“The Last Laugh” returns to the Joker after only two episodes, but this is an artifact of the production process. In real time, this episode originally aired almost two months before the earlier-produced “Christmas With the Joker.”
The teleplay is still establishing the series’ approach to Batman’s arch-enemy. “The Last Laugh” relies on the Joker’s signature type of attack – a gas or toxin which induces laughter and ultimately worse. This choice, like featuring the gas-wielding Scarecrow in the prior episode, may also reflect network censors’ preference for non-lethal weapons.
Our story opens on April Fool’s Day in Gotham City. A garbage scow on the river is piloted by a figure dressed as a clown. The boat’s refuse emits a sickly green cloud. An armored car crossing a bridge drives through the cloud. The driver is overcome with laughter recklessly plunges into the river.
At Wayne Manor, Bruce cuts himself shaving before Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., replacing Clive Revill) announces he has drawn Bruce’s bath. Walking into the next room, Bruce finds the tub empty. Alfred holds up a drawing of a bathtub as an April Fool’s gag; Bruce shrugs.
Electing to shower, Bruce hears a radio report of near-fatalities on the bridge and immediately suspects the Joker.
Meanwhile, a submarine hidden under the scow discharges two frogmen to break into the armored car. Aboard ship, the Joker prepares for the day – tying his string tie and spritzing himself with cologne. The Clown Prince of Crime may be a psychopath, but he is also a dandy. And he probably wants to cover the odor of all that garbage.
The scow and sub dock at the city. Henchmen wearing clown masks push shopping carts from the boat’s hold. The Joker, wearing a fishbowl-style helmet, declares that “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”
As the Joker’s gas cloud permeates Gotham’s streets, pedestrians convulse with laughter and begin dancing. The henchmen relieve women of their purses, while the Joker loots “Jewels R’ Us” (an odd name, if one resonant with younger viewers).
Batman launches a probe to sample the gas cloud. The Bat-computer analysis indicates lengthy exposure to the gas will produce permanent insanity.
When Batman calls upon for Alfred for help, he discovers the butler cackling and wrecking Bruce’s study; the Joker gas has drifted in through open bay windows at Wayne Manor. Batman quickly dons a gas mask and rushes to Alfred’s side.
Back aboard the scow, the Joker learns the stock market is crashing; he quips that the only stocks rising are the “laughing stocks.” It is unclear whether he is profiting from the financial panic.
Batman arrives by Batboat. He tows the scow from the docks and boards it, quickly subduing the Joker’s henchmen.
The scow’s pilot – Captain Clown – rips the Batboat’s tow cable in two and attacks the Caped Crusader. Throwing a punch, Batman discovers Captain Clown is a robot.
The mechanized attacker spins Batman overhead and tosses him into a garbage canister, which the Joker seals. Batman dodges a blade the Joker repeatedly plunges into the canister to graciously provide ventilation for his captive.
Captain Clown hurls the container into the river while the Joker observes his air holes are also water holes. Batman sinks. The Joker turns to the robot and remarks: “Captain, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” (a goof on the final line of Casablanca).
On the river bed, water pours into the canister. Batman remotely summons the Batboat, which submerges to his position and opens the canister with a laser beam. Batman swims to the surface, where he gasps for air.
At the Ace Waste Disposal plant, the Joker’s henchmen are respraying garbage with his toxin when Batman reappears. The Dark Knight dispatches one goon with martial arts, the other in a fistfight. He removes their clown masks, disabling them through exposure to the Joker gas.
Captain Clown attacks with a metal pole. Batman, realizing he is overpowered, cleverly trips the robot into a trash compactor. Captain Clown makes a startling, Terminator-esque attempt to escape the compactor before Batman throws the switch crushing the robot into a cube.
Truly distraught, the Joker wails: “You killed Captain Clown! YOU KILLED CAPTAIN CLOWN!” He maneuvers a mobile claw arm to bury Batman beneath a pile of trash.
Batman frees himself and pursues the Joker, who flees into the facility on a conveyor belt, sitting atop the cube that was once Captain Clown. Where the belt ends, the Joker swings to safety on a cable, while Batman leaps into a bucket suspended above a river of waste flowing toward the incinerator.
The Joker tries to dislodge Batman by swinging a large hook at the bucket. Batman jumps onto the hook, but the Joker presses a button sending it down toward the waste. Batman leaps from the hook onto a large, moving machinery gear (perhaps inspired by the Big Ben sequence of “The Great Mouse Detective”).
Batman ascends to the catwalk. The Joker jumps into a garbage chute. At the end of the chute, the Joker again uses a cable to swing across the incinerator. Batman is left dangling from the edge of the chute as the incinerator roars.
The Joker approaches Batman from another catwalk, cackling that “revenge is a dish best served hot” (a reversal of the proverb known to both Don Vito Corleone and the Klingons). He discharges garbage through the chute in hopes of sending Batman to a fiery death.
Batman, however, uses his Batarang to swing to the catwalk, narrowly missing the incinerator’s flames. The grinning ghoul throws deadly razor cards bearing his likeness at Batman, who dodges one and catches another.
The Masked Detective declares, “Clean up your act, Joker.” The stunned villain replies, “That’s a joke, right? Batman finally told a joke!”
The Joker flees again, but trips on a cable, becoming suspended by his ankle above the incinerator. Between the classic Joker origin story and the Christmas episode, the Joker should know to avoid running on catwalks. The clumsy clown pleads, “You wouldn’t let me fry, would you?” Batman takes a moment to consider it before hoisting the Joker from jeopardy.
Later at Wayne Manor, a cured Alfred cleans the damage he caused in the study. Bruce enters, declaring he does not feel clean after eight showers. Alfred is upset he shattered an expensive vase while drugged by the Joker gas. Bruce offers to dock Alfred’s pay for the next few years. The trusty butler looks shocked momentarily, until Bruce announces: “April Fools!”
Like the Christmas episode, “The Last Laugh” emphasizes Batman’s fighting styles more than his detective skills. Yet the direction from Kevin Altieri provides a superior visual experience. The set pieces, particularly Batman’s destruction of Captain Clown and the chase through the waste facility, are deftly framed. There are also striking details, like the slats of light which play on the Joker’s face as he rides the trash cube on the conveyor. The shot of Batman cradling a stricken Alfred is similarly memorable.
While action is the focus of “The Last Laugh,” the script also exploits Bruce’s reputation as a grim avenger. In the final confrontation, what unnerves the Joker is Batman cracking a joke, however small. Alfred is similarly surprised in the episode’s denouement.
Finally, “The Last Laugh” is again elevated by Mark Hamill’s voice work as the Joker (and one wonders whether the garbage chute cliffhanger was not influenced by The Empire Strikes Back). Hamill has the timing necessary for the line delivery of a killer comedian while avoiding camp. It is also difficult to avoid giggling when he despairs over the “death” of Captain Clown.