The key ingredient to comedy? Jews in mountains

New ‘scientific’ documentary explaining what’s funny tells the story (or, perhaps the tall tale) of the Borscht Belt

Jerry Lewis (photo credit: International Film Circuit, Inc.)
Jerry Lewis (photo credit: International Film Circuit, Inc.)

NEW YORK — On this most people can agree: there’s nothing less funny than trying to analyze comedy. As Jerry Lewis says in the forthcoming documentary “When Comedy Went To School,” “funny is in your BONES.”

Rather than make a quixotic stab at trying to find out “why” something is funny, filmmakers Mevlut Akkaya, Ron Frank and Lawrence Richards took a more scientific approach. With “When Comedy Went To School” they analyze the rather specific conditions that led to the current norms of how comedy is delivered in nightclubs and on television. The key ingredient: Jews in the mountains.

Narrated by Robert Klein, whose own history is innately entwined with the subject, “When Comedy Went To School” tells the story (okay, perhaps the tall tale) of the Borscht Belt.

A collection of lush hotels and inexpensive bungalow colonies peppering the Catskill Mountain range of upstate New York, this was the premiere summer destination for New York City area Jews from the 1930s up until the late 1970s/early 1980s. (Continued talk of a revitalized Catskills is predominantly nostalgia trade, or catering to an expanded demographic. Despite all our fond memories, the Borscht Belt is, alas, dead.)

The film explains the socio-economic factors that led to the area’s rise (very swift bullet points from Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers” make their way into the film – well, at least the funny parts) until we settle in on the rise of the Catskills’ unique hotel culture. Within the somewhat insular environment, the entertainment that sprang evolved from traditional vaudeville song and dance routines to the more confessional, persona-driven comedy we know today. It was a long transition, with stops along the way for plenty of schtick, and “When Comedy Went To School” covers all of it.

Jackie Mason (photo credit: International Film Circuit, Inc.)
Jackie Mason (photo credit: International Film Circuit, Inc.)

In addition to Robert Klein and Jerry Lewis, the film features first person recollection from comedians Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl, Mickey Freeman and Dick Gregory. (While the legendary African-American humorist, author and humanitarian may at first seem an odd choice for a film about the unique Jewish tenor of the Catskills scene, I refer you to the period-appropriate Lenny Bruce bit about what’s Jewish and what’s goyish.)

Also weighing in with memories are Larry King, Hugh Hefner, Joe Franklin and, perhaps most touching, the elderly hotel guests whose Eastern European accents are as thick as the split-pea soup from Ratner’s.

Poster for 'When Comedy Went to School'
Poster for ‘When Comedy Went to School’

Entertainment was part of the package at the Catskills hotels. This was, at times, literally the case when the evening’s performer would be printed on the menu. (Imagine reading “Brisket $1 Extra” followed by “Entertainment: Freddie Roman.”)

The interviewed comics describe the push-pull battle with the easily unimpressed audience to just keep them in their seats.

“It was a place to be bad,” Jerry Lewis explains. The crowd was already there, and the atmosphere was ripe to try new things.

In addition to the post-dinner shows the hotels all kept something known as a “tummler” on staff. Different from a “social director” (another key position) a tummler was an on-call funnyman, a clown to liven things up around the pool. The perfect term to use might be court jester, especially when you consider that a young Catskills tummler by the name of David Kaminsky later grew to become the star of “The Court Jester,” Danny Kaye.

Young Danny Kaye (right) at the White Roe Lake Hotel (photo credit: International Film Circuit, Inc.)
Young Danny Kaye (right) at the White Roe Lake Hotel (photo credit: International Film Circuit, Inc.)

Something I hadn’t considered before seeing the film is just how, logistically, the Catskills were a natural breeding ground for comedy. When you consider that so many television producers would be vacationing there themselves, it is only natural that they would pluck talent for both on screen and the writers’ rooms and before the cameras from these legendary stages.

The Sid Caesar and Milton Berle shows used the hotels as farm teams, and the hotels themselves had their own hierarchy. Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, to name but a few, started as busboys, all getting to their tables rather slowly so they could watch and study the performances.

“When Comedy Went To School” features some interesting interviews with surviving members of the Kutcher and Grossinger families, their names synonymous with noted hotels. (Trivia: The Nevele is “eleven” spelled backwards, supposedly for the eleven schoolteachers who discovered a waterfall on what became the property.)

Since so many of the comics were traveling from hotel to hotel and would all, um, “borrow” one another’s material, Tania Grossinger took it upon herself to take notes during each show, to warn the incoming comic what jokes the current patrons already heard the night before.

Young Sid Caesar with his then fiancee Florence, who stayed his wife for over six decades, at the Avon Lodge (photo credit: International Film Circuit, Inc.)
Young Sid Caesar with his then fiancee Florence, who stayed his wife for over six decades, at the Avon Lodge (photo credit: International Film Circuit, Inc.)

The archival footage in the documentary is fantastic. The current interviews are wistful and wise. I must concede that some of the packaging – the music, graphics and transitions are not all that cinematic. One could call the presentation a little dated, but I’ll be more giving and call this a film that is both nostalgic in subject and nostalgic in feel. But put bluntly, you don’t have to kick yourself if you miss this in the theater (it’s a natural for a PBS airing). That said, if you have fond memories of the Catskills and want to share this with family, it could make for a terrific night out. Whether you preface it with a cholesterol-rich brisket dinner is entirely up to you.

“When Comedy Went To School” opens in New York City in late July, then travels to other select cities in early August. As of now, it does not appear to have theatrical dates in Florida, which seems to me to be a little meshuggah. Check dates and look for your cities here.

Most Popular
read more: