Comedy U.
New documentary tells the story of the Catskills hotels and the comics who ‘went to school’ there.
07/22/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
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The evocative term “baggy-pants comic” has its roots in burlesque, but you could apply it with some justice to the new documentary film “When Comedy Went to School,” which opens on July 31 in New York City and Aug. 2 on Long Island. The film, directed by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank, tells the story of the Catskills hotels as a training ground for stand-up comedians and, like the burlesque funny man’s trousers, it’s rather shapeless. But, like the guy inside the trousers, it is also very funny.

The Borscht Belt was an almost unique phenomenon in American entertainment. With the exception of the African-American vaudeville and night club circuits, the product of racial segregation, the Catskills hotels and bungalow colonies that made up what Lawrence Richards’ script calls “the largest resort area in the United States” were an ethnic entertainment enclave unlike any other, a paradise for Jewish-American families for several generations and more than 50 years.

Richards traces the history of the hotel industry in the area with both affection and intelligence, although his script is frequently verbose and more than a little sentimental. (Narrator Robert Klein’s gently edgy tone helps undercut its worst excesses.) Given the sociological and historical forces that shaped the development of Jewish summer life in the Catskills, it would be hard to tell any of this story without a lot of explanation, and the filmmakers’ use of several local Jewish academics is astute. Dr. Robert Shain is a particularly lucky find, a professor of history who was a social director at one of the hotels when he was younger.

The list of comics who are interviewed for the film is every bit as impressive: Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and the late Mickey Freeman. Any one of these guys would be worth a film of his own.

Which is where the film trips over its own baggy pants. Lewis, Caesar, Sahl and Mason are all very, very smart men who have real insight into the way that the Catskills functioned as a training ground for comics, and they offer thoughtful and reasonable insight into the way that on-the-job education in the Catskills influenced comedy across the board. But there is simply too much material here for the film to display coherently.

“When Comedy Went to School” wants to be a history of the Borscht Belt, of the rising social status of the Jewish-American community post-World War II, of the evolution of entertainment in the mass media age, of the mechanics of stand-up and of the lives of a dozen different performers ranging from Danny Kaye (ex-tummler turned world ambassador) to comics-turned-filmmakers like Lewis, Billy Crystal, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. And in the midst of all this highly intelligent deep thinking, the filmmakers want to squeeze in a wealth of clips from films and television.

It’s all worth doing. It’s all worth doing well. But it would take a long mini-series to make it all fit and to do justice to the subject matter. To pack it into a 77-minute running time, and frame it with cheesy recreations — well, you’d need a lot of film cutters to deal with the overflow.

And yet ... Thanks in no small part to Klein and the outstanding library of comedy clips that Akkaya, Frank and Richards drew on, “When Comedy Went to School” is still a lot of fun. The insights are sprinkled throughout like nicely gooey chocolate chips and the laughs come pretty frequently.

“When Comedy Went to School” opens on Wednesday, July 31 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.) and Friday, Aug. 2 at the Malverne Cinema (350 Hempstead Ave., Malverne) and the Kew Gardens Cinema (81-05 Lefferts Boulevard, Queens). There will also be a special screening at and at the JCC in Manhattan (Amsterdam Avenue and 76th St.) on Wednesday, July 31 at 8:15 p.m. with a Q&A with the filmmakers and several comedians.

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From 1963-1967, I worked the summers at the Olympic Hotel in Woodridge, N.Y. I was the director of teen activities and everyone (even the adults) called me "Uncle Ronnie." At night I would work in the night club setting up the stage for dancing and getting the microphone ready for the show. Then I would go upstairs to work the spotlight for the show. Before each show, I would go to the dressing room to ask the performers if they needed any special lighting effects. I remember "Professor Irwin Corey" telling me that when he appeared to "fall asleep during his routine, to close spotlight so that the light was only from his neck up. Many of the Jewish comedians would give a "punch line" in Yiddish. On some nights when I wasn't working the shows, the teenagers would ask me to translate the punchline into English. I met my wife at the Olympic. She was a counselor in the day camp.

I remember as a kid back in the 50's going up to the Catskills and seeing so many of these great stars. My cousins band preformed up in the Catskills Walter Werbel Band. Those were the days when mom played Mah-Jong dad played Poker and all the kids ran wild.

I just went to a gallery exhibit in Manhattan that was all about the Catskills and it's place in Jewish History! There is an excellent photographer in NYC who was raised in the Catskills and in her current exhibit has brilliantly shone light of what has become of her childhood playground.
I've found this recent article on the artist, Marisa Scheinfeld:

This piece brought back many memories of my childhood summers in the Catskills [see short story link]. I remember one comedian, back in the early 60s who was suffering on stage with a very hostile audience--not getting a single laugh. Finally, he looks at the audience and says, "This is the first time I ever saw dead people smoke." That earned him some guffaws and a round of applause!--Ron Pies

As one of the commentators, I welcome your review. That said, I believe that you give short shrift to Dr. Lawrence Epstein and this correspondent who provide important historical context by which to appreciate how Catskill comedy helped to Americanize immigrants as well as build bridges between the generations grappling with double identity: Jewish and American.

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