I’ve heard about the Catskills, most memorably as the place where we meet Johnny Castle from the 1987 “Dirty Dancing.” The documentary, “When Comedy Went to School” is about those very same mountains and the same summer resort crowds when that mountain range was known as the Jewish Alps.
While “Dirty Dancing” was based on screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s memories of summers spent in the Catskills, but the movie filmed in Virginia and North Carolina because so many of the Catskills resorts have closed down. So the men in “When Comedy Went to School” who remember what it was like to “study” and graduate from the summer schooling in the Catskills are older men. They are survivors with many of their fellows having already passed on. Many but not all of the performers were Jewish.
The Catskill Mountains are about 100 miles north and northwest of New York City in the state of New York. Woodstock is in the Catskills, but this documentary “When Comedy Went to School” is about a pre-Woodstock, counter-culture culture.
In this 2013 documentary written by Lawrence Richards and directed by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank. We see archival footage of Jerry Lewis and others such as Milton Berle. Lewis, Mickey Freeman, Dick Gregory, Larry King, Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason and Jerry Stiller appear and describe their memories.
In the Catskills you could rise from a busboy to a comedian like Jerry Lewis. Or you could have a job as a conversation starter and trip just to give people something to talk about. Then there were the lonely, single ladies. Some of the clips are from previous interviews on TV talk shows.
What ended those good times? Air conditioning meant New Yorkers didn’t have to travel to the mountains to get heat relief in the summer. Europe became a desirable place to go again as opposed to a place to many Jews and their relatives had escaped. TV also gave comedian another venue–as talk show hosts and even as stars of TV series like “Seinfeld.”
“When Comedy Went to School” is about memories of a time long past and perhaps answers, without meaning to, the question as to why for a time so many comedians were from New York and Jewish. With comedy clubs in places such as Pasadena and the growth of Las Vegas, the world has certainly changed since the heyday of Jerry Lewis and Jerry Stiller. This documentary isn’t particularly deep, but it is entertaining with a light touch of nostalgia for an East Coast institution of yesteryear.
“When Comedy Went to School” opens on August 16 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 and Town Center 5.