Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Borscht Belt beginnings--Ron Frank/Mevlut Akkaya: WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL

Here's a statistic TrustMovies didn't know: In a 1970's survey, it was found that although Jews represented approximately 3% of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 80% of professional comedians. Wow. (I suspect that if that survey were taken today, the percentage of Jewish comedians would be less -- while still remaining far out of proportion to their number in the general population.) The how and why of this statistic can be found in the relatively low-key but quite entertaining, even endearing new documentary, WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL, directed by Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya, the latter of whom is shown below.

Many of us non-Jews may have known something about the Catskill Mountains (a.k.a. the Borscht Belt) -- former home to the many resorts at which these budding comics honed their skills. Even so, this new doc provides a wealth of history, humor and nostalgia as it looks into everything from the coming of Jews to America, the Catskills and the rise of their resorts, the comedians themselves, their humor, and how all of this has changed down the decades.

There's a raft of famous funnymen shown here (with Joan Rivers, representing the gals), both now, in their senior years, and earlier, in their prime: Sid Caesar (at right) and Jerry Lewis (two photos below) to Jerry Stiller and the late Danny Kaye (shown below, right, even prior to his spec-tacular heyday. Robert Klein (in the penultimate photo) does a fine job of narration, and we see a lot of one of my favorite comedians, Mort Sahl (shown at bottom), who clearly still possesses his dry and rapier-like wit.

There's a plethora of fine archival photos and footage, as well, taking us back to the early part of the 20th Century and those middle post-war years, when Jews would never have considered taking a vacation to the Europe from which they recently escaped. Instead they went only to the Catskills.

In a documentary about comedy and humor, we'd expect plenty of just that, and while some of it is as old as the hills, most of it still proves pretty funny. Some jokes -- "take my wife" -- really are evergreen. And misogynistic.

So why did those famous Catskill resorts mostly disappear? Times changed, as the movie demonstrates, and so did audien-ces. During the 1960s, protest was hot, and comedians like Dick Gregory, at left, reached out to a different clientele. (We get just one joke from this guy, but it's terrific.) In one of the most telling moments, we learn that, during this time, breakfast at Grossinger's changed from seven kinds of herring -- to... granola!

Perhaps the most surprising revelation is handed us by Larry King, not officially a stand-up comedian, who tells of his assignations with a married woman while he was a bus boy/waiter at a Catskills resort, and the time he spilled hot soup on her husband as he was serving them dinner.

Musically, the movie brings back some fun melodies, among them of course, "Make 'em Laugh!" and, in an unusual usage, "Send in the Clowns," Sondheim's rueful love song, here heard as a kind of mournful dirge for comedians everywhere.

When Comedy Went to School -- from International Film Circuit, running just 76 minutes, and a shoo-in for Jews, seniors, comedy lovers and nostalgia buffs -- opens tomorrow, July 31, in New York City at the IFC Center and the JCC, and in the Los Angeles area on August 16 at Laemmle's Town Center 5 and Music Hall 3.  To view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here.

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