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When it comes to the Holocaust, who has the last laugh?

Is it acceptable to make jokes about the Holocaust? That's the question asked in Ferne Pearlstein's new documentary, The Last Laugh

    Charlie Chaplin in the 1940 comedy The Great Dictator
    Charlie Chaplin in the 1940 comedy The Great Dictator

    If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it isn’t.”

    This satirical definition of comedy, uttered with requisite egotism by Alan Alda in Woody Allen’s 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, is actually as good a response as any to the question: Is it acceptable to make jokes about the Holocaust?

    This is the question addressed by American film-maker Ferne Pearlstein in her new documentary, The Last Laugh, in which she interviews Holocaust survivors along with American comedy aristocrats from Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman, supported by screen extracts ranging from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Jerry Lewis’s never-released but newly discovered Holocaust comedy, The Day the Clown Cried.

    It is easy enough to imagine, in Alda’s character’s terms, Holocaust material that would break if manipulated for laughs. But can such a subject be “bent” in the name of humour and, if so, how far before laughter gives way to distaste?

    If you find yourself laughing at a Holocaust joke — especially if you are Jewish — you are bound to ponder, in the aftermath, what you were just laughing at, and why.

    This is not necessarily to negate the humour, or your laughter. It can be salutary. A few years ago, a couple of friends of mine — both Jewish, both writers — went, for professional reasons, to see the late Bernard Manning in action. Manning, the most determinedly taboo-busting comedian this side of Lenny Bruce, included in his routine a series of vaguely offensive jokes aimed at negative Jewish stereotypes and then, acknowledging the presence of Jews in the audience, said: “I shouldn’t really make fun of Jews. After all, my dad died in Auschwitz… he fell out of a watchtower.” And my friends couldn’t help laughing, in spite of themselves, thereby endorsing the joke’s validity.

    While it is appropriate to ban material because it is calculated to incite violence or hatred, or is aimed at a vulnerable audience, it seems to me quite inappropriate to proscribe anything simply on the basis of its subject matter.

    Mel Brooks promoting the stage musical version of his classic comedy The Producers
    Mel Brooks promoting the stage musical version of his classic comedy The Producers

    Of course, some things are much harder than others to be funny about. It is difficult to imagine a joke about cancer having them rolling in the aisles. But, like world peace, while extremely unlikely, it remains theoretically possible. The problem with the likes of Frankie Boyle and others among today’s bloodless heirs of Bernard Manning who are so concerned to “push back the boundaries” is that, more often than not, they are tasteless without being funny, which nullifies the whole experience.

    This is very different from dark or sardonic humour, which can still fulfil the important function of providing perspective. Think of Joseph Heller’s near-legendary comic novel, Catch 22 — which gets laughs out of war, perhaps the unfunniest of all subjects. Or the great Irish writers, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, both of whom highlight “God’s little jokes.” The same, gently blasphemous approach is taken by the hilarious writer Shalom Auslander, having rejected his rigid, Orthodox Jewish upbringing (and who appears in The Last Laugh).

    In his 2006 film, Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen spectacularly included a sequence in which, appearing as the ludicrous antisemitic simpleton of the film’s title, he got the enthusiastic punters in a Country and Western joint in Tucson, Arizona to join in a song with the refrain, “Throw the Jew down the well.” This, Baron Cohen told Rolling Stone magazine, exposed not antisemitism particularly but its dangerous accessory, indifference. You can find the sequence on YouTube. It is outrageous — outrageously funny — a vivid example of creating genuine comedy out of the most unpromising, even sickening, material.

    There were even moments of humour within the dark heart of the Holocaust, as concentration camp inmates tried to keep up their spirits. One of the survivors featured in The Last Laugh, a nonagenarian called Renee Firestone, is presented by director Fearne Pearlstein as an example of survivors who “hold tight to their humour”. This is prompted by Firestone’s laughing recollection of a moment of almost sublime irony when, having entered Auschwitz, she was told by the evil Dr Mengele: “If you survive this war, you really ought to have your tonsils removed.”

    For Renee Firestone, that amused recollection is a kind of small victory. And in more public instances, turning the joke upon the bad guys can be an extremely effective way of puncturing a deluded sense of grandeur — which, too, is a victory.

    In the context of the Nazis, there have been various examples of this, including Charlie Chaplin’s film, The Great Dictator, Bertolt Brecht’s play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui — both of which came out during the War — and, looking back long afterwards, Mel Brooks’s The Producers.

    But the most devastating way of reversing the tyrant’s opprobrium is in the form of a joke — succinct and resonant — delivered from higher moral and intellectual ground. The late Rabbi Lionel Blue loved telling the tale of the little man standing at the back of a Nazi rally where a uniformed demagogue is stirring up the crowd with the chant: “Death to the Jews!” In the brief silence when the speaker closes his mouth, the man at the back shouts: “Yes, and death to the cyclists!” The speaker stares back and asks: “Why the cyclists?”

    “Why the Jews?” answers the little man.

    And then there was Picasso. The powerful evocation of wanton destruction in his mighty painting, Guernica, which he completed in 1937, was in response to the bombing of the town of that name in the Spanish Basque country by joint German Nazi and Italian Fascist forces, killing hundreds of civilians, mainly women and children.

    Picasso stayed in Paris throughout the German occupation. One day, a German officer came to visit him in his studio. Seeing a photograph of Guernica, the officer asked the painter: “Did you do that?”

    “No,” Picasso replied. “You did.”

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