When Comedy Went To School

Co-directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya's When Comedy Went to School sets out to provide one of the first documentary histories of the legendary Borscht Belt in upstate New York -- a haven for standup comedians for more than three decades, from roughly the early ’40s through the late ’60s. This is a wonderful and long-overdue subject for a nonfiction...read more

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Reviewed by Nathan Southern
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Co-directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya's When Comedy Went to School sets out to provide one of the first documentary histories of the legendary Borscht Belt in upstate New York -- a haven for standup comedians for more than three decades, from roughly the early ’40s through the late ’60s.

This is a wonderful and long-overdue subject for a nonfiction movie, and the filmmakers lined up a dream cast of interviewees. In addition to host Robert Klein, the various participants include Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason, Dick Gregory, Larry King, Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Mickey Freeman, and many others. It's virtually impossible to imagine those giants appearing together in an unentertaining picture, and inevitably, each has his moments here. However, the presentation of the material comes across as so sloppy and mismanaged that you wonder what in the world the directors were thinking.

The first 20 minutes are far and away the weakest, with a cheap-looking CGI introduction, titles, and back-projection, as well as the interpolation of erroneous footage that carries the film far afield. Many of the standup acts that we do see were obviously shot decades after the Catskills’s golden age (as in a Jerry Seinfeld routine from the ’80s or ’90s), and the directors cut to big-studio movie clips, such as a few scenes from Mel Brooks's History of the World Part I, with only the most tenuous connection to the subject at hand. Equally ill-advised is Akkaya and Frank's use of poorly conceived dramatic reenactments that feature "re-creations" of a young Jerry Lewis and others performing before Borscht Belt audiences. At other points, such as a bizarre dramatization of an Old Testament-era scene in a tent, the film seems wildly off-base.

The anachronistic inclusions have an unsettling effect: They undercut the authenticity of everything that we're seeing, and work against some of the wonderful unearthed footage and stills of period Catskills entertainment that surround them. This is even truer of numerous unlabeled clips from Jerry Lewis's 1960 comedy The Bellboy, used as illustrations of daily Catskills life during the late ’50s and early ’60s. For the record: That comedy takes place 1400 miles away from upstate New York, at the Fontainebleau in Miami -- and though it may or may not have been influenced by Lewis's Catskills experiences, one would be hard-pressed to categorize anything in a Lewis comedy as indicative of real life.

Akkaya and Frank fare marginally better in structuring their documentary. Their m.o. involves organizing the material as a kind of free-form essay film that groups footage together thematically and then drifts from one Catskills-related theme to another. Erroneous footage aside, most of this is clear-cut enough that the movie avoids feeling truly scattershot. First we get ruminations on the Borscht Belt as a "school" for comedians, per the film's title, then a lengthy sequence on the Jewish paradigm as it helped shape and define Catskills comedy, then profiles of some of the individual comedians, and so forth. The film might have benefitted from clearer indications of thematic headings onscreen, perhaps with intertitles, to further delineate the narrative structure that is present, but that isn't a particularly fatal lapse.

In the final analysis, though, one can't help but lament this picture as a missed opportunity. A great documentary on the Catskills can and should be made, but given the ages of the participants, the window is closing rapidly -- which makes the subpar execution of When Comedy Went to School that much more lamentable.

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  • Released: 2013
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Co-directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya's When Comedy Went to School sets out to provide one of the first documentary histories of the legendary Borscht Belt in upstate New York -- a haven for standup comedians for more than three decades, from roughly th… (more)

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