Though consistently entertaining as a brief history of the Catskills, Ron Frank and Melvut Akkaya's documentary suffers from an approach by turns scattershot and schmaltzy.
The “school” in “When Comedy Went to School” refers to the Borscht Belt, a boot camp where comedians honed their craft without fear of failure. Ron Frank and Melvut Akkaya’s docu isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but as a brief history of the Catskill resorts, liberally laced with well-edited archival promos, songs, homemovies and extended excerpts from routines by Jewish comics who performed there, it consistently entertains. Unfortunately, the film’s schmaltzy wraparound narration, delivered undiluted by Robert Klein, fails to amuse. A trip down memory lane for target auds, the docu works best as a superior clip-compendium of classic Jewish humor.
The filmmakers succinctly trace the evolution of Jewish comedy from the Yiddish theater to vaudeville to the hundreds of summer resorts in the Catskills. Distinctions are made between the first “tummlers,” physical clowns who would do anything for a laugh (an early incarnation of Danny Kaye), and the later “social directors” who interacted on a more verbal plane, leading to postwar standup gigs on Saturday nights.
Oft-reprised interviews with Jerry Lewis (still schticking it up at 80), Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller and Jackie Mason cover subjects from Lewis’ accidental first encounter with comedy as a singing 6-year-old adjunct to his parents’ Borscht Belt act, to Mason’s explanation as to why Jews never vacationed in Europe (they’d just escaped from there).
Comedians, historians and former resort guests, paradoxically interspersed with several film clips from Lewis’ Miami-set “The Bellboy,” vividly evoke the atmosphere of the Catskills where Jews, discriminated against elsewhere, could feel at home, relax and seek peace, maybe even attaining coolness, seven kinds of herring and religiously compatible mates.
Transcending the facile nostalgia promoted by the narration are the hilarious clips of Caesar and Carl Reiner in the legendary “This Is Your Life” parody from “Your Show of Shows”; Rodney Dangerfield’s tic-laden, self-deprecating putdowns; Henny Youngman’s perfectly timed one-liners; Lenny Bruce’s caustic commentaries; and Woody Allen’s wry remarks while draped over a mic stand.
Already somewhat scattershot in its subject matter, the docu drifts into genuine confusion when it attempts to define changes in post-Borscht Belt comedy, the ethnic throughline turning murky at best. Mort Sahl deftly bridges the leap from laughter as a survival tool to comedy as social critique, but he only advances the timeline so far. The filmmakers then fall back on present-day interviews with the owner of the Borscht Belt’s sole remaining luxury resort, Kutshers, and a “death of the Catskills” lament that borders on bathos.