule, saying, “I always thought, ‘Why wait?’”)
THE FUTURE OF THE PAST
Author Shalom Auslander earned both critical praise and widespread outrage with his daring satirical novel Hope: A Tragedy that imagines an aging, bitter Anne Frank still secretly alive and working on her next book. As he says: “We have greed and guilt and wars and genocides and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’ve read God’s answers, I’ve read Spinoza’s answers—there’s no answer. They’re both dead. So the only way I can deal with the reality of existence is to laugh at it.”
That humor can have a role in helping us to come to terms with tragedy—even a tragedy on the scale of the Holocaust—or serve as a weapon to fight against the powerful, or act as a beacon to illuminate even the darkest moments, are all ultimately truths as plain as the existence of humor in the human condition full stop. If humor offers us a way to do those things, albeit with strict vigilance for the many attendant dangers, its value is self-evident. It might even be a solution to so-called “Holocaust fatigue,” which of course is dangerous in its own right.
So where does that leave us going forward?
In the course of researching The Last Laugh. Ferne and I spoke with Art Spiegelman, whose landmark graphic novel Maus had been the impetus for the documentary in the first place. He was exceptionally gracious (even though Hurricane Sandy wiped out his scheduled on-camera interview), and introduced us to Yann Martel, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi. After the triumph of Life of Pi, Martel’s next novel, the allegory Beatrice and Virgil, was met with condemnation for telling the story of the Holocaust through a pair of stuffed animals. Baffled by what he saw as the myopia of his critics, Yann argued to us that it is absurd that there is only one approved artistic approach to the Holocaust—which is to say, sober realism. (Black-and-white footage scored with cello in a minor key, as Woody Allen observes in another of his films.) And why is that, Martel asks. Why is the Holocaust alone among human tragedies limited to just one narrow aesthetic treatment? War is horrific, yet no one objects to the black comedy of M*A*S*H or Catch-22. Everyone understands that the intent of those novels and their film adaptations is serious and noble, not disrespectful or mocking. Perhaps even as the traditional ways of dealing with the Holocaust begin to disappear with the last survivors, humor and satire will open up new ways of helping us understand the Shoah and prevent it from ever happening again. (Too late, some might argue.)
As noted above, these questions are not going away, but in fact will only become more pressing as the Holocaust recedes further and further into history. Alan Zweibel again: “Are there things that go over the line? I’m sure that there are. But I don’t know if my kids will consider it over the line.” Nor are these questions limited to the Shoah, but speak to free expression and the human experience across the board. Ferne:
“I made The Last Laugh not just to talk about the Holocaust, but as a way into a broader discussion about freedom of expression, the power of humor, and how a democracy can reconcile the competing needs to protect discourse but quell hate. We know there may not be definitive answers to these questions, but just asking them at all—just stimulating the audience to think about these issues—is in the interest of democracy, and tolerance, and justice.”
Let’s give the last word to Mel Brooks, since he usually gets it anyway: “Comics are the conscience of the people, and they are allowed a wide berth of activity in every direction. Comics have to tell us who we are, where we are, even if it’s in bad taste.”
Ferne Pearlstein – Biography
Ferne Pearlstein is a rare triple threat: a prize-winning cinematographer, writer, director, and feature film editor whose work has won numerous awards and been screened and broadcast around the world. Her most recent film, The Last Laugh—which she directed, produced, photographed, and edited—had its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, beginning a year-long run of almost a hundred festivals in the US and abroad, including Hot Docs, Munich, Jerusalem, San Francisco Jewish, Traverse City, BFI London, and many others.
Pearlstein holds postgraduate degrees in documentary film and photography from Stanford University and the International Center of Photography. An acclaimed documentary director of photography with dozens of films to her credit, she won the Excellence in Cinematography Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival for her work on Ramona Diaz’s Imelda, a feature documentary about Imelda Marcos for which she lived and traveled with the former First Lady of the Philippines during her campaign for the presidency. Pearlstein is one of only a handful of female cinematographers featured in Kodak’s long-running “On Film” ad campaign in the pages of American Cinematographer magazine. Committed to shooting in film, she has shot documentaries in places as diverse as Haiti, Uganda, and Guyana, and snuck her 16mm camera from the Karen refugee camps of Thailand across the border to film in the rebel bases of the Karen Liberation Army in Burma.
Pearlstein‘s previous feature documentary Sumo East and West (2003)—which she also directed, produced, photographed, and edited—premiered at the Tribeca, Los Angeles, and Melbourne International Film Festivals, and was also shown nationwide on Independent Lens and broadcast around the world. Her other directing credits include co-director of Dita and the Family Business (2000, PBS), and three short films including her debut Raising Nicholas (1993), which premiered at the Sundance and San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals. Among her other credits are: cinematographer on Academy Award winner Alex Gibney’s segment of Freakonomics (2010); DP on three-time Academy Award nominee Deborah Dickson’s Ruthie and Connie (2002) for HBO; and DP on The Voice of the Prophet (Sundance 2002) where she met her collaborator and husband Robert Edwards, who had hired her to shoot the film. She was associate producer, editor, and 2nd unit director/DP on Edwards’ 2006 feature Land of the Blind, starring Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland, and producer and 2nd unit director/DP on his 2016 feature When I Live My Life Over Again, starring Christopher Walken and Amber Heard.
The Last Laugh website: www.lastlaughfilm.us
Photo (by Anne Etheridge): Filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein with Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone.