Comedy, like religion, has its sacred places. Examples include the Comedy Store, Second City (Chicago and Toronto sites both), the chair next to Johnny. If you have to ask who Johnny is, you probably should stop reading this review. Those are New Testament comedy sites. The greatest of Old Testament comedy sites is the Catskills.
Like Ararat and Sinai or, for that matter, Olympus, there are mountains involved. This is important. Comedy, before it’s anything else, is a business. The Catskills are mountains near New York City. Mountains, especially scenic ones near big cities, attract visitors. Those visitors need places to stay. Resorts get built. Resort owners, wanting visitors to prolong their stay, seek to offer a variety of diversions. Appealing as mountains are, they do not lend themselves to cover charges and minimums. Comedians do — and they come a lot cheaper than floor shows and production numbers. So comedy quickly became king at the Catskills resorts, like Kutsher’s, Grossinger’s, Brickman’s, and the Concord.
Furthermore, the clientele was overwhelmingly Jewish. So, inevitably, a preponderance of the comedians was Jewish. Actually, preponderance is a euphemism for almost all of them. Thus was born a nickname — partly owing to mankind’s love of alliteration and partly to Russian Jews’ love of beet soup — the Borscht Belt.
The documentary “When Comedy Went to School” wants to buckle and burnish the Borscht Belt. It succeeds. Love is lavished upon the place like sour cream on blinis. Unfortunately, the documentary does something else, too. It answers that age-old question: What happens when a can’t-miss subject gets missed?
“When Comedy Went to School” has so much going for it. The material is rich and yeasty and flavorful. Robert Klein, old enough to remember the Catskills’ comedy heyday and young enough to be hip and inconoclastic, is narrator and onscreen host. Among the talking heads are such giants as Jerry Lewis and Sid Caesar. Lesser but notable lights include Jerry Stiller, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, and Dick Gregory (I did say “almost all of them”). These gentlemen are feisty and vigorously anecdotal and if not exactly as funny as they think they still are, that’s OK, they’ve earned the right.
So far, so good.
Also on hand are Joe Franklin, the famously yammery New York talk-show host; Larry King, who relates how he lost his virginity on a Catskills resort baseball diamond (no, not during the seventh-inning stretch); and, can it be, yes, ever so briefly, just before the end, Hugh Hefner.
The presence of Hef is an indicator of the two biggest problems with “When Comedy Went to School.” The first is that the documentary doesn’t really know what it wants to do. Is it about Jewish-American social history? Is it about the Catskill resorts? Is it about just the comedy acts at those resorts? Is it about stand-up comedy? Trying to be all those things, it does none of them well and is repetitive and wayward, to boot. How wayward? At one point, Lewis describes how receptive the audiences were. They were seeing a show for free (it came with dinner), so they would applaud anything, he says. Ninety seconds later Klein announces in his voiceover that the Catskill audiences “were the toughest in the world.” Huh?
The second problem is that a documentary about comedy needs to be funny. The old guys, as noted, have definitely lost a lot off their collective fastball. But what about the clips, and there are a lot of them, from the Borscht Belt’s heyday? We see Buddy Hackett, Danny Kaye, Myron Cohen, Totie Fields, Dick Shawn, Milton Berle, even Lenny Bruce. None of the bits are funny! The one exception — God bless him (better yet, God give him some respect) — is Rodney Dangerfield. Otherwise the comics produce about as many laughs as Hef does, and he’s not trying to be funny.
To get a sense of how much better “When Comedy Went to School” might have been, go online and check out “Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop,” part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 Shorts series. Sports was part of the Catskills resort experience, too, and the basketball great worked as a bellhop (and played hoops) at Kutsher’s as a high school student, in 1954. In just 8 minutes and 41 seconds, the short conveys a sense of personality and texture absent from the documentary, and that, alas, is no joke.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.