When Comedy Went to School 2013
Distributed by First Run Features, 630 Ninth Avenue, Suite 1213, New York, NY 10036; 212-243-0600
Directed by Ron Frank & Mevlut Akkaya
DVD, color, 88 min.
Humor, Jews, Popular Culture, Travel and Tourism
Date Entered: 02/19/2015Reviewed by Linda Frederiksen, Washington State University, Vancouver, WA
For approximately 50 years during the mid-twentieth century, hotels in the Catskill Mountains served as a laboratory for young comedians. Among others, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, and Jerry Stiller got started and honed their craft at resorts located in upstate New York. The Borscht Belt was a place where comics could try out jokes and routines before a receptive but critical audience. Because many of these comedians went on to successful film, television and nightclub careers, these proving grounds were also important sites in the history and development of Jewish humor in the United States.
Narrated by actor and comedian Robert Klein, the film features some archival footage, photographs, and movie clips and along with interviews with resort owners, operators, guests and performers. There is some original and funny content that viewers may enjoy; however much of what is presented is a mash-up of other pieces. At the same time, the nostalgic re-enactments are overworked and corny. Finally, although topically connected, the film’s organization and focus are not clear. While some sections clearly focus on the comedians, others are about daily life at the resorts, leaving viewers confused as to the intent of the film. Short bonus features included with the DVD extend the mixed message: a newsreel, a comedy bit, a roundtable discussion with comedians who worked in the resorts but who, along with other greater and lesser known performers, don’t appear in the film, and interviews with a former guest and a current resort operator. Not recommended.