When Comedy Went to School opens in limited release Friday, September 20. Check your local listings for showtimes.
Any fan of comedy has at least heard of the Catskill Mountains. Older comics fondly recall a time when you could try out your material in family atmospheres shrouded in foliage. When a car ride Upstate led to the testing ground that would later relocate to the more urban comedy club. You probably have been aware of this without even knowing it. Have you seen Wet Hot American Summer? If yes, then you have seen a bastardized version of a Borscht Belt comic in Alan Shemper (if no, try to get it together). When Comedy Went to School documents the history of this comedy proving ground, although it is never nearly as good as its many comics.
Vacations were not always filled with tropical locales and long plane rides. Back in a time when summer meant long car rides with the family, the Catskill Mountains were a popular spot. The mountains and trees of Upstate New York were spotted with numerous resorts and at all of them, people were laughing. As early as the 1920s, this haven of beautiful vistas was a training ground for up and coming comics. Instead of comedy clubs, comedians played post-dinner ballrooms. Audiences were full of families filled to the brim with decadent food and everyone from Jerry Lewis to Sid Caesar was there to make them laugh. It was a time and place that would go on to shape the direction of comedy for years to come.
Directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank have managed to gather some of the biggest old names for a discussion of comedy. That’s perhaps what makes the poor quality of the film most upsetting. Everything about the documentary feels made-for-television. Rather than an unobtrusive voice over, Robert Klein is brought in to offer cohesion to the proceedings. As he walks the abandoned ballroom that, regardless of any authenticity, always looks like a poorly assembled set, he delivers wooden and amateurly written dialogue. When you have some of the best comedic minds of the last century speaking candidly and always managing to entertain, it only further highlights how cringingly bad the other writing is. Enhancing the small screen sensibilities, there are numerous reenactments, which often employ the most verbose yet silent actors that are distractingly out of place. The directors were able to assemble numerous clips of archival and licensed footage, so when it makes detours into the obviously staged it is just a letdown.
For those expecting the documentary to chronicle nothing but the gems of early comedy, be prepared for a detour. An exploration of the culture of the Catskills takes up a great deal of the time. As such, for long stretches, When Comedy Went to School becomes a film about Judaism during the 1920s-40s. Although, only superficially so. It isn’t so concerned with discussing the troubled times that the Jewish people would be dealing with, the fact that the time period overlaps with World War II goes without any true mention. The Catskills were a place of leisure, and the patrons were wealthy or at least wealthy enough to be able to afford a car and multiple nights at a resort; so these are a very specific clientele. Sure, there are mountains of lox and buckets of matzo balls, but outside of Jewish stereotypes that many of these comedians would skewer, the film doesn’t uncover many Earth-shattering truths. At its best, it goes even deeper into the birth of vaudeville and the role of Judaism in its growth. As it goes further back to Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny, a discussion of the Yiddish theater is the most enlightening. However, it feels like a sidetrack from the main subject.
While the execution leaves something to be desired, it is hard to argue with the quality of content that the talent provides. It is eminently fun to hear Jerry Lewis recount his discovery of the power of comedy. As Sid Caesar becomes distracted from comedy talk by a moment to discuss how he found the love of his life while working the Catskills, we are offered further depth to the environment of discovery. This makes it all the more frustrating when the direction takes us away from the insights of these giants of entertainment. If you strip away the extraneous fat of the documentary, you are left with a solid 45 minutes of captivating interviews that are able to entertain and educate more than the film as a whole. I would just rather spend time with a nostalgic Jerry Lewis or unchanged Jackie Mason than to slog through a poorly built film with a meandering focus.
When Comedy Went to School is able to take you back to a simpler time. You are returned to a place of relaxation, endless plates of food and nights of quality entertainment. Directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank capture the spirit of the booming Catskill resorts and when they stop and concentrate specifically on this time, the film is certainly enjoyable and educational. Unfortunately for us, they look to cover more than they have the capability for. The film begins to wander, becoming an exploration of the summer lives of the wealthy Jewish family of the 1930s. Like many of the bits of the time period, it is a bit dated and unexceptional. The execution leaves something to be desired and feels more at home on a small screen rather than the mammoth of the multiplex. For fans of comedy and comedy history, When Comedy Went to School has enough to keep you around for the short runtime. However, when you strip away the charismatic interviews you are left with a pile of useless and meandering fluff. In comedic terms, the gags need some honing and the set should really be tightened.
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