Did You Hear the One About the Documentary? When Comedy Went to School

B Documentary

  • Directed by Mevlet Akkava and Ron Frank

I didn’t know it at the time (after all, I grew up in Los Angeles), but I was raised on Catskills Mountain humor. Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and Buddy Hackett taught me to laugh. As I grew older, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, and Tom Lehrer took their place. Even today’s standup comics come out of that specifically Jewish, upstate New York tradition.

This sweet, nostalgic documentary looks at the culture, traditions, and comedy that defined the Catskills from the 1930s through the 1960s. As talkies and the depression destroyed vaudeville, upcoming comics had no place to practice and learn their craft. But New York Jews started vacationing in reasonably-priced upstate resorts to enjoy fresh air, outdoor activities, and entertainment. It was an opportunity for comedians to make a little money and hone their craft. And thus the art of stand-up comedy was born.

Directors Mevlet Akkava and Ron Frank make the Catskills look like the perfect vacation. Pools, golf courses, dancing lessons, socializing (and possibly sex), plenty of good food, and rising stars to entertain you. Archival footage–much of it, I suspect, from promotional sources–emphasize the comforts and the beautiful mountains.

Like all documentaries covering recent history, When Comedy Went to School imagecontains a lot of interview footage, With those who were there telling you what it was like. Only this time, the interview subjects are amongst the funniest people alive. That may give you reasons to doubt what they say–you just know they’d pick the funniest version of a story over the real one. But it also makes for very entertaining anecdotes. I’m fighting the temptation to quote some of the best one-liners; I won’t. They depend to much on delivery.

This is a very short feature–only 76 minutes. It moves at a good clip and covers a lot of ground. But the filmmakers all but ignore one important side of the story: What did these comics learn in this "school." I would have enjoyed some talk about what does and does not make an audience laugh.

The movie made me want to vacation in the Catskills–but only if I could travel back in time.

The film opens in Bay Area theaters in Friday. (Note: I added this notice about an hour after the review went live.)