Humour is very subjective. What I might find funny, another person might consider dumb or even offensive. For example, the 1998 Academy Award winning film, Life is Beautiful, I hated. Considering it won three Oscars (best actor, best foreign film, best dramatic score), suggests many people didn’t.
And there are so many forms of humour from slapstick to wordplay or satire to dark. Every humorist either consciously or subconsciously draws a line that they will not cross.
So I recently saw an interesting documentary called The Last Laugh. The film asks the question “can Nazis and the Final Solution ever be funny?” and “should they be joked about?” An A-list of comedians and Holocaust survivors ponder these questions. One of the most tragic and grave events in the past. The film’s director, Ferne Pearlstein, puts the question about comedy’s ultimate taboo to legends including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Zweibel, Harry Shearer, Jeff Ross, Judy Gold, Susie Essman, Larry Charles and Jake Ehrenreich.
Some comics had no problem with finding humour with the Holocaust while others said they could not go there. Even survivors were split on the issue. For example, Mel Brooks’ views on Life is Beautiful mirrors mine. He said it was the worst film ever made. Yet the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman calls it brilliant.
Some felt it was okay to mock Nazis, but not the Holocaust, because ridiculing oppressors is one thing, their victims another. The division extended to envelope-pushers like Sasha Baron Cohen, whose characters often parody anti-Semitism and other prejudices, in such a way that actual bigots might well interpret as confirming their views.
The director nimbly manages to raise all the arguments for consideration while pointing out that there are underlining that there is no definitive answer. After all, hummour is the most subjective of values, even when it comes to an apparent moral absolute like the Holocaust. Comedy can be a survival tactic and a means of revenge against tyranny, even as it can also be a tool of crass insensitivity.
Brooks has the last word when he says “Comics are the conscience of the people, and they’re allowed a large berth in any direction…even if it’s in bad taste.”