Film Review: When Comedy Went to School

Well-trodden documentary subject matter offers some laughs and enlightenment, but, given who the filmmakers were able to assemble, this should have been better—not to mention funnier.

By this point, it should come as no surprise to many that most of the comedy we enjoy today has its roots in the mordant, often self-defensive and even more often hilarious shtick of Jewish comedians dating back to the beginnings of the last century. Like others before them, Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya once more chart the evolution of this comic world in When Comedy Went to School, with particular emphasis on the Catskills circuit, those resort hotels which reached their peak in the post-World War II years, providing vacationing Jewish families with relaxation, mountains of food and spectacularly side-splitting entertainment delivered by the likes of Danny Kaye, Don Rickles, Alan King, Jackie Mason, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield and scores of others, many of whom went on to become household names and who are interviewed here.

The brilliant Robert Klein narrates with knowing affection, but despite the wonderful archival footage and painstaking assemblage of these surviving showbiz dinosaurs, the film isn’t quite the rich, humorous feast one would have hoped for. The directors have enlisted the aid of a couple of oh-so-serious professors and scholars to offer their theories about the innate survival instinct which made Jews use humor as a way to lighten their load of oppression and prejudice harking back to their persecuted time in a Europe they had to flee. Point taken, but the problem here is that the point is taken up repeatedly by both pundits and the comedians themselves, when we just ache to see more of their hilarious routines and not just the snippets and one-liners vouchsafed here.

Another problem is the surfeit of talking heads—for every juicy Jerry Lewis or living legend Sid Caesar memory, we get too many reminiscences of comedians you never heard of, and while it’s nice that they were included, quality over quantity should have been more of a consideration. “Tummlers,” those largely unknown, anything-for-a-laugh camp jesters, who practically killed themselves working the resort crowds by the pool, are given their due as well, but the filmmakers also blew it by not including (or even mentioning) the 1938 RKO film Having Wonderful Time, which was set at just such a Catskill resort and had the very young Red Skelton doing a tummler routine to end all.

“Take my wife, please,” “I don’t get no respect,” “Don’t be a hockey puck”: These famous one-liners are cursorily mentioned, of course, but what is far more effective is seeing Billy Crystal do his hilarious Edward G. Robinson in The Ten Commandments bit on “The Tonight Show,” which gives you more of an idea of how these comic geniuses took a kernel of a notion and were able to hone it into a surefire laugh machine. (I also would have liked to have seen more of Klein’s actual routines, among the brainiest and most hysterical of all in their searing observation.) More attention should also have been paid to Rivers and especially Fields (who tragically died young), pioneering women of comedy in this decidedly male universe.