Friday, June 07, 2013

“When Comedy Went To School” – Movie Review



This week, the Summer semester of my movie class began and we saw the documentary “When Comedy Went To School”, narrated by comedian – actor Robert Klein.


During several decades of the 20th century, many New York City residents – mostly Jewish families – would spend at least part of their summer vacation at one of the many resorts in The Catskill Mountains (often referred to as simply The Catskills), an area in upstate New York approximately 75 miles north of Manhattan. The resorts included various kinds of entertainment and many of the acts would make a living by booking engagements at each of the hotels in the area; working the various Catskill resorts became known as The Borscht Belt Circuit.

Among the types of entertainers that performed at these resorts were comedians – many of whom went on to great success beyond merely The Borscht Belt Circuit. These included such renowned filmmakers as Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and a host of others. Typically, these people would begin their career at the resort with a job as a busboy or kitchen assistant, then working their way up to what was called a “tummler” – basically, a clown that would periodically entertain poolside guests by performing outrageous acts like dropping and breaking a tray full of plates or diving fully-clothed into the pool.  If they were lucky, they would someday graduate to before actually go on stage.

By the late 1960’s, however, times, tastes and values began to change in that culturally volatile time. Ultimately, fewer people were spending their summers vacationing in the Catskills; one by one, many of the resorts either began to close down altogether or they would remain open, but only as a shell of their former entities. Despite this, the resorts proved to be a training ground for generations of comedians who used the opportunity to hone their craft by learning not only what it took to keep an audience engaged, but also how to refine jokes they had written.


Some documentaries are targeted to a very narrow group of viewers – and boy, is “When Comedy Went To School” one of them. Other than comedy junkies interested in the historical aspects, I would imagine this would be limited to older Jewish New Yorkers who not only remember that era but also vacationed in the Catskills on at least a semi-regular basis. That said, however, I just so happen to be one of those comedy junkies and as a result, found that there’s a great deal to like about this film – among them, interviews with comedians of that period reminiscing about their time in The Catskills as well as long-time and former guests of the various resorts recalling the many acts they saw that later became famous.

Where the documentary falls apart for me is with the script, which calls for some cheesy recreations to simulate scenes from that era. Further, some of the dialog that sometimes on-screen narrator Robert Klein is burdened with seems to make attempts at weak humor crammed-in with a brute force approach for whatever reason. As a whole, I think the film would have turned out better if the filmmakers just had more faith in the subject matter and spent less time trying to appear entertaining – certainly, many of the interviewees were entertaining enough themselves.

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed the film’s narrator, Robert Klein. Klein was his usual hilarious self and told a great many stories about his own background as a youth working as a waiter at one of the Catskills resorts. Additionally, it turns out he can do a pretty good imitation of Rodney Dangerfield and wound up telling an amusing story about how he saved Dangerfield’s life long ago. Quite the raconteur, Klein also told about his experiences working with the late composer Marvin Hamlisch on the hit Broadway musical, “They’re Playing Our Song”.

If you want to see a trailer for this movie, please click on this link to be taken to the film’s official Web site:  “When Comedy Went To School”.


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