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ReThink Review: When Comedy Went to School - Comedy History in the Catskills

Posted: 08/20/2013 7:56 am

I've been a stand up comedy hobbyist and enthusiast for several years now, though I'll admit that I'm not terribly versed on comedy history, which for me started with listening to a cassette of Eddie Murphy's Delirious on the ride home from a Boy Scout campout. The clunkily-named documentary When Comedy Went to School traces the roots of modern stand up to a rather unlikely place -- the resorts of New York state's Catskill mountains (like the one famously portrayed in the movie Dirty Dancing) where Jewish families in the 1930s through the 1960s would flee New York City's heat and humidity during the summertime for the Catskills, which was America's biggest resort area at the time. It was there that comedy icons like Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, and even Woody Allen were able to work and hone material during weeklong stands in front of packed, tough crowds, creating the style and rhythm of what we now consider modern stand up comedy. Watch the trailer for When Comedy Went to School below.


And those are just a few of the comedians who came from the Catskill system, from more recent comics like Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Bill Maher, and Robert Klein, to comedy pioneers like Sid Caeser, Buddy Hackett, Mort Sahl, Red Buttons, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, and Jerry Stiller. The filmmakers got some terrific access, and longtime comedy fans and historians will no doubt enjoy the extensive interviews with legends like Lewis, Mason, Caeser, Stiller, and even Larry King, who worked at a Catskills resort as a teenager. The movie is also hosted and narrated by Robert Klein, though a lot of what he has to say is pretty corny.

But When Comedy Went to School is about more than the incubation of early stand up. The movie uses about 10 of its 83 minutes outlining the roots of Jewish comedy and entertainment all the way back to Isaac (Moses' son and the first natural-born Jew), making the argument that Jews' long history of troubles, suffering, and victimization necessitated a sense of humor to endure it that may now be encoded in their DNA. There are some interesting tidbits, but it seems like an expanded version of this section would fit better in a documentary about the history of Jewish entertainers.

When Comedy Went to School is also very much a love letter to the heyday of the Catskills resorts, which provided a place where Jewish families could relax, stuff their faces, learn about and embrace the excesses and leisures of American culture, and allow Semitic romance (and even casual infidelity) to flourish. It's these parts that help portray the Catskills resorts as a special place, a retreat for first- and second-generation immigrants, that existed for a finite amount of time and is now barely a shadow of its former self -- but where something truly special happened, evidenced by the mind-boggling number of stellar, sometimes culture-transforming comedians who came out of the Catskills circuit, where comics could try out and even steal material before taking it to larger audiences, preparing them for the largest audience of all on television.

With its cheesy reenactments, graphics, and narration, When Comedy Went to School often feels more like a made-for-cable documentary than a movie. But it's an interesting, often funny history lesson for comedy fans, as well as a fond look back at a unique place in American, Jewish-American, and entertainment history that made me nostalgic for somewhere I've never been.

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