According to Lawrence Richards’ script (narrated by Robert Klein), a 1970's survey uncovered an interesting sociological disparity in American culture: although Jews represented approximately 3% of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 80% of professional comedians.
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If “When Comedy Went to School” disappoints, it is because the documentary doesn’t completely explain the reasons behind this intriguing statistic.
The film begins a little after the beginning, relatively speaking, as Klein explains how little Isaac came into the lives of Abraham and Sarah. In Hebrew, “Isaac” means “He shall laugh.” Klein quips, "Hey, if you had your first kid at 100 and your wife was 90, you'd have to laugh, too!"
Where Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank’s documentary succeeds is in bringing back to life a time and place long gone: the Catskills, “an Oz without the wicked witch,” where from the ‘20s into the ‘70s, mostly Jewish comedians could perform in front of Jewish audiences at the largest resort area anywhere.
Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, one of the largest of the hundreds of hotels in the area back in the day, was only 100 miles from New York, where population density in the Lower East Side Jewish enclave exceeded 500 per acre – more than Calcutta today.
As Jackie Mason puts it, “Gentiles almost never went (to the Catskills). They never heard of the place. Half of the Jews never saw a gentile. A gentile was something you saw in the movies. You saw Gary Cooper, you said, ‘That was a gentile.’ There’s no such thing as a 6-foot tall Jew.”
Food was at least as much of a draw as the entertainment and potential for a romantic interlude. Colloquially known as “the Borscht Belt,” “the Sour Cream Sierra” or “the Jewish Alps” – can I hear a “triple oy vey”? (don’t blame Klein, he’s just reading the script) – the Catskills was a “boot camp for comics” where comedians could refine their acts. Loch Sheldrake, as rumor has it, also provided a place for the mob to dump bodies.
The list of stand-ups that honed their skills in the Catskills farm system from the early 20th century through the ‘70s is composed of a veritable Murderers Row of comedic talent: Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Stiller (Ben’s father), Don Rickles, Milton Berle, George Burns, Danny Kaye, Red Buttons, Henny Youngman, Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason, Dick Gregory, Larry King, Joan Rivers (not everyone was Jewish, funny and male) and Alan King, who once gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth. According to co-director Ron Frank, when Her Majesty said, “Hello, Mr. King,” he replied, "Hello Mrs. Queen."
Another historical nugget: Lenny Bruce and Buddy Hackett roomed and worked together as busboys. You can’t make this stuff up.
Beginning in the ‘50s and increasingly into the ‘60s, television would encroach upon the scene by providing an alternative, national forum for comedians. Kids who went to Woodstock in 1969 were less likely to find the Borscht Belt enticing, although hipper comics such as Richard Belzer, Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Bill Maher and even Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal made pilgrimages to the Catskills before the laughs dried up.
Jackie Mason unintentionally illuminates the cultural change when he jokingly reminisces about the old days: "Gentiles are running, playing basketball, volleyball, handball, running back and forth.
“A Jew says, 'You see a piece of cake here?'”
The emergence of Jewish American athletes such as Mark Spitz, Sandy Koufax and hundreds of others would soon make those jokes sound as old as Isaac.
Live comedy persists, but not on the pre-cable level of excitement of the ‘70s and early ‘80s in urban centers from New York to Chicago to L.A. and San Francisco.
See playdates and locations for “When Comedy Went to School” HERE.
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