Independent Lens: The Last Laugh

About This Episode


The Holocaust would seem to be an absolutely off-limits topic for comedy. But is it? History shows that even victims of Nazi concentration camps used humor as a means of survival and resistance. Still, any use of comedy in connection with this horror risks diminishing the suffering of millions. So where is the line? If the Holocaust is taboo, what are the implications for other controversial subjects — 9/11, AIDS, racism — in a society that prizes freedom of speech?

The Last Laugh offers fresh insights into these questions, with an intimate portrayal of Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone alongside interviews with influential comedians and thinkers ranging from Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Jeff Ross, Larry Charles, and Gilbert Gottfried, to authors Etgar Keret and Shalom Auslander, plus Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. The film also includes rare archival footage of cabarets inside the concentration camps themselves, as well as clips ranging from The Producers to Curb Your Enthusiasm, video of performances from comics Louis CK, George Carlin, and Chris Rock, and newly discovered footage of Jerry Lewis’s never-released Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried.

Mel Brooks has made a career out of making fun of Nazis, calling it "revenge through ridicule." Yet the Holocaust itself is a subject he won’t touch. Not so for Sarah Silverman or Judy Gold or the late Joan Rivers. From Hogan’s Heroes, to Seinfeld’s "Soup Nazi," mainstream pop culture has pushed the envelope of what is considered acceptable. As Rob Reiner notes in the film: "The Holocaust itself is not funny. There's nothing funny about it. But survival, and what it takes to survive, there can be humor in that."