By Linc Leifeste | July 30, 2013
Directors: Mevlut Akkaya, Ron Frank
Writers: Lawrence Richards
Featuring: Robert Klein, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Larry King, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Mickey Freeman, Sid Caesar
Don’t read too much into me saying that I really enjoyed watching When Comedy Went to School. This overly reverent history of the now defunct “Borsch Belt” resorts in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that were decades-long popular vacation spots of New York Jews and the Jewish comedians who performed there is not a great piece of documentary filmmaking. I found host Robert Klein to be slightly cloying, although in his defense he isn’t given the sharpest dialogue to work with (he lists Wikipedia as a source at one point) and there are too many low-budget re-creations and too little vintage performance clips for my taste. And who wants to listen to Larry King stoically narrate losing his virginity to a married woman at home plate of a resort baseball field? But if jokes along the lines of “Take my wife…please,” or “I take my wife everywhere…but she keeps finding her way home,” elicit a chuckle from you instead of a groan, you’ll likely enjoy this lovingly crafted, if flawed, documentary.
Part history of the various resorts that thrived in the Borsch Belt from roughly the 1920’s into the 1970’s, part history of the Jewish people who frequented them and part history of the many famous and lesser-known comedians who crafted their stagecraft there, When Comedy Went to School tends to bite off a bit more than it can chew during it’s roughly 75 minute running time. The comedians who plied their craft in front of those tough Jewish audiences (Don Rickles, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Jackie Mason, Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, etc.) should have provided more than enough material, and the short performance clips the film does contain just left me longing for more, but the film tries to cover the entire history of Jewish comedy. And while the film speaks in grand terms about the cultural significance of the Borsch Belt comedians and their craft, it provides little evidence of the relevance to modern day comedy culture, leaving me with the (enjoyable) aftertaste of nostalgia when all was said and done.
But for me, nostalgia isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and When Comedy Went to School effectively elicited that palpable yearning for an earlier, better time (be it real or imagined). The idea of a historically mistreated minority finding a communal escape from their everyday existence, a beautiful, air-conditioned, luxurious escape in the mountains, where they were surrounded by their own people, free to be themselves and free to eat, drink and laugh (and have sexual escapades) to their hearts’ desire, is a beautiful thing. But just as cultural changes allowed the Borsch Belt to spring up and thrive (increase in disposable income, ease of family travel, death of Vaudeville, etc) time moved on and cultural changes brought it to a close (affordable airfare, TV, changes in family structure) and even after viewing the documentary, I’m not sure of the lasting impact on culture at large.