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When Comedy Went to School

Many years ago my parents took me on a summertime trip to Brown’s Hotel in New York’s Catskill mountains. I don’t remember the experience as very interesting. I did get to shake Jack Dempsey’s hand (“Put ’er there, pal” is what I remember him saying) and I got the Manassa Mauler’s autograph. I also saw comedian Alan King do his act in the lounge, and I don’t think I enjoyed it much. I really never did like King’s comedy act; I thought his movie acting was better.

Brown’s isn’t in When Comedy Went to School, Ron Frank’s documentary about the Borscht Belt resorts in Sullivan and Ulster counties where for some half-century a lot of soon-to-be famous, mostly Jewish comics “went to school,” in the movie’s description, performing before largely Jewish audiences mostly up from New York City. Alan King, or at least TV clips of him, is in this movie. So are Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Myron Cohen, Danny Kaye, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and others. Frank wanted to examine the Catskill resorts as a sort of laboratory for American popular humor through a large part of the 20th century, but his effort is only intermittently either funny or particularly informative. Most of the performers are among the dearly departed now and there’s virtually no visual and audio record of their performances in this lab.

Comedian Robert Klein’s MCing and narration are a little fulsome, if sincere, and only some of the material deals with the origins of Jewish humor and its one-time predominance in American comedy. Too much of the movie looks and sounds like filler. Lewis and Caesar, still with us, are briefly charming and wry. (Well, Lewis, as is his wont, isn’t really brief.) Sahl is still very funny reciting one of his oddly ironic and pointed mini-routines for the camera. It does make you wonder where he’s been for lo, these many years.

Watch the trailer for When Comedy Went to School

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