Can You Joke About Something as Horrible as the Holocaust?

It was 1991. Art Spiegelman had just released his groundbreaking graphic novel “Maus.” And filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein was about to get an idea that would buzz around in her mind for 20 years before coming to fruition.

Pearlstein was taking a group tour of Miami’s then-new Holocaust Memorial with a friend—led by an elderly Holocaust survivor—when Spiegelman’s book came up in conversation.

The survivor “was really angry about it,” Pearlstein said. She said, “‘You can’t cover (the Holocaust) in the funny pages.'”

Pearlstein said she and her friend pushed back: “Just because (the book) uses comic form, it wasn’t meant to be funny or making fun of the Holocaust.”

To joke or not to joke

That spurred an idea that would eventually become “The Last Laugh,” premiering April 24 on PBS’s “Independent Lens”: Can something as tragic and traumatic as the Holocaust ever be joked about? And can humor help people heal, even when the wounds are deep?

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Filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein and comedian and writer Mel Brooks, creator of “The Producers,” the classic comedy about a Nazi-themed musical. Photo courtesy of “The Last Laugh.”

When Pearlstein ran into her friend a couple years later, he had written a long paper on the topic.

“He handed it to me in 1993 and said, ‘Make this into a movie,'” she said.

For more than 10 years Pearlstein kept the project on the backburner—for a topic like this, the timing needed to be perfect, she said. In 1997, the film “Life is Beautiful” came out, and Pearlstein said she worried it would be too much to release the documentary on top of it.

But “every couple years, (we’d) trot it out again,” she said. “In 2006, we saw ‘The Aristocrats‘ and Gilbert Gottfried told 9/11 jokes and I said, ‘Oh, the audiences are ready.'”

Jewish comedic legends Gottfried, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Alan Zweibel, David Cross and Susie Essman (and many more) are all featured in “The Last Laugh,” each waxing philosophical (hilariously, of course) about what’s okay to joke about and what’s not.

Spoiler: The line between hilarious and offensive, or lack thereof, is different for everybody. It’s all about intent. (And whether your jokes are actually funny, the comedians said.) For example, Brooks is probably most famous for lampooning Hitler in “The Producers,” a film about a Nazi-themed musical, but won’t joke about the Holocaust itself.

How hard was it to get comedians to talk about this?

It varied—wildly. Reiner “agreed to do it right away,” Pearlstein said.

But “there’s one famous comedian who wasn’t in the film” whose handler said “not ‘no’ but ‘hell no,'” she said. “But in the same conversation went on to tell a Holocaust joke. …

People aren’t opposed to going there, but don’t want to hand the material over to people they don’t know and don’t know if they should trust.”

When Pearlstein connected with Zweibel—who wrote Tony Award-winning “700 Sundays” with Billy Crystal and was an original writer for “Saturday Night Live“—and pitched him the idea, his reaction was, “‘Gee, that’s odd, boy, let’s do it, that’s great,’ all in one thought,” Zweibel said to Rewire.

It sounded so off the wall in a way but it made total sense all at the same time. You don’t hear ‘humor in the Holocaust’ a lot all in one sentence.”

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Filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein (right) and Renee Firestone, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor and focus of “The Last Laugh.” Photo courtesy of “The Last Laugh.”

The comedians’ analysis gets a real-life face via 93-year-old Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor who believes that laughter is necessary for survival and healing—although she does have a discerning ear when it comes to what’s funny and what’s not (Firestone watching Jewish and non-Jewish standup comedians attempting bits about the Holocaust and Hitler—and judging them—is one of the best parts of the film). Even when she was in Auschwitz, separated from her family and subjected to the unthinkable, she said in the film, the prisoners found ways to make each other laugh.

Zweibel said he was “just blown away” when he saw the film for the first time. At many screenings, he said, viewers were left in stunned silence after the credits rolled.

“You have this spirit of Renee Firestone, something I’ve never experienced before,” he said. “Someone who survived the camps and her view on life (is)… ‘I’m a grandmother and I lived life, I’m going to show (the Nazis) I had the last laugh.'”

The lesson? Proceed with caution

“The Last Laugh” doesn’t provide an answer to a question so much as it opens the door for a discussion. Every person in the film—comedian and non-comedian alike—had a different take.

When it comes to telling a good joke about a sensitive subject, “I think there’s a sixth sense that everybody has,” Zweibel said. It’s all about intent, he said, and “embracing something with affection no matter what the subject matter is.”

I always feel that as far as going too far is concerned, if the tone is sincere, if the tone is not manufactured, you can basically take an audience wherever you want…, because you hook into your sincerity about it,” he said.

One of Pearlstein’s favorite moments in the documentary is when Firestone is talking with another Auschwitz survivor, Elly Gross, at a survivor convention in Las Vegas. Gross said she doesn’t believe joking about the Holocaust is ever okay, and that “the shadow (of the Holocaust) is following me all my life,” preventing her from fully appreciating the fact that she survived.

One of the most gratifying experiences for Pearlstein since the film was released was Gross’ reaction to it. Pearlstein was pretty nervous about Gross seeing it, she said.

But Gross “loved the film and on stage at Tribeca (Film Festival) she talked about how thoughtful it was, and how tasteful,” Pearlstein said. “We made a film about bad taste but we made it in good taste.”

If done correctly, humor has the power to continue the discussion about difficult topics, Zweibel said. And it will always be a tool to critique the powerful and shine light on injustice.

“It exposes something and it helps heal and it also keeps the topic alive, with Holocaust deniers out there,” he said. “There aren’t that many survivors anymore and 10 years from now there won’t be any, probably, and we’ve gotta keep this particular theme and this memory alive. …

“When you’re humorous about it, and it becomes palatable, subliminally what happens is everyone is reminded (the Holocaust) happened and it can’t happen again.”

Watch “The Last Laugh” on “Independent Lens” on PBS.org. Or check your local PBS station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.