Not all styles of humor stand the test of time, and the documentary When Comedy Went To School, about the Borscht Belt stand-ups who worked the Catskills during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, helplessly drives the point home. Entertainers like Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, and Jerry Lewis may have been trailblazers—they essentially created the stand-up form—but the many “take-my-wife-please” bits seen here aren’t just stale, they’re cringe-inducing. It’s not simply a matter of age: Modern audiences still respond well to the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and the films of Preston Sturges. The problem with the Borscht Belt comedians, perhaps, is that they came along during the conservative post-war era, when audiences—particularly Jewish audiences who’d recently survived the Holocaust—weren’t in the mood for deep societal skewering. People wanted comforting-funny then—jokes that twitted yet ultimately affirmed the rightness of their new middle-class American lives.
Not that any such analysis finds its way into When Comedy Went To School. It’s the squarest of square love letters, and it plays like one of those bland, slick History Channel specials. The on-screen host—yes, there’s an on-screen host—is comedian Robert Klein, who begins by intoning that, “Catskills hotels were the setting for the most important, fascinating era in American humor. During that time, comedy went to school. And what a graduating class!” Then, after a montage of comedian headshots scored to “Make ’Em Laugh,” directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank offer a weirdly sterile—even waspish—re-creation: Klein working as a Catskills busboy, staring with rapt, dreamy-eyed attention at the onstage entertainment and realizing, right then and there, that comedy is what he wants to do with his life. The whole movie is that banal. It actually ends with a slow-motion montage scored to “Send In The Clowns.”
Still, like practically all other documentaries, When Comedy Went to School is at least mildly informative and provides a wide range of archival clips. (Very few of those clips, however, are from actual Catskills performances; they’re mostly from television appearances.) It also features talking-head commentary from the one and only Larry King, who worked as a Catskills busboy but was decidedly never a comedian at any point in his life. Accordingly, he talks about other things, like how he lost his virginity in the Catskills to an older, married woman, and how it happened on a baseball diamond at home plate, allowing him to say, for the rest of his life, that he “really scored.” Oy.