I’ve always had a deep respect for standup comedians, which I regard as one of the toughest gigs in all of entertainment. However, standup comedy as we know is a relatively modern form of entertainment, and the origin of how it grew from vaudeville can be pinpointed to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, where dozens of the greatest comedians of all time developed their acts.
WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL, a documentary about the influence the Catskills vacation region had on Jewish comedians, explores what exactly made the area such an enclave for future funnymen (and women). Narrated by Robert Klein, comedian and former Catskills busboy, and featuring interviews with Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, and other comedy icons, along with plenty of vintage clips of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Rodney Dangerfield, When Comedy Went to School is full of laughs as it tells the story of how modern standup comedy developed among Jewish vacationers.
The height of the “Borscht Belt” experience lasted for a very brief time — roughly between the end of the vaudeville era and the rise of television and cheap air travel. But those three decades gave birth to so much of what we think about modern comedy. In that sense, your enjoyment of When Comedy Went to School will totally depend on how interested you are in the history of comedy. If standup comedy isn’t your thing – especially if older comedians don’t make you laugh – you probably won’t enjoy it. However, if you still crack up at Mel Brooks or Woody Allen comedies (and if you don’t you’re not friend of mine), you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this documentary.
It also delves in the special relationship Jewish entertainers have with comedy and how the Catskills served as an almost Jewish-only summer paradise where entertainers felt comfortable working on their craft away from their homes in New York City. Like Klein, many of the comedians actually started as busboys and waiters and learned that they could earn more tips by injecting comedy into their interactions with guests. Early in the documentary Jerry Lewis calls it a “laboratory,” and it’s hard to find a more appropriate analogy for what role the Catskills scene did for all those great comedians and the development of standup comedy overall.
At only 76 minutes, the documentary flies by. However, in the last twenty minutes I would’ve loved to have seen more vintage clips of the comedians rather than the focus on the decline of the Catskills as a vacation destination. I understand why directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya went in that direction (especially since I’m sure the vintage clips didn’t come free), but I know I could’ve watched hours of clips of comedians cracking their best jokes.
Film Review Rating 3 out of 5 : See it … It’s Good
WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL opens in NYC at IFC Center on July 31, Long Island on August 2, and Los Angeles on August 16.