For the first half of the 20th century, the Catskills mountains resorts were a haven for Eastern European Jews looking to escape the toil and woe of city life in America. These hotels and bungalows allow them a chance to revel in their own culture and take in some fresh mountain air and became the birthplace of the stand-up comedian. The documentary When Comedy Went to School explores what set the stage for Jewish comedians in the US and how the Jewish-American experience continues to influence comedy to this day.
The clubs of the so-called Borscht Belt provided venues for entertainers to try out new material without worry of bombing in the big leagues. Working the stage wasn’t the only option. They could work as busboys, rattling off jokes as they cleared tables for an extra tip, or as a tummler—essentially a resort’s live-in clown.
Despite the lively subject matter, the film falls flat. Like those early entertainers, the filmmakers seem to be still warming up for the big leagues, playing to a bored resort crowd. Robert Klein’s hosting style would be more at home in a special made for the History Channel, not so much a theatrical release. The music was only occasionally heavy-handed—but Send in the Clowns for the closer? Talk about shmaltzy. And like comedic material that hasn’t aged well, the hokey graphics were less a visual gag and more just cheap and dated. In dealing with the nostalgic, one should take extra care to not drift into kitsch and pining for glory days. Really, how many aerial shots do we need of the hotels?
Beyond the packaging issues, there are also some questionable, almost embarrassing interviews. I’m still wondering: Why Larry King? Did Bob Hope really count as a comedian who used topical humor? Not based on what the audience sees. Many of the jokes in the b-roll are cliche. This might attest to how thoroughly entrenched the Jewish comedian is in American culture (these are the jokes, folks), but dumped in the film’s mothballed aesthetic, the past doesn’t come alive; it looks even less relevant than it should.
That said, When Comedy Went to School provides some context and reveals the deep roots of modern comedy in Judaism. It’s an amusing stretch, but the filmmakers cite Isaac of the Old Testament, whose name in Hebrew means “he shall laugh.” I guess one needs a sense of humor when God commands your father to sacrifice you as a show of faithfulness—then says, “just kidding, go kill that ram instead,” at the last minute. Timing is everything, they say, especially in physical humor.
Interestingly, Isaac’s name was never changed, unlike the other patriarchs Abraham and Jacob—and most every Jewish performer. The film makes it very clear that virtually every big name in comedy changed their names to make it in Hollywood, so to this day no one realizes the prevalence of Judaism in the industry. E.g. Lenny Bruce was Leonard Schneider, Jack Benny was Benjamin Kubelsky, and of course Chris Rock was Hirshel Knish. (What? I thought everybody knew that one.)
When Comedy Went to School is a decent primer for its subject, but fails to find a focus. For a more in depth exploration of this topic, try Neal Gabler’s book Empire of Their Own: The Jews Who Invented Hollywood or its film adaptation, which won the award for Best Jewish Experience Documentary in 1998 at the Jerusalem Film Festival. That one made it with a tough crowd. This one still needs to work on its material.
When Comedy Went to School is playing at the Varsity Theatre.