Why are there so many Jewish actors?
In a 1970s survey, it was found that although Jews made up about 3% of the total US population, they made up 80% of professional comedians. How did a nation that began the 20th century mocking the folksy humor of Will Rogers end up captivated by the urban parodies of “Seinfeld”? Is there a common denominator among the generation of American Jews that produced literally dozens of comedy legends? How could this have happened? And why did it happen? What is their heritage? As an awestruck Butch Cassidy asks The Sundance Kid regarding the group following them, “Who are these guys?”
Attempting to answer these questions has become a journey of unexpected twists and turns that not only shed light on the most transformative period in American comedy, but also cast a glance, through the rearview mirror of history, at a myriad complex social and political issues. What we’ve learned is that it’s not just about “those guys” but also about us. Indeed, many truths are told in jest. When Comedy Went to School is their story, as well as ours.
As vaudeville expired in the 1930s, unable to meet rising costs or compete with the proliferation of movie houses, comedians sought an outlet for their developing talents. Upstate New York hotels in Sullivan and Ulster counties numbered over 900 and were collectively known as The Catskills. The area was later dubbed The Borscht Belt, and it provided a comedic boot camp for stand-up comedians, basic training for a remarkable group of gifted comedians who tickled countless funny bones and influenced most popular artists today.
Borscht Belt hotels offered an unprecedented range of facilities where comics could perform in front of the public, work on developing a style, hone their material, and check out the competition. They might even bomb and not be banned forever. The film explores the environment in which these hotels and colonies of bungalows, catering almost exclusively to a Jewish clientele, provided a vital testing ground, a laboratory to determine what materials worked… and what didn’t. It was a perfect storm: comedians looking for work and hundreds of venues in need.
Hosted by comedian/actor Robert Klein, When Comedy Went to School features interviews with comic book greats who redefined stand-up and sketch comedy and forever changed the course of American humor. Comic book legends such as Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Jerry Stiller and more offer their unique, heartfelt and often hilarious anecdotes about what the Catskills meant to their careers.
Former Catskill busboy Larry King recounts his experiences and displays a surprising comedic twist himself. Hugh Hefner talks about his role in supporting the “New Comedy”, in particular Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. Historian Professor Joseph Dorinson and acclaimed sociologist/author Lawrence Epstein (“The Haunted Smile”) provide insightful and informative perspectives on topics such as humor as a tool of survival and a defense mechanism in history Jewry, immigration and assimilation, and the correlation between anti-Semitism and the rise of the Catskills.
When Comedy Went to School pays tribute through rare archival clips to many other Catskill veterans, including Danny Kaye, Mel Brooks, Red Buttons, Buddy Hackett, Lenny Bruce, Henny Youngman, Don Rickles, Totie Fields and Rodney Dangerfield to name a few. Later, Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen and a very young Jerry Seinfeld built on this foundation.
The Borscht Belt, aka “The Mountains”, was a comfortable place where people could be with their own kind, many of them still learning to be American. They could escape the summer heat before the air conditioning and choose from a variety of activities suitable for all members of the family. And the food ! As the gag goes, “There was so much sour cream in the dining room I thought it was a blizzard!”
Nonetheless, entertainment was key to attracting and keeping guests.
Originally “comedians in training” (including bellhops, busboys and waiters) were known as porch clowns or tummlers, a Yiddish word meaning to create noise or uproar, doing anything to make laugh. They used physical comedy and impressions, whatever it took to grab guests’ attention and keep it. Danny Kaye was fired after a day as a tummler. “Too crazy!” was the word. Too crazy a cup? It had to be something! The tummlers were the reincarnation of the old court jester, wearing bizarre outfits with a patchwork of colors and operating outside the restrictions of the ruleless society. He was ‘The Joker’, literally wild. For many who had recently escaped from Europe, or knew those who had, this freedom to act like madmen without repercussions must have been both reassuring and nurturing. It was the right place to be.
Lenny Bruce and Buddy Hackett were busboys who slept together. Irving Kniberg and Joseph Levitch, better known as Alan King and Jerry Lewis, worked there as teenagers. A bellhop named Aaron Schwatt, who had bright red hair and big buttons on his uniform, said, “I’m going to be called Red Buttons, damn it.” Sid Caesar performed as a terrific saxophonist with Benny Goodman’s orchestra, but was also terrific in character and sketch creation with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. George Jessel made his last insulting remark in the Catskills, Don Rickles his first. Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason…. The list is lengthened increasingly.
Later, in the post-World War II era, the Catskills attracted more diverse and sophisticated guests, well-traveled New Yorkers, and convention groups. Theater-style stage shows evolved into more nocturnal settings, requiring performers to become more adaptable, working in both small groups and large crowds every night, and usually for multiple shows. These were known as the toughest audiences in the world. You had to hit them, otherwise they would walk. The young comedians watched, gauged the audience’s reaction, and learned what worked, what didn’t…and why. Gone is the traditional set-up/reward structure of Old World humor such as “have you heard of it?” », « a guy walks into a bar… » or jokes with punchlines in Yiddish. New, more educated audiences demanded more sophisticated humor, and resulting innovations included character development, social commentary, stream-of-consciousness broadcast, triple punch lines, and emotional beacons. This revamped and updated approach – which could only have been developed in this unique comedy cauldron – produced a whole new kind of stand-up comedy.
When Comedy Went to School is also about the survival of a culture. The mostly Eastern European Jews who migrated to the Catskills turned this farmland into the greatest resort complex of the 20th century. They may have lacked many skills, most barely spoke English, but what they had was courage, vision and the belief that the American dream of success could be achieved through faith and perseverance.
Selig and his wife Malke were pretty typical. They worked together in New York sweatshops for years, and after recovering a few hundred dollars, they ran away to upstate New York and bought a ruined farmhouse. The income from their meager harvest could not support the growing family, so they took on one boarder, then another. In years to come, Selig and Malke Grossinger would own a hotel with two private airports, eight tennis courts and its own zip code.
The last surviving major Catskill hotel is Kutshers. Our on-site interviews with Mark Kutsher and his recently deceased mother Helen offer a very personal look at the immense obstacles and struggles the very first “settlers” overcame, how they flourished, and their connection and commitment. towards the continued development of comedy talent. Perhaps it is fair to say that in their genes was a natural and instinctive understanding, not only for them, but for their guests, that the best escape from despair, pain or worry, even only temporarily, is laughter. Tania Grossinger, author of ‘Growing Up at Grossingers’ offers an intimate and personal description of her family’s hotel that staggers the imagination as she recounts its scale and opulence…and her ingenuity as a teenager advising comedians on gear .
The decline of the Catskills was not only directly linked to the socio-economic rise of American Jews, but to seismic changes in American society and culture. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Viet Nam and the struggles for civil and women’s rights changed what Americans found funny. The Catskill comics didn’t adapt, at least not quickly enough. And there was the explosion of television. It was free. “Why go out in clubs, even less in resorts? In addition, we have a swimming pool, we can turn on the air conditioning and fly wherever we want. Also, to be honest, our kids don’t want to vacation with us, and to be really honest, maybe we should take some time off… just the two of us.
When Comedy Went to School warns that it would be a mistake to relegate the aforementioned comedians’ connection to the rise of the Catskill hotels to a mere historical footnote; it would be a tragedy to relegate that era to the ashes heap of history. The actors, the adults, take the temperature of the culture. They remind us in many ways, “What mortal fools we are.” Is it any wonder that in “King Lear” the jester is the man who knows the truth but disguises it with jokes?
Edmund Kean, a famous 19th century Shakespearean actor, was asked as he lay on his deathbed how he felt. He replied “Dying is easy, comedy is hard!” One thing is certain, these Catskill Comics have made life a whole lot more fun. The important actors of today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow stand on their shoulders. It is high time we paid homage to them and their Alma Mater, the Catskill Hotels. It was When comedy went to school.