When Comedy Went to School
DVD Review by Kam Williams
What do such legendary comics as Danny Kaye, Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, David Brenner, Buddy Hackett, Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Alan King and Rodney Dangerfield have in common? They all got their start in showbiz doing stand-up in the Catskill Mountains at any number of the lush farm region’s hundreds of hotel resorts.
Starting in the late Thirties, the so-called Borscht Belt began catering to a clientele predominantly comprised of Jewish immigrants in need of a
summer retreat where they could get a break from the sweltering tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After all, they had little interest in vacationing in Europe, a place most were lucky to have escaped.
So, they instead made an annual exodus to upstate New York for fresh air, good food and some fun in the sun. Each establishment there also had a nightly stage show where aspiring entertainers could ply their trade, including the aforementioned icons.
What made working the Catskills unique was that it served as a proving ground allowing a comedian to hone his or her skills en route to the big time, namely, movies and TV. As narrator Robert Klein puts it, “It was a laboratory. Comics had a place to be bad.”
This slice of Jewish history is the focus of When Comedy Went to School, an alternately informative and hilarious documentary co-directed by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank. The film features reflections by surviving greats, as well as the insights of some members of the next generation, most notably, Jerry Seinfeld.
Sprinkled in amidst the enlightening history lessons are lots of one-liners preserved on vintage footage of yesteryear’s stars of tomorrow. To wit, Alan King: “My wife takes 40 minutes to lipstick her face because she has a big mouth.” And the late Joan Rivers: “I was the last girl in Larchmont to get married. My mom had to put up a sign saying, ‘Last girl before freeway.’” And Woody Allen: “This watch I’m wearing is a family heirloom. My grandfather, on his death bed, sold me this watch.”
Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 77 minutes
Distributor: First Run Features
DVD Extras: Newsreel; She’s More to Be Pitied; Friar’s Club Roundtable; Mrs. Schwartz Comes Back; and The Future of the Catskills.
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