An entertaining portrait of this country’s greatest generation of comics in “When Comedy Went to School” – Feb. 18 at 9 pm

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When Comedy Went to School

The birth of modern standup comedy began in the Catskill Mountains
Saturday, February 18 at 9 pm

Why are there so many Jewish comedians?

In a 1970’s survey, it was found that although Jews represented approximately 3% of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 80% of professional comedians. How did it come to pass that a nation that started the 20th century laughing at the folk humor of Will Rogers, ended being captivated by the urbane parodies of “Seinfeld”? Is there a common denominator within the generation of Jewish-Americans that produced literally dozens of comedy legends? How could that happen? And why did that happen? What is their legacy? As Butch Cassidy in awe asks The Sundance Kid regarding the posse tracking them: “Who are those guys?”

Attempting to answer those questions became a journey with unexpected turns, which not only illuminated the most transformative period in American comedy, but also provided a look, through the rear-view mirror of’ history, at myriad complex social and political issues. What we learned is that it’s not just about “those guys”, it’s also about us. Indeed, many a truth is said in jest. When Comedy Went to School is their, as well as our, story.

comedian surrounded by tons of paperwork in officeAs vaudeville expired in the 1930’s, unable to cope with rising costs or compete with the proliferation of motion picture houses, comedians sought an outlet for their developing talents. The upstate New York hotels of Sullivan and Ulster Counties numbered in excess of 900 and were collectively known as The Catskills. The area was later dubbed The Borscht Belt, and it provided a comedy boot camp for stand-up comedians, basic training for a remarkable group of gifted comics who tickled countless funny-bones and influenced most of today’s popular entertainers.

The Borscht Belt hotels offered a range of unprecedented facilities where comics could get in front of audiences, work on developing a style, hone their material, and check out the competition. They could even bomb and not be banished forever. The film explores the environment in which these hotels and bungalow colonies, catering almost exclusively to a Jewish clientele, provided a vital proving ground, a laboratory for determining what material worked…and what didn’t. It was a perfect storm: comedians looking for work and hundreds of venues in need of them.

Hosted by comedian/actor Robert Klein, When Comedy Went to School features interviews with comic greats who redefined standup and sketch comedy, and forever altered the course of American humor. Such comic legends as Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Jerry Stiller and others, offer their unique, heart-felt and oftentimes hilarious anecdotes about what the Catskills meant to their careers.

Former Catskill busboy Larry King recounts his experiences, and displays a surprising comedic touch himself. Hugh Hefner discusses his role in supporting the ‘New Comedy’, specifically Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. Historian Professor Joseph Dorinson, and noted sociologist/author Lawrence Epstein, (“The Haunted Smile”) provide cogent, informative perspectives on subjects including humor as a survival tool and defense mechanism in Jewish history, immigration and assimilation, and the correlation between anti-Semitism and the rise of the Catskills.

Jerry Stiller surrounded by comediansWhen Comedy Went to School pays homage through rare archival clips to many other Catskill veterans, including Danny Kaye, Mel Brooks, Red Buttons, Buddy Hackett, Lenny Bruce, Henny Youngman, Don Rickles, Totie Fields, and Rodney Dangerfield to name a few. In later years, Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen and a very young Jerry Seinfeld built on this foundation.

The Borscht Belt, aka “The Mountains”, was a comfortable place where people could be with their own kind, many of them still learning how to be American. They could escape the summer heat at a time before air conditioning, and could choose from a variety of activities catering to all members of the family. And the food! As the gag goes, “There was so much sour cream in the dining room I thought it was a blizzard!”

Nonetheless, entertainment was the key to attracting and keeping guests.

Originally, the ‘comics-in-training’ (including bellhops, busboys and waiters) were known as porch clowns or tummlers, a Yiddish word meaning to create noise or tumult, did anything to get a laugh. They used physical comedy and impressions, whatever it took to get the guests’ attention and keep it. Danny Kaye was fired after one day as a tummler. “Much too crazy!” was the word. A tummler too crazy? He must have been something! The tummlers were the reincarnation of the ancient Court Jester, wearing bizarre outfits with a patchwork of colors, and operating outside of society’s strictures with no rules. He was ‘The Joker’, literally wild. To many of those who had recently escaped from Europe, or who knew those that had, that freedom to act nutty without repercussions must have been reassuring as well as nourishing. This was the right place to be.

Lenny Bruce and Buddy Hackett were busboys who bunked together. Irving Kniberg and Joseph Levitch, better known as Alan King and Jerry Lewis, worked there as teens. Some bellhop named Aaron Schwatt, who had bright red hair and large buttons on his uniform, said “I’ll call myself Red Buttons, what the hell”. Sid Caesar performed as a terrific saxophone player with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, but was also pretty terrific at creating characters and skits with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. George Jessel made his last insulting remark in the Catskills, Don Rickles his first. Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason…. the list goes on and on.

people sitting at small tables at comedy clubLater, in the post-World War II period, the Catskills attracted more diverse and sophisticated guests, well-travelled New Yorkers, and convention groups. Theatre-style stage shows evolved into more night-clubby settings requiring performers to become more adaptable, to work both small groups and large crowds every night, and usually for several shows. These were known as the toughest audiences in the world. You had to bang ’em, or they walked. The younger comics watched, gauged the audience response and learned what worked, what didn’t … and why. Gone was the traditional set-up/pay-off structure of Old World humor such as “didya’ hear the one about?”, “a guy walks in to a bar…” or jokes with punch lines in Yiddish. The new, more educated audiences demanded more sophisticated humor, and the resulting innovations included character development, social commentary, stream-of-consciousness delivery, triple punch lines and emotional tags. This re-vamped, updated approach – which could only have been developed in this unique comedic cauldron – produced a whole new kind of standup comedy.

When Comedy Went to School is also about the survival of a culture. The primarily Eastern European Jews who migrated to The Catskills turned that farmland into the 20th century’s largest resort complex. They may have lacked many skills, most barely spoke English, but what they had was courage, vision, and the conviction that the American dream of success could be realized by faith and persistence.

Selig and his wife Malke were fairly typical. They worked together in New York City sweatshops for years, and after scrapping together a few hundred dollars, they escaped to upstate New York and bought a broken-down farmhouse. The returns on their meager harvest couldn’t sustain the growing family, so they took in a boarder, then another. In the years to come, Selig and Malke Grossinger would own a hotel with two private airports, eight tennis courts and its own zip code.

The last major surviving Catskill hotel is Kutshers. Our interviews on location with Mark Kutsher and his recently deceased mother Helen, provide a very personal look at the immense obstacles and struggles the very early ‘settlers’ overcame, how they flourished, and their connection and commitment to the continuing development of comedy talent. Perhaps it’s fair to say that embedded in their genes was a natural and instinctive understanding, not only for them, but for their guests, that the best escape from despair, pain, or worry, if only temporarily, is laughter. Tania Grossinger, author of “Growing Up at Grossingers” offers an own up-close and personal description of her family’s hotel that staggers the imagination as she recounts its scope and opulence… and her ingenuity as a teenager advising comedians about material.

The decline of the Catskills was not only directly related to the socioeconomic rise of Jewish Americans, but to seismic changes in American society and culture. In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Viet Nam and the civil and women’s rights struggles changed what Americans found funny. Catskill comics didn’t adjust, at least not quickly enough. And there was the explosion of television. It was free. “Why go out to a club, let alone a resort? Besides, we’ve got a swimming pool, we can turn on the air conditioning, and fly wherever we want. Also, being honest, our kids don’t want to spend their vacation with us, and being really honest, maybe we should take some time…just the two of us.”

When Comedy Went to School cautions that it would be a mistake to relegate the nexus of the aforementioned comedians and the rise of the Catskill Hotels to just an historical footnote; it would be a tragedy to consign this era to the ash heap of history. Comedians, the great ones, take the temperature of the culture. They remind us in many ways, “What fools we mortals be”. Is it any wonder that in “King Lear” the Jester is the man who knows the truth but disguises it with jokes?

Edmund Kean, a noted 19th century Shakespearean actor, was asked as he lay on his death-bed how he was feeling. He replied “Dying is easy, comedy is hard!” One thing is certain, those Catskill Comics sure made living a lot more fun. The important comedians of today and tomorrow and the days after tomorrow stand on their shoulders. It’s long overdue that we honor them and their Alma Mater, The Catskill Hotels. It was When Comedy Went to School.