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When Comedy Went to School: Laughing In the Catskills

By Serita Stevens

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Fresh from its run at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, When Comedy Went to School, is a funny documentary about many of Jewish comics that we know and love - Jerry Lewis, Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, Larry King, Robert Klein and others -- who got their start up in the Catskills resorts of New York State. 

In a 1970's survey, it was found that although Jews represented only 3% of the population, they accounted for 80% of the professional comedians.  Is there a common denominator that produced dozens of comic legends? With Robert Klein as our guide, the film, which was directed by Robert Kosch,  answers these questions, and many others as the comics tell stories of their start - some as bell boys and waiters and others as tummlers (A Yiddish term meaning to create noise or tumult and get laughs) and how they transformed into the stars that they became.  Their histories are fascinating.  Irving Kniberg (later taking the name of  Alan King) and Joseph Levitch (Jerry Lewis) roomed together, working in the mountains as teens. 

Directed by Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya, the film is written by Lawrence Richards, and answers entertaining questions about the country's greatest comedians.  Starting in the Borscht Belt, aka the Catskill Mountains, back in the 30's and 40's, as vaudeville expired, the Jewish immigrants transformed the lush farmlands into 20th century largest resort complex, (numbering 900 at its height.) It was the place to be if you wanted to succeed in comedy. 

Others featured in the show are Mickey Freeman, Dick Gregory, Hugh Hefner, Dick Capri, Amy Stiller, Wendy Liebman, Corey Kahaney, Marc Maron, Daryl Lenox, Sandy Hackett, Joe Franklin, Joe Rapp, Arnold Graham, Helen Kutsher, Mark Kutsher, Tania Grossinger, Esta Salzman Lubin, Paul Krohn (Krazy Tyrone), Prof. Joseph Dorinson, Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein, Dr. Robert Schain, Henry Foner, Pat Cooper, Mal Z. Lawrence, Stewie Stone, and Tony Camin.    When Comedy Went To School also pays homage to greats like Red Buttons, Danny Kaye, Buddy Hackett, Lenny Bruce, Henny Youngman, Don Rickles, Totie Fields, Rodney Dangerfield, Mel Brooks, as well as Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen and ayoung Jerry Steinfield. 

The enjoyable, but longish film, gives a history that few know about and even fewer remember.  It was the glorious days of comedy. 

The movie opens in NYC on Wednesday, July 31, 2013; Long Island on Friday, August 2, 2013; and in Los Angeles on Friday, August 16,2013.   For more information write Sasha Berman at Shotwell Media at [email protected]

Published on Jul 30, 2013

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