The Last Laugh


Springtime for Hitler.

Springtime for Hitler.

(2016) Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Renee Firestone, Klara Firestone, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, David Steinberg, Larry Charles, Alan Zweibel, Etgar Keret, Carl Reiner, Robert Clary, David Cross, Lisa Lampinelli, Jake Ehrenreich, Zdenka Fantlova, Jeffrey Ross, Susie Essman, Abraham Foxman, Roz Weinman, Malala Sagal. Directed by Ferne Pearlstein

 

Humor is an intensely personal subject; everyone’s idea of what is funny and what is inappropriate varies, sometimes to astonishing degrees. There are always taboo subjects that even comics shy away from, but not all of them. There are subjects that some comics tackle that make even other comics a little bit uncomfortable.

This new documentary by Ferne Pearlstein tackles the interesting subject of what is inappropriate material for comics, concentrating on one of the most horrible events in human history – the Holocaust. More than 70 years have passed since Nazi Germany surrendered but there are plenty who think that jokes about it – even by Jewish comics – are wildly inappropriate. Even Mel Brooks, whose cult classic The Producers dropped jaws when it was released in 1967, says that there is a difference between jokes about the Holocaust and jokes about the Nazis.

Much of the film is devoted to Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor who talks about cabaret shows in the camps used to keep the workers entertained and about the gallows humor employed by the prisoners to help make the days bearable. Other survivors of concentration camps take the opposite tack – the Holocaust was no laughing matter and that the prisoners couldn’t even crack a smile, let alone a joke.

I tend to side with Renee – humor is a mechanism that many humans use to cope with stress and what could be more stressful than living under the constant threat of death? Still, six million Jews and others died in the camps – can we joke about them without trivializing them, or upsetting those who lived in them?

These are the kind of questions that are brought up by various comedians of different eras – old school like Brooks and Carl Reiner, mid-school like David Steinberg and Gilbert Gottfried and more recent vintages like Lisa Lampinelli and David Cross. There are also writers like Alan Zweibel, Malala Sagal and Etgar Keret as well as Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League which monitors anti-Semitism in the media. Foxman has some strong opinions as to what is appropriate and what is not, some of which you may agree with or disagree with. I think it’s a telling point that when Foxman pooh-poohs the argument that some comics make that the jokes keep the Holocaust from being forgotten; Sarah Silverman ripostes that if we haven’t forgotten the Holocaust why do genocides continue to this day?

To the filmmaker’s credit, no side seems to be given advantage other than that of the Survivors themselves and particularly Firestone. She is the emotional centerpiece of the film and some of the most moving moments take place as she remembers being separated from her sister whom she never saw again and having to deal with the death of her husband much later in life. Robert Clary, who played a French prisoner of war in the comedy Hogan’s Heroes used his real-life experience in the concentration camps for his character and reveals almost casually of 13 members of his family to be arrested, he was the only one left alive by the end of the war. How does one survive that? Clary doesn’t say and perhaps it’s better that we don’t know.

Towards the end of the film other taboo subjects are tackled such as 9-11 and use of the “N” word but almost in so casual a manner that they might better have not been mentioned at all. Clearly the Holocaust is the big subject here and thus it should have remained. I suspect the filmmakers were aware that there might be some backlash “what, only the Jews have suffered?” which is completely unfair. Nobody’s saying that these other subjects aren’t important and shouldn’t be handled delicately but quite frankly, I think the filmmakers would have been better served sticking to the subject that brought them to the dance, as it were and use it maybe as a gateway to other taboos. Perhaps that was what they were trying to do but quite frankly I think it was a case of trying to do too much. That’s really the only issue I had with the film.

There are, of course, plenty of jokes here and quite a few of them will get you laughing. One of my favorite bits is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical number from the 1967 version of The Producers and the audience reaction shots which might be how some modern audiences in this era of political correctness might react to some of the humor here.

I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and comics, as Mel Brooks himself observes are the conscience of the country. They allow us to look at ourselves and how we react to things that are controversial and uncomfortable; restricting them with political correctness is an absolute abomination and one of the most things that as a liberal I’m most ashamed of my left-leaning friends. It is a healthy thing once in awhile to be outraged.

There is some thought-provoking stuff here and no ready answers. Like everything else, it’s all up to how you perceive things and what affects you. You may be offended by some of the jokes here – or you might laugh your tush off. Is there a line that cannot be crossed? I don’t know; maybe. Should only Jewish comics joke about the Holocaust or gay comics about AIDS or African-American comics about slavery and racism? There are those who think so; I do not. At the end of the day, we are all humans and if we believe that, truly believe that, then all experiences are shared experiences. While the Holocaust was aimed mainly at those of the Jewish faith, we can mourn the loss of these people because we believe we are all brothers and sisters; the loss of even a single Jew makes all of us less.

Sure, that’s a bit simplistic (and sorry this movie review has appeared to become a rant) but the message is that it’s harder to hate someone if you feel connected to them. If there were fewer divisions between us wouldn’t there be fewer reasons to hate? I’m not sure if that’s the message that these comedians are trying to send by joking about the Nazis or even the Holocaust but it’s a message that can be inferred and wouldn’t it be a better world indeed if we all looked at the world that way?

REASONS TO GO: The subject is truly thought-provoking. Some of the jokes are hysterical. There are a few moments that are heart-rending. Brooks is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: Segments on 9-11 and other taboo subjects seemed a bit rushed and didn’t add anything to the film overall.
FAMILY VALUES: Here you will find plenty of profanity, humor that some might find inappropriate and a few images that are unsettling.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2016.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Aristocrats
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Freedom to Marry

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Love & Taxes


Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

Josh Kornbluth gets troubling news.

(2015) Comedy (Abramorama) Josh Kornbluth, Sarah Overman, Helen Shumaker, David Keith, Robert Sicular, Nicholas Pelczar, Harry Shearer, Robert Reich, Nile Acero, Misha Brooks, Menachem Creditor, Carrie Paff, Anthony Nemirovsky, Jeff Raz, Kay Kostopoulos, Jenna Davi, Katherine Celio, Lorri Holt, Amy Resnick, Patricia Scanlon, Cindy Goldfield. Directed by Jacob Kornbluth

 

The art of the monologue is somewhat different than the art of stand-up comedy. The latter is joke after joke after joke; the former is a story, generally a humorous one. Louis C.K. is a stand-up comedian; Spalding Gray is a monologist. You’re far more likely to get rich and famous doing stand-up than you are reciting monologues, but that doesn’t stop plenty of people from going the latter route.

Based on a semi-autobiographical monologue by Josh Kornbluth who is shown performing it onstage enhanced by re-enacted portions of it, the cleverly titled film (Death and Taxes mixed with Love and Death, a Woody Allen – clearly a major influence on Kornbluth – film) shows Kornbluth who admits to his tax lawyer boss that he hadn’t paid his taxes in seven years.

To make this further ironic, Kornbluth works for a corporate tax lawyer (Keith) to pay the bills while he struggles to get his career as a monologist going. When Keith finds out that his employee hasn’t filed, he immediately sends him to a personal tax lawyer named Mo (Shumaker). Holistic and a bit New Age, Mo sees his failure to file not so much a tax problem as a tax symptom. Josh has memories of his father (Sicular), a testy communist, refusing to pay his taxes. A revelation, perhaps?

And filing his taxes seems to have helped Josh in many ways. He starts getting bigger crowds at his gigs. He gets the attention of a cheesy Hollywood producer (Shearer) who has Josh living in L.A. five days a week to write a screenplay in hopes that a studio will pick it up. He also gets the attention of a groupie named Sara (Overman) who is nearly as neurotic as himself, but in a complimentary way. Soon they are living together and talking marriage – particularly when Sara gets pregnant.

But Josh’s tax struggles are far from over and soon he finds himself in a bigger hole than he could imagine. Sure enough, things go from blessed to cursed in a big hurry. It’s a condition known to most of us as life.

Josh is a charismatic and engaging personality. He’s a cross between a Berkeley liberal and a Brooklyn Jew which makes for an interesting personality. He’s no matinee idol but he nonetheless keeps your attention whenever he’s onscreen, something that some matinee idols have trouble with. His stage sequences make you want to run right out and catch his act, which I suppose is what he was after all along.

While the movie could have used a little more editing (it drags a bit at the end of the second and beginning of the third act) it still doesn’t ever really wear out its welcome. It’s not the kind of film that is going to have you screaming with laughter but instead elicits a quiet chuckle – a whole lot of them, in fact. The interweaving of stage monologue and ensemble film sequences works well together, keeping the movie humming along for the most part. Sometimes there is a little too much shtick but by and large this is an entertaining and funny movie that is an improvement on Haiku Tunnels, the first film collaboration between the Brothers Kornbluth. I hope the two of them continue to make movies if they’re going to come up with stuff this good.

REASONS TO GO: The weaving of the stage monologue and the acted re-creations is nicely done. Josh is an engaging storyteller.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie runs a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of mild profanity as well as some mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is adapted from a monologue that Kornbluth first staged in 2003 in San Francisco; he later refined it in the Sundance Theater Lab, San Francisco’s Z Space Studios and Washington DC’s Arena Stage.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Producers (1967)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Last Laugh