‘Last Laugh’: Looking to comedy as a salve and savior

Mel Brooks in "The Last Laugh." Courtesy of Falco Inc.

“Whoever has cried enough, laughs.” 

              — German novelist Heinrich Mann

That there is a limit to mourning, or that it must be transformed into its perceived opposite is a provocative idea. Jewish culture has historically laid claim to both emotional expressions, often simultaneously. We are a people for whom the act of remembering is central to identity, and as Jewish holidays remind us like clockwork, we are a people whose memories are tied to historical tragedy.

We were slaves in Egypt. We were exiled and held captive in Babylon. Twice, our temple was destroyed. We were victims of pogroms and anti-Semitism. And unforgettably, we were murdered, more than 6 million of us, during the Holocaust.

What tremendous burdens of memory we bear. It’s a wonder we are here at all, that we have the collective strength to remember. After all, forgetting is much simpler. What is it, a student once asked, that gives Jews such tenacity and resilience in the wake of such a long, dark history of persecution?

We laugh, I said, without considering whether it was in fact true. And certainly there are many reasons — known and unknown — that allow Jewish culture to flourish despite the atrocities to which it has been subjected. But the ability to laugh at jokes in the darkest of times may be the strongest indicator of the potential to survive just about anything.

“The Last Laugh,” a documentary film by Ferne Pearlstein that opens in Los Angeles on March 17, explores this very topic. The film opens with Mann’s statement on tears and laughter, and this strangest of pairings is the focus of the film, which cuts between scenes with Los Angeles Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone and interviews with well-known comics, including Mel Brooks, Jeff Ross, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner and Judy Gold.

After watching the film, I sat down with Ross to get his thoughts on comedy and tragedy, as well as the responsibility of comedians in our current social and political climate.

“The deeper you go with the humor, the more revengeful it is,” he says in the film. It’s “the Jewish way of getting through it.”

Jews dominate American comedy, and so it’s not the first time that an artist or filmmaker has explored the complex relationship between comedy and tragedy in the context of the Holocaust, a topic that was long considered taboo among comics. There were always Holocaust jokes, of course, even in Nazi Germany and even in the camps, some told by survivors. But never were they as pervasive as they are today, 70 years later.

In the film, Robert Clary, a survivor who entertained other inmates in the camp, says “making people forget where they were was the most important thing.” I asked Ross, king of roast comedy, what he thought about this idea. I was troubled by this statement because as a scholar of Holocaust literature my impulse is to insist that it would have been impossible to forget; to act as if it were feasible diminishes the extent of the atrocity. But Ross disagreed, insisting that it’s about context and where jokes are being told.

And Ross knows a lot about context. He has done comedic specials at places such as Westboro Baptist Church, police departments and prisons with inmates tattooed with swastikas. He’s done stand-up for soldiers and college students. But when it comes to telling jokes in places like concentration camps or war zones, he says the comic is “shining a light.”

Comedy “is resistance, so if no one is listening, if it doesn’t offend somebody somewhere, it’s probably not a joke,” he said. And so we find that telling jokes, even about the Holocaust, can be a way of continuing to resist the fascist and anti-Semitic impulses that led to it, as well as giving those who suffer a reprieve, if only for a moment.

But I had my doubts about the idea of a joke only being a joke if it offends someone, and I couldn’t help but think of my 4-year-old son who won’t stop telling the joke about the chicken crossing the road. Nothing offensive there.

As if he’d read my mind, Ross continued: “Why did the chicken cross the road? Well, somewhere in the world, right now, some kid’s chicken died crossing the road and it’s not funny, it’s not funny. Maybe his only meal crossed the road, and he’s hungry, it’s not funny. So context, timing, audience” matter.

“Even a bad show,” he said, “it can be good, it can be bad, it just can’t be boring . . . it’s torture if it is, just reminding you that you’re stuck.”

Imagine the pressure felt by a Jewish entertainer in the camps, struggling not just to tell jokes but also to make them good so that the audience wouldn’t feel stuck.

But comedy in retrospect differs from comedy during the Holocaust. One survivor in the film says: “Without humor, I don’t think we could’ve survived.” Another tells us, “you can’t live in the shadow” of the Holocaust — and that laughter is her revenge. Yet one cannot but live in its shadow. And so we find that humor, even outside the barbed wire of the camps decades later, works to help the survivor forget, for a moment, that she lives in the shadow of what was lost.

Humor is almost always connected to darkness. Inheritors of trauma, recipients of darkness, often laugh a lot. How else does one shoulder such burdens? Some of the best comics carry the heaviest burdens, I suspect. Or maybe we all carry burdens, and comics have chosen to take some of ours onto their own shoulders. I couldn’t help but ask Ross about his own personal darkness, about what made him do what he does. It’s a question I silently ask the ones who help us laugh until our insides hurt — a glimmer of the pain from which comedy often comes.

“It’s a skill,” he said. “What makes me good at that skill is really your question. And the answer is that I never really got the proper therapy to answer it. … Is it that my mother loved me too much? My parents passed away? Was it that I grew up around tough neighborhoods? Was it a defense from school bullies? Was it a way to get attention, to get girls to talk to me … a fun way to be punk rock and express my freedom of speech? I would say all of these.”

It’s complicated. And it’s a lot to bear.

Given my interest in tragedy, I can’t help but be drawn to the Jewish comic. The collective Jewish load is heavy — temples destroyed, years in exile, death marches and crematoria — but it is expected. It’s what’s added on that is intriguing, the unique, individual darkness colliding with what is carried down generationally. The ability to laugh and make others laugh in spite of it all: it’s a gift.

But with any gift comes tremendous responsibility. Some say that if the Jews are chosen, it is to be more responsible. Given recent news about desecrated Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats, I had to ask Ross about how the world of humor is changing. My own experience as a professor suggests that young people are laughing more than ever. “I love my generation,” tweeted one of my students, “we make everything hilarious.” Students are deeply troubled by the turbulence of our era, yet they laugh constantly. The threat of terrorism is dark and ambiguous, but it’s also the norm into which they were born. What choice do they have but to laugh if they want to survive?

And the new occupant of the White House, Ross suggested, permeates everything that’s happening. “It’s going to affect all comedy, all movies … painting, literature, even the Oscars, it’s less of a party now and more of a protest … Everyone has an agenda. It’s kind of a Trumpian buzz-kill going on right now. But having said this, my jokes about Donald Trump kill.” Ross dives into one of these jokes: “He’s an old friend, and I’m ghost-writing his book; it’s called ‘Mein kampf is bigger than your kampf.’ ”

Ross is quintessentially Jewish. He is never without a deep awareness of his responsibility. I asked him whether his comedy might change over the next four years, and he suggested that he has already become more politically aware, realizing that his niche is getting off the stage, out of the comedy club, into the field. Boots on the ground. Comedians have a responsibility “to not talk just about Trump, but about what’s on page 2, page 3, page 4, and make that interesting and funny,” he said. “Is our responsibility to resist Trump or to assist everybody else who’s lost in the Trump flood right now?”

Those are the kinds of statements that make Judaism great, I thought. And suddenly comedy seems like the only vehicle for hope.

I know — the idea of comedy as savior is ridiculous. Or maybe it’s not. Has humor taken on a messianic shape for this generation? As “The Last Laugh” confirms, humor helped people survive the unthinkable. Some see our current political situation as exceedingly dark, and certainly many young people feel this way. The messiah may or may not be coming, but one thing is certain: laughter is on its way, and in this laughter we find the capacity for hope and resistance. 

Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture.