Documentary (co-directed by Mevlut Akkaya & Ron Frank) covers oft-tread territory with Robert Klein narrating & Lawrence J. Epstein (author of “The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America“) serving as guest expert.
Nice classic footage of Borscht Belt hotels in their Post-WWII heyday when Jews from the hot cities of New York & New Jersey flocked to the Catskill Mountains for the summer. Lots of fun interviews (Sid Caesar , Larry King, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl & Jerry Stiller), but nothing new. Click HERE to read our FF2 Haiku.
Shout-Out to all you Dirty Dancing fans: Ever wonder what the parents were doing at night when Johnny was alone with Baby, teaching her all those new moves? No, of course you didn’t because they were just “the parents,” but surprise: the answer turns out to be quite fascinating…
The adults (aka the parents) were quite likely in the club house, listening to comedy routines that would soon have a huge impact on American culture from coast-to-coast. Young Jewish geniuses like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and many, many more were practicing their routines on small but discerning audiences, and learning how to “work a room” from the ground up.
When Comedy Went to School is an affectionate documentary co-directed by Mevlut Akkaya & Ron Frank. The screenplay, by Lawrence Richards, relies heavily on Lawrence J. Epstein’s book The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America.
The film combines classic footage with interviews with many of the people who were there and can describe the goings-on from personal memory. This includes not just name comics, but also owners of some of the prominent hotels and even some former guests.
So if you used to go to the Catskills way back when, When Comedy Went to School will likely be a charming nostalgia trip. And if your only personal knowledge of the Catskills comes from Dirty Dancing, well sure, you still know enough to enjoy all this too. But if all of this is new to you, and you have no personal memories to draw on, then When Comedy Went to School will probably feel very thin. These comics are still funny guys, but their material is dated with lots of “Take my wife… please” type jokes that reflect the interpersonal relations of a bygone era long before Feminism had become a cause (or even a well-known word).
The good news is that the physical comedy is still a hoot. Watching the young Jerry Lewis make his way through the dining room dressed as a busboy is still a hoot, and even though their jokes are stale, these guys have facial expressions that are worth their weight in gold.
Full disclosure: I actually spent many happy summers in Catskill Mountain bungalow colonies when I was a kid, and my parent probably watched some of these guys on the rise when my father came to visit on the weekends. So for me, When Comedy Went to School brought back happy memories. But for my husband, for whom the term “Borscht Belt” has no personal resonance? Well, honestly: he was pretty bored.
Top Photo: Early photo of Danny Kaye (on right).
Bottom Photo: Early photo of Sid Caesar.
Photo Credits: International Film Circuit