The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh

April 24, 2017


Ferne Pearlstein and Robert Edwards

Is the Holocaust (and other taboos) truly off-limits for comedy? Influential comics, thinkers and survivors debate.


About the Documentary

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 (Comedy Central Roast Battle), Larry Charles (director of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Borat), 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.”

The Filmmakers

Ferne Pearlstein

Ferne Pearlstein, an American filmmaker based in New York City, holds post-graduate degrees in documentary film and photography from Stanford University and the International Center of Photography. In 2003, Pearlstein‘s documentary Sumo East and West premiered at the Tribeca, Los Angeles, and Melbourne International Film Festivals, and was shown nationwide on Independent Lens. Other credits as director include Dita and the Family Business (PBS) with Josh Taylor, and three short films, including her debut Raising Nicholas, which premiered at the Sundance and San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals. As a director of photography with dozens of films to her credit, Pearlstein is one of only a handful of female cinematographers featured in Kodak's long-running “On Film” ad campaign in American Cinematographer magazine. In 2004 she won the Excellence in Cinematography Prize at Sundance for her work on Imelda, which followed former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos during her campaign for the presidency. Among her other credits as cinematographer are: Academy Award®-winner Alex Gibney’s segment of Freakonomics; Ruthie and Connie (HBO); and The Voice of the Prophet where she met her longtime collaborator and husband Robert Edwards.

Robert Edwards

Based in New York City, Robert Edwards is a graduate of Stanford University’s Master’s Program in Documentary Film and a former infantry and intelligence officer in the United States Army in Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East, including service with a parachute infantry regiment in Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. His award-winning film Paranoia, inspired by a skydiving accident in which he broke his back, has been screened and broadcast on television and at film festivals in more than a dozen countries. Among his credits as an editor are Barry Levinson’s feature-length documentary Yesterday’s Tomorrows for Showtime, part of a traveling exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution; Abandoned: The Betrayal of America’s Immigrants, for PBS, which won a DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award; Stopwatch, a PBS documentary by Bill Jersey and Michael Schwarz; and In Search of Law and Order: Catching Them Early, the final episode in the landmark three-part series on juvenile justice directed by Ray Telles and produced by Michael Schwarz and Roger Graef for PBS and Channel Four. His documentary short The Voice of the Prophet, an interview with Rick Rescorla, a veteran of three wars and head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter who was killed in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, screened at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Edwards recently won a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his screenplay Land of the Blind.

Full Credits

Learn more about the documentary

Join the Discussion

Can humor be used as a weapon? Have you used humor in your own life to work through painful topics? Is there anything you consider taboo to joke about? Do you have favorite comedians who some would consider controversial?


Connect with the Documentary