EXCLUSIVE: Nazis: Too evil for mockery, or fair game for belly laughs? The Holocaust: Reserved exclusively for serious discussion, or is there social good in tasteless jokes referencing GE and Volkswagen? Here’s a test: What were the following lines written to describe:
“To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case. Perhaps there are plenty of persons who can overlook the locale, who can still laugh at Nazi generals with pop-eyes and bungle-some wits. Perhaps they can fancy … tweaking the noses of the best Gestapo sleuths. Those patrons will certainly relish the burlesque bravado of this film. … And many more will enjoy the glib surprises of the plot. But it is hard to imagine how any one can take … a comedy scene with a Gestapo corpse.”
Sounds like “Springtime for Hitler” from Mel Brooks’ The Producers, right? Nope. That was New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther, writing in March 1942, about Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, which starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (who had died in an accident shortly before the film was released) as a married couple running a theater troupe in Warsaw at the time of the German invasion, and their often-slapstick ruse to survive a visit by the Nazi blackboots. (The film was remade in 1983, with Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft playing the leads.) These days, the Lubitsch comedy is considered the brilliant work of a comic master.
What we can poke fun at and what is off-limits is the subject of The Last Laugh, a documentary in which Jewish comedians — including Brooks, Rob Reiner, his father Carl, Susie Essman, Sarah Silverman and Saturday Night Live Ur-genius Alan Zweibel — speak passionately about comic taboos in general and Holocaust humor in particular. Or, as Brooks put it: “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no.” Underscoring their seriousness and sensitivity to the task at hand, the filmmakers included the poignant, sometimes wrenching responses of Holocaust survivors to such material, while pointing out that survivors have their own often mordant jokes about their experiences.
Ferne Pearlstein (Sumo East and West) made the film, co-written with Robert Edwards, who came by Deadline after I’d screened the film. It’s a rich subject and one of particular interest to me; as a critic, I was a dissenter on The Producers — not the film, which is a black-hearted satire, but the spectacularly successful Broadway extravaganza that Brooks turned it into.
DEADLINE: Mel Brooks makes fun of Nazis but draws the line at Holocaust jokes.
FERNE PEARLSTEIN: My very first question to everybody was, “Do you have a Holocaust joke?” You know, just to break the ice. Every single person, no matter what their age or background, said, “I don’t have a Holocaust joke, but I have a Nazi joke.” I started to realize there’s a total distinction here. I had no idea. It’s like “pick and choose,” you know?
DEADLINE: Did anyone depart from that distinction?
PEARLSTEIN: Judy Gold, who is fearless and brave, when we asked her and she replied, “Oh, I have a Holocaust joke.”
ROBERT EDWARDS: And Gilbert Gottfried. When Ferne asked if he had a Holocaust joke, Gilbert replied: “There was a Holocaust! Nobody told me!”
DEADLINE: Did you have trouble getting support, financially and artistically, for a film on such a gnarly subject?
PEARLSTEIN: We got the money in July of 2011 and Bob’s agent, Scott Greenberg at CAA, called Rob Reiner and asked if he’d do the film. And he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it a week from Wednesday.” All we had at that point was a check in the bank. We didn’t have a crew, it was shooting in Los Angeles, I was shooting in film and it was too expensive to just go for one shoot. But we got two others on that trip because of Rob Reiner. He has so much respect that we could get people. He was the perfect person and so generous.
We got a yes from Joan Rivers, actually she was one of the the first people to say yes, and she was always so busy — sadly, she finally gave us a date and it was two weeks after she passed away. But we still really wanted her to be a part of it, and we did as in the film she and Abe Foxman sort of spar from beyond the grave.
DEADLINE: Foxman plays a key role here, as both a child survivor of the Holocaust and as the insistent voice of the Anti-Defamation League, as he seeks to redress acts of anti-Semitism. There’s a jolting, actually hilarious sequence in the film on the subject of Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film about surviving imprisonment in a concentration camp through humor and fantasy. “Life Is Beautiful is the worst movie ever made!” Mel Brooks exclaims. The camera quickly cuts to Foxman, exclaiming with equal ardor, “Life Is Beautiful is the best movie ever made!” — presumably because it represented triumph of the spirit against all odds. But that schism on Life is Beautiful echoed through the community of survivors, and not only Jews. Among the most tho………0ughtful of your interviewees is Larry Charles, the Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm writer-direct so closely associated with Larry David’s dark humor.
PEARLSTEIN: Larry challenged us.
EDWARDS: He originally said, “No, not interested.” I think he thought it was going to be a shallow film. He is so knowledgeable on the topic, the inside-baseballness of comedy and the structure of jokes and function of taboo in society.
DEADLINE: How about Sarah Silverman?
PEARLSTEIN: She’s one of the intellectuals of the film.
EDWARDS: She’s among the most articulate comedians about those kinds of topics — both in her act and outside of it, so we knew we had to have her in the film. Like [Brooks], she was essential. She’s a ferocious free-speech advocate, a purist. There’s no line. Sunshine’s the best disinfectant, which is a very valid viewpoint that this film has to put across.
DEADLINE: What’s your goal here? What is the takeaway from your film?
EDWARDS: Well, we weren’t trying to make a comedy. We were making a film about comedy. Ferne has made a film about bad taste in a tasteful way. Which is not easy to do.
So if you want to hear the jokes, you’ll have to see the movie.