CAPSULE: Directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya tell us the story of American humor being reinvented by comedians in the resorts of the Catskills. A whole generation of Jewish comics got their starts. From the late 1930s to the late 1960s the resorts offered food, relaxation, and comics. From busboys wanting to make a start to internationally known comedians, Jewish humor was a big part of the resort experience. WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL is a highly entertaining history of comics in the Borscht Belt during its golden years. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL is a history of the resorts in the Borscht Belt--the resort are of the Catskill Mountains in upper New York State. There a mostly Jewish clientele largely from the frantic New York City would take two weeks off each year and come for the clean air of the Catskills to decompress, relax, eat altogether too much of the legendary food--usually offered 24 hours a day, and to laugh at comic busboys, clowns, cooks, and with staff members and entertainers. The funny guys had names like Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Mel Brooks, Buddy Hackett, Henny Youngman, and Lenny Bruce. Put that much talent in one small area and you are bound to have cross-pollination of ideas (and in some cases outright theft of jokes). Comedy was as indispensable a part of the Catskill experience as was the seven varieties of breakfast herring. To get an idea how many great comics came out of the Borscht Belt see Wikipedia on Borscht Belt--Comedic legacy:
WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL tells the story of Jewish comedy in the Borscht Belt. The screenplay, by Lawrence Richards, has interviews with famous funny guys and a few not so famous people who saw it. But mostly they interview well-known Jewish comics, still funny. Everyone tells their reminiscences and the comics also tell some of their jokes.
Frank and Akkaya also give us a little of the broader story of how humor became such a personal thing with a people persecuted through the centuries. It was their safety valve and their way to stay sane. They laughed at life. Jews have laughter in their genes, and sense of humor is a survival trait. WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL mixes serious reporting with laugh-out-loud jokes. Comics tell stories of their past. Jerry Lewis tells of the first laugh he ever got from an audience. Jackie Mason tells us why he gave up being a rabbi and became a stand-up comic instead. It was a golden age for comedy and one that will probably never return.
The story is narrated by Robert Kline, comic and himself a former Catskill busboy. The film breaks the era of the comedy in the Catskills into two pieces. Prior to the end of World War II the hotels were comic chaos. Staff members pulled stunts and got laughs from the crowd. After the war things got more formal. There would be one comic at a time doing stand-up behind a microphone. The suggestion is made that this is the origin of the stand-up comic. There certainly is a lot of the history of American comedy in this film. Sadly, it all came to an end. Television brought comedy right into the home. Many of the TV comedians had learned and honed their craft in the Catskills.
This is a delightful entertainment that packs a lot of information in entirely painlessly. This is a fun piece of history and thank goodness it is preserved in this film. I rate WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2167056/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/when_comedy_went_to_school/
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper