If you recognize the title of this review as a slight modification of the classic Henny Youngman one-liner, then you are sure to enjoy "When Comedy Went to School", a new documentary that examines the roots of American stand-up comedy and the role of one geographic area in particular.
The geographic area I refer to is the Catskill Mountains, located in upstate New York. Developed as a summer getaway from the crowds and humidity of the New York Metro area, resorts sprung up to cater to these usually urban, usually Jewish vacationers. The Catskills by day provided ample opportunities for swimming, fishing, hiking, sporting and the like. But it was at night that the resorts really came to life, via massive quantities of food in the dining halls and the live entertainment provided as part of the dining experience. The easiest entertainment to provide was, luckily for us, comedy.
The death of vaudeville and the crackdown on burlesque led to a plethora of entertainers eager to perform for a large audience. The Catskill resorts provided a stage for veteran performers to ply their trade for an appreciative audience and for newcomers to build the foundation of a successful career. In a world where comedy is performed in chain-clubs, college auditoriums, coffee shops and on cable television, it's easy to forget that not too long ago there weren't many places for a comedian to be "bad" and learn his craft. The Catskill resorts were, in essence, this country's mid-century comedy school.
And what a school it was, with such "students" as Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller, Jackie Mason, Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl et al. They all spent time on a Catskill resort stage. Comedian Robert Klein introduces great archival photographs and film footage that take us back to a time and place that really no longer exists. Interviews with the aforementioned students (and others) provide us with an inside look at how the Catskills came to be the place to go for comedy, and how the Catskills came to not be the place to go for comedy. (Three simple reasons – television, the sixties, and Woodstock )
Clocking in at a quick 76 minutes, "When Comedy Went to School" is a quick refresher course on the fundamentals of American comedy and an examination of the prevalence of Judaism as the starting point for the majority of comedians of this era. It's a rare course in which I would have gladly spent more time.
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