When Comedy Went to School
Opens Fri., Aug. 23 at Varsity.
Not rated. 77 minutes.
If the name Shecky Greene does not ring a bell, you might not be the target audience for this new documentary. But there was once a time when someone with this unlikely name roamed the Earth, and this film chronicles the prehistoric, pre-TV age in which such comedians flourished. The doc proposes New York’s Catskill Mountains as the cradle of a couple of generations of comedy, and it is hard to argue with the assertion. A vast parade of stand-up comics, mostly Jewish, passed through the vacation resorts of the Borscht Belt, as the circuit was called. During the mid-20th century, the Catskills hummed with holiday-makers seeking escape from New York, in search of all-you-can-eat buffets and the latest variation on the mother-in-law joke.
This was the testing ground for Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, and the king of the one-liners, Henny Youngman. Jerry Lewis was a busboy at a Catskills hotel before he wangled his way onstage. The place was also significant in American Jewish culture, as a collection of genial, elderly interviewees attest. One of them is ex-CNN talker Larry King, who shares both an appreciation of the comedy kings and his recollection of losing his virginity to a married vacationer at home plate on a Catskills ballfield (he was a resort waiter at the time).
Directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank manage to get Lewis, Caesar, Mort Sahl, and Jerry Stiller to reminisce about the era; Robert Klein—who also had first-hand experiences in the Catskills—is the doc’s agreeable host. Problem is, this rich subject is presented in a scattered way that eventually becomes irritating enough to detract from the funny stuff. A vintage Youngman joke is followed by a vague anecdote is followed by windy generalizing about social conditions in the 1960s. The movie settles for nice nostalgia when you really want to know more about how this system worked, and more about the personalities involved.
And you want more stand-up. The snippets we hear bring back an era that seemed utterly Squaresville by the time Richard Pryor and George Carlin began riding high, yet today they sound quaint and historic and genuinely funny—and are delivered with crack timing, too. The film clocks in at 77 minutes, leaving plenty of room for more jokes. No Catskills dining room would get away with serving such small portions.