“WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL”— The Catskills and Comedy

when comedy went to school

“When Comedy Went to School”

The Catskills and Comedy

Amos Lassen

Modern stand-up comedy began in the Catskill Mountains where many Jewish-American comedians got their starts. The 1950s were not an exciting decade but it did bring us some of the best stand-up comedy that America has ever had. It was the golden age of comedy and most of the comedians were Jewish—Jackie Mason, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl and Jerry Stiller all came into being comically at this time. Most of the comedians that we see here are Jewish. The great Catskill hotels back then included Grossingers, Kutschers, the Concord and Laurel in the Pines among others. They were all in upstate New York and close to each other. Woody Allen got his start here as did the others already mentioned. This is not just Jewish humor we see but American Jewish humor. We see interviews with some of the greats and we see part of their acts. Now with the advent of the internet, Jewish humor is everyone’s humor and that adds to the appeal of the film.

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 There is a great tradition in American comedy of Jewish performers, men and women who conquered the funny business with exceptional wit, timing, and stage presence, triumphing over prejudice and intense competition to become legendary names. For comedians such as Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Mason, it all began in the Catskill Mountains, a sprawling landscape of natural beauty that developed into a beloved tourist destination during the 20th century. The documentary “When Comedy Went to School” delves into the story of resort life, where Jewish families gathered to feast, mingle, and enjoy up and coming comedians hungry for the spotlight.

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 Directed by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank, “When Comedy Went to School” is a love letter to an era of talent and recreation, where Catskill resorts were the primary destination for any New Yorker desperate to escape the blistering heat of the summer. The documentary looks at the growth of the area as a getaway for the Jewish population, a community pushed away by discrimination common in the 1930s and ‘40s. The Catskills offered a welcome remoteness from the cruelty of the world, and provided an atmosphere for the growth of a sense of unity and home. There was plenty of food and the amenities were great but it was the nightlife was people remember with love.

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Robert Klein is the host of this documentary that shows the tremendous talent that was and that came out of the Catskills. It was there that Jerry Lewis received his first laugh as a five-year-old boy. He went on to slapstick waiter bits as a teenager, cleaning up on tips as audiences loved his special brand of humor. Sid Caesar was nothing less than a king during this time period, graduating from Vaudeville to the Catskill stages, where his jokes and playfulness with the audience made him a crowd favorite. Buddy Hackett, Jerry Stiller, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jackie Mason were all there and each contributed to the discovery of what they could do and to whom and when.There are no great revelations in this film and there are really no surprises.This is a low-budget film and it seems a bit unfinished and unprofessional but these all make it endearing.

The DVD extras include 5 Shorts (“Newsreel” • “She’s More to be Pitied” • “Friar’s Club Roundtable” • “Mrs. Schwartz Comes Back” • “The Future of the Catskills”).

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