“One day the doctor arrives, and who is he? It is Dr. Mengele and we have to get undressed; he’s gonna check us and we were wondering, why are they checking us? What is the doctor checking? I mean, that was itself funny. But I come in front of him and he puts his hand on my shoulder and he says to me in German ‘there is still enough fat’; and then he says to me: ‘If you survive this war’ he says, ‘you better get your tonsils removed, you have big tonsils’ [she laughs]”.
This is Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor, sharing what might have been one of the scariest experiences one can have. But the question is, do you find it funny? Can we laugh just because she went through all those horrors and now she’s decided to make catharsis through humor? Do you think it’s bad taste to laugh at such a disgraceful and dark moment of history? That’s exactly the premise of the documentary film The Last Laugh (2016). When does humor cross the line between funny and offensive? What are the subjects we’re allowed to laugh at or who can laugh about certain subjects? Created by documentary filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein, the film follows the steps of Renee Firestone, who shares her experiences and the role humor played during and after surviving this dark time in history.
This film also includes a list of well-known Jewish comedians, writers, and directors, who discuss this point of view: is it kosher to laugh at the Holocaust?
So, one of the questions the documentary discusses is who's entitled to make and laugh at these jokes? When we listen to Renee or other survivors sarcastically remember those times, we feel that it's their right to do so, but what happens if someone who didn't endure these horrors makes a joke about it? For example, the film brings back the controversy when Joan Rivers criticized Heidi Klum’s dress at the Oscar's by saying that “the last time a German looked that hot was when they were pushing Jews into the oven.” Now, while many argue that the only ones entitled to laugh at this particular event are the Jews themselves, this joke was seen as offensive and of bad taste even if the late comedian was actually Jew. Also, as it is mentioned in the documentary, these jokes have been around for decades, but they were told in private. This reflects an underlying guilt related to taboo subjects such as the Holocaust.
Time is one of the main reasons why the mentioning of certain subjects is forbidden. As it is questioned in The Last Laugh, why is the Holocaust a taboo while jokes about other dark subjects are totally acceptable? For example, the Inquisition tortured and killed thousands of people in the most despicable ways. However, joking about it isn't that controversial (just take a look at Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition).
The reason it is not frowned upon is because time eases all the pain and disapproval. It’s not the same laughing at an event that happened centuries ago than at subjects like 9/11, AIDS, or the Holocaust, which are still fresh in our memories.
Who is entitled to make jokes?
A highly controversial subject that tests the limits is slavery. Everyday, black comedians use comedy as a source of inspiration to clearly express their views and experiences. What happens when you do the unthinkable and mix two highly explosive subjects. Jewish comedian, Sarah Silverman did just that. In an award show, she joked by saying, "The Holocaust would never have happened if black people lived in Germany in the 1930s and 40s … well, it wouldn't have happened to Jews."
Besides the shocked gasps, what Silverman did was show how both groups have been persecuted and abused throughout history. As she mentions in the documentary:“Comedy brings light into darkness; that’s why it’s important to make comedy with taboo themes, otherwise they just stay in this dark place.”
Who are we poking fun at? This is perhaps the core of any good joke. The reason we ridicule and laugh at Hitler is because we tend to mock power because “humor is the weapon of the weak.” So, it's in good taste to mock those in privilege or those who had made others suffer rather than those who suffered. Those against the nature of these jokes may argue that these comedic quips are insensitive towards the Holocaust survivors and their families and that they may bring back their suffering in a painful way. But why is it acceptable then to watch incredibly explicit movies about this same subject? In Joan Rivers' case, many demanded an apology, but she refused by saying it was just a joke and she thought humor was an effective way to remind people of this subject. However, these jokes are controversial because of the risk of trivializing the Holocaust (just think about Anne Frank jokes that have been popularized in recent times).
Movies about the Second World War shelter themselves under the discourse of showing the world what happened so that we don't forget it, but isn't it more harmful for survivors to recreate the horrors in such a graphic way? Wouldn't it be better to treat the matter with humor rather than showing them raw images of what they had to endure?
Finally, what the documentary really wants to show is that humor is a basic need of humanity. Moreover, as many survivors have explained, laughing was essential to overcome the horrors they were enduring. It became a shield against the dehumanization they went through, and it has been a way to enjoy life, instead of being trapped in the reminiscence of bad memories.
As it's said, "It's more fun to laugh than not to laugh." So what are the boundaries of making jokes about Holocaust? As David Regev mentions in his article for the Israel Portal Haaretz, "Humor that deals with Jews’ day-to-day lives and difficulties during the Holocaust, that uses words associated with the Holocaust, that criticizes the 'industry' of the trips to Poland by high-school students and satirizes the way the authorities treat survivors is 'tolerable' and even appropriate. But humor that insults human dignity, that deals with the destruction of the Jews and those who opposed the Nazi regime, the death trains, the crematoria, the horrible ways in which the victims were murdered and the process of destruction is insulting, contemptible, and never appropriate."
So, when can we laugh? Regarding these kinds of jokes, Holocaust survivors and the Jewish people are meant to have the last laugh.
The Last Laugh
Israel Portal Haaretz