A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Understand that as a youth I watched "The Ed Sullivan Show" as much for the comedians as the rock bands, that I have seen "Catskills on Broadway"—twice—and while on a business trip to Las Vegas years ago I opted to see Allen & Rossi at Bob Stupak's' Vegas World ($1 plus two-drink minimum) instead of joining colleagues at the Palomino gentlemen's club (Big Ass Bucket O' Booze package: $555, gratuity not included).
So it pains me to report that Ron Frank and Melvut Akkaya's "When Comedy Went to School," a documentary about Catskills resort comedians and the comedy laboratory known as the Borsht Belt, does not quite make the grade. For every great joke, hilarious anecdote, and keen insight, there are cringe-worthy dramatizations, narrative groaners and (you'll pardon the expression) ham-handed renditions of "Make 'em Laugh" (and there is plenty of hoke here) and "Send in the Clowns," which bookend the film.
But glancing as it is, "When Comedy Went to School" does provide a tantalizing glimpse at this vanished era of Jewish life and American comedy, where future legends earned their comedy bones. "In those days," says Jerry Lewis, one of the Catskills veterans on hand, "comics had someplace to be bad."
That place was Sullivan and Ulster counties in upstate New York, for half a century the largest resort area in the country with 500 hotels, countless bungalow colonies and rooming houses, a mecca for millions of Jewish tourists whose presence might not be welcome elsewhere. "It was an Oz without the wicked witch," (just one of those groaners in Lawrence Richards' script), observes narrator Robert Klein, who as a youth worked there as a busboy and observed the comedians at work.