When Comedy Went to School: Film Review

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Colorful interviews are overshadowed by hokey presentation.

Robert Klein hosts an amateurishly produced history of the Borscht Belt's rise and fall.

A history lesson tracing the rise and fall of the Catskills as the heart of Jewish stand-up, Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya's When Comedy Went to School sketches in a picture whose outlines are familiar to every comedy fan. Though its insights are welcome and it boasts reminiscences from some bona-fide giants, the doc is crippled by a presentation so hokey the veteran showmen celebrated here would shake their heads in pity. Specialized theatrical bookings may recoup the evidently meager production budget, but even on small screens it will look decades out of date.

Robert Klein serves as onscreen host in the manner of a 1980s TV presenter, even looking offscreen when introducing a vintage clip as if it were materializing in the air beside him. He evinces no embarrassment when reading Lawrence Richards' script, whose lines range from stiff to "oy vey"-inducing: Attempting to explain the Semitic sense of humor, he informs us that "The Jews, in order to survive over the millennia, seemed to develop a survival mechanism." Later, Richards resorts to the amateur public speaker's equivalent of "Take my wife -- please": "Wikipedia describes a 'comedian'..."

Looking past the amateur-hour delivery, viewers will find a workable narrative with appealing vintage photos and film clips. Manhattan Jews took to showbiz in the Yiddish theaters of Second Avenue during the early 20th century. As that scene faded, sweatshop laborers bought a farmhouse in the Catskills and began renting rooms to Jews seeking respite from the city. Before long, over 500 hotels dotted the area.

Jackie Mason and others help describe the social environment that quickly developed in these resorts, where the physical clowning of "tummlers" entertained kids, and social directors worked the grown-up crowds. Stars-to-be made these generic roles their own: Clips of Danny Kaye display his take on the tummler's art, while Jerry Lewis and Sid Caesar recall finding their voices in front of an audience. (Larry King, who was deflowered by a married vacationer, illustrates the other kinds of education young resort employees received.) For every big name the filmmakers get, though, there are three other Borscht Belt icons whose absence is jarring: Where are Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Don Rickles...?

The doc explains the forces that drained life from comedy in the Catskills -- TV gigs were more appealing for ambitious stand-ups, and the increasingly political humor of the late '60s didn't go over well with this aging crowd. If the film threatens to grow maudlin in closing scenes, showing the rotting husks of once-thriving vacation destinations, it saves the worst for last: a terribly corny wrap-up in which Klein admonishes us -- "Don't stop laughing" -- as the credits unfurl to "Send in the Clowns."

Production Company: Catskill Films

Directors: Ron Frank, Mevlut Akkaya

Screenwriter: Lawrence Richards

Producers: Mevlut Akkaya, Ron Frank, Lawrence Richards

Executive producer: Robert Kosch

Director of photography: Scott H. Beardslee

Music: Paul D. Lehrman

Editors: Ron Frank, Leif Stoehr

No rating, 76 minutes