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Comedy Curriculum in the Catskills

4 Nov, 2014 By: Stephanie Prange

Comedy is about timing, and in the 1940s and 1950s the time was right for Jewish comics to learn their craft at vacation destinations in Upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains.

It was a time before air conditioning, which prompted New Yorkers to escape the summer heat and vacation at big resorts in the cooler climate.

It was a time before television conquered the living room, and after the heyday of Vaudeville, when comedians populated the Catskills to earn money by both bussing tables and trying out an act during dinner at those resorts.

When Comedy Went to School, due on DVD and VOD Nov. 18 from First Run Features, documents this special moment in comedy history, which played an important part in the development of modern American entertainment.

Larry King, for instance, was a bus boy in the Catskills. Jackie Mason was a social director.

“Sometimes they were asked to perform, asked to stand in for a comic who didn’t show up,” noted Ron Frank, who co-directed the film and spent summer camp in the Catskills as the period waned in the 1960s.

“I was up there during the time of the big hotels, sort of during the tail end,” he said.

Finding archival material was a challenge, but filmmakers used interviews and television footage of jokes developed at the resorts to tell the story.

Among the icons that filmmakers interviewed were giants Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis.

Getting an interview with Caesar was particularly gratifying, Frank said. “It was probably one of his last appearances,” he said.

Caesar died in February.

“Sid was not well,” Frank said. “It was sort of day by day, but he gave us an interview that put a smile on everyone’s face. He said, ‘Life is hard, but you go through life making jokes.’

“It was really an honor to be in his presence.”

The interview with Lewis was another coup for filmmakers.

“I think that Jerry was engaging because he was talking about a period that very few people talk to him about,” Frank said. Lewis, by the way, relates the story of how a footlight exploded during one of his dances as a child, causing the audience to laugh and spawning Lewis’s interest in physical comedy.

By the 1980s, the hotels and bungalow colonies had disappeared, and the comedians had found a larger audience on the tube. But the period’s effect on modern comedy lasts.

“Our film ends with the younger talent [including Jerry Seinfeld] talking about their influences,” Frank said.

And the documentary itself keeps the laughter going.

“Audiences that have seen this film came out with a smile on their face,” Frank said.


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