Every now and then the, big minds in the movie business all seem to get the same idea at the same time. Sometimes it’s 19th century magicians and 19th century magicians. Sometimes it’s attacks on the White House and attacks on the White House. And don’t even get Jewdar started on the number of cineastes who have simultaneously come up with the idea of lonely women unable to pay for their pizza deliveries. Apparently, the same phenomenon affects documentary filmmakers as well, as not one but two movies are taking a look at the storied Golden Age of Jewish Comedy. Honest fellow that we are, Jewdar will make it clear that we were interviewed for the still-in-the-works When Jews Were Funny, but we won’t let that color our review of When Comedy Went To School (aka, the one that doesn’t give us our closeup).
Jewdar has no reason to bear a grudge, since the movie focuses on the glory days of the Catskills hotels, with the premise being that, in addition to providing New York’s huddled Jewish masses a place where they could breathe free for at least a few weeks every summer, provided several generations of Jewish comedians with a school (or perhaps boot camp would be more appropriate) to hone their skills. It’s an interesting, and we have to say, fairly convincing notion–imagine a young Jewish comic, facing the toughest crowd possible–a bunch of Jews paying good money to be entertained, and then having to face that same crowd the next three nights, with all new material. If that’s not the comic equivalent of being thrown into a pool full of sharks and chum to teach you how to swim, we don’t know what it is.
The film covers more than just the comedians, though, examining as well the whole development of the Catskills, not just physically, but culturally, as a haven for a people who had few other places of refuge. Indeed, one teensy criticism Jewdar had was that while the film discussed the changing financial situation of New York’s Jews that ultimately allowed them to take their vacations farther afield, we don’t think it sufficiently addressed the social conditions that had helped form the the Catskills world, as many hotels around the country didn’t admit Jews, and many Jews themselves didn’t want to go to hotels where they wouldn’t feel like they could be themselves.
More than just the context, however, the film provides a wealth of interviews and clips of the comics and consumers who made the Catskills what it was (and kudos to them to finding the former patrons who must be the ones with the thickest Yiddish accents who are still alive). It gives a great, if somewhat impressionistic, picture of this lost world (including some salacious details about the trysting that went on between the ladies up in the Catskills without their husbands and the young, male hotel staff members), and, of course, there are the comedians, both living and dead, who make their appearances, including luminaries like Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis.
The movie is not without it’s faults. The narration, by Robert Klein (who Jewdar never really cared for as a comic) often comes across as a bit pretentious and not terribly funny (at one point, Klein says “triple oy vey.”) And Jewdar has to say that there are few things less funny than than discussing what makes things funny (and we say this well aware that when the other documentary comes out, Jewdar may be the boring, pretentious pontificator being criticized). We also think it’s interesting how much more funny the old Borscht Belt comics were than the “relevant” comics of the 1960’s and 70’s like Klein and Mort Sahl. This is not an exhaustive history of the Catskills, or even Catskills comedy, but if you want to know more about either of them, this is a good movie to watch. And afterwards, if you like what you see, there’s still Kutsher’s.