Tonight, the “Independent Lens” series on PBS is showing “The Last Laugh,” which is described in a press release thusly:
“The Last Laugh” is a documentary based on the premise that 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?
Among the funny people director Ferne Pearlstein spoke to are Sarah Silverman, Rob Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried, Jeffrey Ross, Alan Zweibel, Larry Charles and, of course, Mel Brooks. Brooks says that the Holocaust is a subject he wouldn’t touch, which seems odd coming from the man who made “The Producers” and wrote the song “Springtime For Hitler.” But, as he explains, he wasn’t joking about the Holocaust, he was making fun of the Nazis, which is “revenge through ridicule.”
The doc also includes clips from two movies that should never have been made, and prove what a dicey proposition it is to do comedy about the Holocaust — Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” and Jerry Lewis’ never-released “The Day The Clown Cried.”
Pearlstein’s other interviewees include Holocaust survivors, one of whom is Robert Clary, who went on to play Corporal LeBeau on the “Hogan’s Heroes.” When asked how he could possibly agree to do a sitcom about a concentration camp, Clary immediately corrects his questioner, explaining that the show was not about life in a concentration camp with Jews being taken off to the gas chambers, but rather about prisoners of war continuing to fight the Nazis from within a prison camp. Like Brooks, he believes “Hogan’s Heroes” qualified as “revenge through ridicule,” but I can’t imagine any 21st-century television executive green-lighting such a project (e.g. you’re unlikely to see a sitcom about Guantanamo Bay).
I’ve seen “The Last Laugh” and recommend you check it out tonight (or whenever it runs on your PBS station).