When Comedy Went to School

This enchanting documentary on the rise, fall, and small-scale rebirth of the Catskills has something of a fairy tale quality.


When Comedy Went to School

Why are there so many Jewish comedians?

When Comedy Went to School answers this question with an entertaining portrait of this country’s greatest generation of comics – the generation that includes the likes of Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, and Jerry Stiller, all of whom make appearances in the film, telling jokes and telling their stories. The answer is also found in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains, AKA the Borscht Belt, where Jewish immigrants transformed lush farmland into the 20th century’s largest resort complex. Those Catskill hotels and bungalow colonies provided the setting for a remarkable group of young comedians to hone their craft and become worldwide legends. It was truly When Comedy Went to School.

In a 1970s survey, it was found that although Jews represented approximately 3% of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 80% of professional comedians. How did it come to pass that a nation that started the 20th century laughing at the folk humor of Will Rogers, ended it captivated by the urbane parodies of Seinfeld? Is there a common denominator within the generation of Jewish-Americans that produced so many acclaimed comedy legends? How could that happen? Why did that happen? What is their legacy? As Butch Cassidy in awe asks The Sundance Kid regarding the posse tracking them: "Who are those guys?"

When Comedy Went to School attempts to answer those questions. The film not only illuminates the most transformative period in American comedy, but also provides a look, through the rear-view mirror of history, at myriad complex social and political issues. As the film reveals: it's not just about 'those guys'; it's also about us.

And it’s about the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York; aka – the Borscht Belt. The Catskill hotels built in the years of the early 20th century to give a burgeoning Jewish middle class respite from the heat of New York City summers also provided a comedy boot camp for American humor – basic training for a generation of our most gifted comedians who tickled countless funny bones and influenced most of today’s popular entertainers. It was, as Jerry Lewis says in the film, the very necessary place where comics went to be bad.

In addition to Jerry Lewis, the film features interviews and comic performances by Jerry Stiller, Sid Ceasar, Mort Sahl, Hugh Hefner, Larry King, Jackie Mason and Mickey Freeman. It is hosted by the one and only Robert Klein, and pays homage through archive clips to many other Catskill veterans such as Danny Kaye, Mel Brooks, Red Buttons, Buddy Hackett, Lenny Bruce, Henny Youngman, Don Rickles, Totie Fields, and Rodney Dangerfield to name a few. And then there was the next generation: Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen and a very young Jerry Seinfeld who followed in their footsteps. All these greats are featured in When Comedy Went to School.
Not Rated
Mevlut Akkaya
Ron Frank
Robert Klein, Sid Ceasar, Jerry Stiller, Jackie Mason, Marc Maron, Hugh Hefner, Mort Sahl, Mickey Freeman
Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News

Think you know all about comedy? This thorough, funny and thoroughly funny chronicle of the Catskills Mountains resorts — that is, the Borscht belt — will still teach you a thing or two. The archival footage is rich. The interviews — with Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Jerry ...

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