Take This Film (Please), by Tyler Smith
When Comedy Went to School, a new documentary by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank, is at its best when it lets the comedians speak for themselves. Since the comedians in question are pioneers in the industry, and have spent decades talking for a living, this is not very surprising. Unfortunately, the film too often devolves into something too digestible, too lightweight. And it seems somehow obscene to take these raw talents and sand all the edges off, no matter how complimentary the film is of its subject.
Hosted by Robert Klein, the film traces stand-up comedy all the way back to its roots in the Catskill Mountains over 80 years ago. It was a time when, even in a country as seemingly-welcoming as America, Jews were considered social outcasts. And, in the world of theater and music, Jews were often relegated to the lower class world of vaudeville.
With so many Jews flooding into Brooklyn in the 1930s, many of them feeling no more welcome here than in the rest of the world, a strange thing started to happen. In the Catskill Mountains of New York, several hotels began to spring up, Jewish owned and operated. Suddenly, there was a place of beauty and relaxation where Jews could visit and rest comfortably in the presence of each other. Along with great food and outdoor activities, these hotels would feature entertainment, often in the form of tumblers, vaudeville acts, and joke tellers. The tumblers faded and vaudeville died, but the joke tellers remained and honed their craft.
Over the years, the resorts in the Catskills served as a breeding ground for legendary comedians such as Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Buddy Hackett, Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Lewis, Henny Youngman, and countless more. Many of these comics are still alive and provide insight into the Jewish culture that enabled so many to be funny for a living. There are also dozens of classic clips of comedians telling what are still pretty solid jokes.
And yet it all feels so safe. Most of these comics- such as Hackett and Lenny Bruce- were on the cutting edge of comedy, but we are only allowed to see their most acceptable material. And the interstitials with Klein feel more warm and fuzzy than smart and witty. The film is certainly informative, but it fails to create the same creative atmosphere as other comedy documentaries like The Aristocrats or Comedian do.
In the end, When Comedy Went to School is interesting without being engaging, and amusing without often being truly funny. And in its inability to fully capture the spirit of its subject, it essentially renders it inconsequential. We don’t get a sense of the invigorating immediacy that the comedians must have felt at the time; the excitement of being right in the middle of a new creation as it emerges. It’s all so comfortable, which is maybe the biggest disservice the film could do to its subject.