When Comedy Went to School (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)
Updated: Feb 24, 2021
When Comedy Went to School
WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL (2013)
Featuring Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Larry King, Mickey Freeman, Dick Gregory, Hugh Hefner, Dick Capri, Amy Stiller, Wendy Liebman, Corey Kahaney, Marc Maron, Daryl Lenox, Sandy Hackett, Joe Franklin, Joe Rapp, Arnold Graham, Helen Kutsher, Mark Kutsher, Tania Grossinger, Esta Salzman Lubin and archival footage of Danny Kaye, Alan King, Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny, Myron Cohen, Fanny Brice, Carl Reiner, Dean Martin, Jerry Seinfeld, and Billy Crystal.
Narrated by Robert Klein.
Written by Lawrence Richards.
Directed by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank.
Distributed by International Film Circuit. 77 minutes. Not Rated.
Like most people under a certain age, I missed the hey-day of the Catskill Mountain Resorts, which mostly was from the 1930s to the early 1960s. However, I do remember in the early 1980s, while on a road trip to Canada, stopping in New York state to spend a few hours with my grandparents, who had experienced the glory days. They were visiting one of the few remaining resorts, just for old times' sake.
Honestly, I couldn't tell you for the life of me which resort they were in - though seeing this movie makes me think it may very well have been Kutsher's. Kutsher's is the last surviving resort and looked awfully familiar from the current footage in this documentary celebrating the era, history and influence of the Catskill resorts. Sadly, I can't check this with my grandparents, who both died within a few years after the visit. However, even as a teen, I remember being decidedly underwhelmed by the place, which seemed like a once opulent vacation paradise that had been left behind by the times. In fact the only concessions which had seemed to be made to the modern world was a tiny arcade room (with Pong and Space Invaders!), cable television and a much smaller clientele.
It may have been a paradise for an earlier generation, but it was one which I had missed out on experiencing.
That is, until now.
When Comedy Went to School is a loving remembrance of "The Sour Cream Riviera," as one of the talking heads in the movie referred to it. It speaks with surviving members of the Borscht Belt and shows a way of life and vacation style which is both foreign to modern citizens and quaintly charming. It was an immigrant paradise made up of food, love, comedy and community which seems quaint to a generation who can easily book foreign travel on Priceline.com.
Yet at the same time it is a world which is not without its charms, including formality (imagine dressing in a suit and tie while on vacation!), gluttony (the Catskills kitchens didn't believe in small portions), innocence (people wanted nothing more than entertainment) and the birth of an entire generation of comic geniuses, many of whom followed up their Catskill residencies with international stardom.
However, When Comedy Went to School is more than a tribute to a forgotten vacation destination, it is also a thoughtful meditation on what it was like to be an American Jew in the 20th century.
In fact, the story starts (no big surprise) in Brooklyn and the Bronx in the early days of Yiddish Theater. It traces you through Coney Island and the rise and fall of Vaudeville before finally making it to the mountains. And while entertainment plays a big role in the lifestyle leading up to the resorts (and the lifestyle espoused by them), it's only a part of the itinerary.
When Comedy Went to School features some of the great names of Catskills entertainment discussing their early experiences at the resorts. For example, Jerry Lewis started as a busboy in one of the resorts (undoubtedly inspiring his later film The Bellboy). So did Larry King and Robert Klein. Jackie Mason and Jerry Stiller played the rooms as relative unknowns.
The Catskills era was mercurial, a short-lived explosion, about 30-some years of the Jewish paradise. By the time that Woodstock happened not too far away from these resorts, the era was over.
Most of the old resorts are abandoned now. One still exists, and When Comedy Went to School takes an interesting look at how Kutscher's is hanging on due to nostalgic elderly guests and grandchildren who have no understanding of the place's historical import. The place even tries to keep up the comic tradition: the movie does quick chats with four little-known comics playing the aging resort, including a just pre-stardom Marc Maron.
However, the true jewels of When Comedy Went to School is the archival footage of a lifestyle, perhaps even a whole world, which has pretty much been left behind.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 31, 2013.
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