For a disorganized film that has trouble deciding what it's about, "When Comedy Went to School" can be a lot of fun.
Nominally the story of why the resorts of New York state's Catskill Mountains witnessed the birth of modern stand-up comedy, this documentary is best when it sticks to footage of those very funny comics, either being interviewed or doing bits.
Erratically created by directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank and screenwriter Lawrence Richards, "When Comedy Went to School" certainly knows who's funny. It interviews people like Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis and has amusing clips of big names like Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld, Jackie Mason, Billy Crystal and Rodney Dangerfield. All of whom had Catskills connections (even if we invariably see the individuals in later television moments).
It's especially nice to get reacquainted with comics who were Catskills regulars but have faded a bit from public notice. Henny Youngman, Myron Cohen, Danny Kaye (who pioneered the transition to television) and Buddy Hackett never fail to make you laugh, and hearing that Hackett and Lenny Bruce roomed together as busboys in the Catskills is quite a piece of news.
Located in Sullivan and Ulster counties in upstate New York, the Catskills (often known generically simply as "the mountains") were, from the 1930s through the 1960s, the largest resort area in the country.
The home to such hotel giants as Grossinger's, the Concord, Brown's, the Flagler and the Pines, the Catskills also had a large number of bungalow colonies and boarding houses taking guests fleeing from the heat of New York in the summer. But it was at the resort hotels that comedy really flourished.
Because comics were often booked for at least a week at a time to captive audiences, the Catskills were a place where material could be attempted and refined. "The mountains, that's where you learned," is how Caesar puts it, with academic Lawrence J. Epstein adding: "They knew what was funny, they'd tried it out."
The problem with "When Comedy Went to School" is that it can't seem to stick to its subject. And although some digressions are understandable and effective, others are not.
Inevitable as well as enjoyable is a look at the history of these hotels and what their overall culture was. This was, not surprisingly, a self-contained Jewish world where, in Jackie Mason's words, "a Gentile was something you saw only in the movies." It was a place where food was omnipresent (Mason again: "Jews never finish eating") and no one was averse to a touch of romance, whether it led to marriage or not.
Less successful is the film's unwise determination to shoehorn the Catskills into the entire range of Jewish history, reaching back as far as Abraham and Sarah. A dramatization of the birth of Isaac is weak and unnecessary, and the film's frequent use of uninspired re-creations is unfortunate.
Still, despite its myriad problems, the clips and interviews on "When Comedy Went to School" do make you laugh. It's great to hear Caesar launch into nonsense languages, and moments like the "Hitler on Ice" bit from Mel Brooks' "A History of the World, Part I" come off funnier than expected. As they used to say in the Catskills, you could do worse.
'When Comedy Went to School'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Town Center, Encino; Edwards Westpark 8, IrvineCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun