During the period between World War II and Woodstock, New York’s Catskills became a booming resort for Jewish city-dwellers. And since various hotels needed evening entertainment to occupy guests, the region also became an incubator for aspiring comedians. The documentary “When Comedy Went to School” looks at some of the funny people who got their start in the Borscht Belt, including Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Jackie Mason, Sid Caesar and narrator Robert Klein.
That’s an impressive list, yet the movie doesn’t offer much more than fleeting and superficial pleasures during interviews with the aforementioned comics or clips from such comedians as Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield and Jerry Seinfeld. Directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank and writer Lawrence Richards clearly have a strong affection for the Catskills and what the vacation destination did for comedy, but they have a hard time explaining why viewers who weren’t there should share in the excitement.
At first, the movie sets out to prove that the mountain resort was the seminal location for mid-century Jewish comedians to get their start. But after so many detours into other terrain, the movie feels muddled and unwieldy. The documentary catalogues some of the menu items at resort hotels and stages a dramatic reenactment of the birth of Isaac. Larry King even shows up to disclose that he lost his virginity at one of the resorts, which is both off-topic and regrettably nonerasable.
There are some interesting tales from interviewees, who worked as busboys or waiters when they weren’t entertaining crowds and honing their skills. But the impact of those anecdotes is blunted amid clips from “History of the World: Part I” and uninformative interviews with current vacationers. And the film presents little evidence to support its larger claims — for instance, that the region’s legacy is evident in almost every contemporary comedian. Whether that’s true or not, the clips of jokesters, many of whom get laughs by telling farcical stories about their wives (“I found Ms. Right. I didn’t know her first name was Always.”), do little to verify the assertion.
Anyone who visited the Catskills during its heyday will likely look at the documentary with nostalgic affection. They might even get a little choked up during a maudlin rendition of the already sentimental “Send in the Clowns” while a montage of various comedians appears on-screen. But for anyone else, those culminating images will do little to crystallize the convoluted picture of how the Catskills had a lasting impact on comedy.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 83 minutes.