When Comedy Went to School Is an Expertly and Lovingly Assembled Artifact


From When Comedy Went to School‘s opening moments, when a dulcet-toned Robert Klein says, “It was an Oz without the Wicked Witch,” this enchanting documentary on the rise, fall, and small-scale rebirth of the Catskills has something of a fairy tale quality. Directors Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya have crafted a deceptively (in the best way) soothing tribute to the Catskills as the geographical and cultural birthplace of modern stand-up. It succinctly sketches in the trek from vaudeville to Chris Rock; from “take my wife, please” jokes to stinging political humor. But at the film’s core is a mapping of the evolution of American Jewish identity, and how the trajectory of the Eastern European Jews who built the Catskills came to embody the American dream. Rich with clips from films (History of the World: Part 1; Fiddler on the Roof), ’50s television comedies, and rare live performance footage, as well as interview footage with the greats (Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar) and the once-famous who are now largely forgotten, the film breaks no new ground in terms of craftsmanship—and little new ground in terms of information for the audience most likely to seek it out. But it is an expertly and lovingly assembled artifact from that robust realm of the modern pop culture machine: the nostalgia wing.