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Movie Review: When Comedy Went to School

Updated on September 9, 2013

Which area of the United States would be considered the birthplace of modern Jewish stand-up comedy? Filmmakers Mevlut Akkaya, Ron Frank & Lawrence Richards say that honor goes to the Catskill Mountains, an area approximately 75 miles northwest of New York City. In the trio’s documentary, “When Comedy Went to School”, we learn how such comedy legends as Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, and Jackie Mason honed their craft working in Catskills resorts dubbed “The Borscht Belt”.

The movie features a short history of Jewish humor, and what led the future comedians to the Catskills. Long Island University history professor Joseph Dorinson explains how Jewish humor comes from the shtetl (small Eastern European towns and villages with a large Jewish population in the time before the pogroms and the Holocaust), and the residents’ ability to hold two opposite ideas at the same time. Examples would be wealth and poverty, pain and pleasure.

From approximately 1880 to 1920, large numbers of Eastern European Jews emigrated to America. Hundreds of thousands of them settled in New York’s lower east side. Dorinson says the concentration of Jewish population was more dense than Calcutta is today."When Comedy Went to School"'s narrator, comic Robert Klein, says the new wave of immigrants confronted new forms of prejudice. They reacted with "humor, woven into a chain link of survivor armor” he says.

As Dr.Lawrence Epstein, a professor of English at New York’s Suffolk Community College and author of “The Story of Jewish Comedians in the 20th Century” says in the film, "It was a new face of comedy. One that required a particular Jewish experience in particula .” This led to the Yiddish theater, and vaudeville performers like Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns), Benny Kubelsky (Jack Benny), and Israel Iskowitz (Eddie Cantor),

By the 1930’s, many U.S. East Coast Jewish immigrants began taking summer vacations in the Catskills, in particular, Sullivan and Ulster counties. The resorts were constructed by mostly Eastern European Jews, and the bungalows, cottages, and hotel communities flourished.The Borscht Belt season ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day (late May to early September). Hotels would shut down for the winter.Although vaudeville and burlesque were dying, the resorts provided venues in which Jewish comedians could work, and here Jewish American comedy was nurtured.

When Comedy Went to School Official Trailer

The resort owners would also hire tummlers, clowns who would do anything to get a laugh. Their job consisted of amusing the guests through physical comedy, mime, games like Simon Says, impressions, dancing and singing, and jumping in the swimming pool in their jester type costumes.The idea was to get the audience’s attention and keep it. Sounds like Robin Williams during his “Mork and Mindy”days would have made a great tummler.

One person who worked briefly as a tummler was Danny Kaye (Daniel Kaminsky). Kaye ran away from home at 13. At 15, he became a combination bus boy and comic on the Borscht circuit, followed by a job at the White Roe Lake Hotel’s social staff as a tummler. It was said that Kaye was “much too crazy” to be a tummler. He then made the jump from the Catskills to Hollywood film stardom.

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis
Jerry Lewis | Source

Several famous performers are interviewed in "When Comedy Went to School", and offer some interesting insights into their early show biz careers. Jerry Lewis relates how his parents worked together as performers in the Borscht Belt, earning thirty dollars per club date. If they brought “the kid”,six year old Lewis wearing a tuxedo, on stage with them, they made five dollars more. During one performance in the early 1930’s, Lewis performed the only song he knew, the depression era tune “Brother , Can You Spare a Dime?” But, his foot slipped on stage, breaking one of the floodlights, which exploded. He was frightened, but his body movement and how he reacted to the explosion made the audience laugh. From then on, Lewis decided comedy would be his career. Lewis would later become a bus boy in the Catskills, working on his comedy routines for tips while serving the food.

Jerry Stiller

Jerry Stiller
Jerry Stiller | Source

Jerry Stiller explains that he made his Catskills show biz debut at age 15, as part of a knife throwing act. He was paid five dollars for the gig, Sid Caesar’s entertainment career began as a saxophone player at the Catskills’ Avon Lodge. He ended up marrying the Lodge’s owner’s daughter, Florence. The marriage lasted 67 years, until her passing in 2010.

Buddy Hackett’s son Sandy speaks about his dad and Lenny Bruce being bus boys and roommates in the Catskills. They later shared an apartment in New York. Sandy Hackett says they had no furniture in their one room apartment. At one time they bought sand and put it all over the apartment’s floor. They then added an umbrella and a light bulb, and invited women over to their “beach”.

When Comedy Went to School-Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller and more

At approximately 77 minutes long, the film goes by very fast. Hopefully, the DVD/Blu-ray will have some bonus segments to go along with the documentary. “When Comedy Went to School” does feature some unique vintage footage of Woody Allen performing his stand-up act, as well as a brief snippet of Fanny Brice (played by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl”). It’s interesting to find out from the documentary that although Brice used a Yiddish accent on stage, she couldn’t speak or read the language. It was also good to see a couple of video clips of comic and 1970's talk show favorite Totie Fields on stage.

In a nice bit of trivia, a short audio clip of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Katzkills” by Jewish comic singer Mickey Katz, can be heard in one scene. Katz was the father of Oscar winning performer Joel Grey, and grandfather of Jennifer Grey, star of “Dirty Dancing”, set in the Catskills.

“When Comedy Went to School” opens next month in San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Baltimore and Washington D.C., followed by Houston and Nashville in November. Check for more details.

1970's era commercial for a Catskills resort hotel


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