Since their heyday in the middle decades of the last century, the Catskill Mountains have become something of a joke in themselves. Located around a hundred miles north-northwest of New York City, they are the borscht belt, the sour cream sierras, the Jewish Alps – a place belonging to a homespun past when accents were thicker and everyone was poorer.
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That looks set to change. Already, artsy Brooklynites are beginning to recolonize the region’s languishing bungalow communities. And this month, a newly released documentary seeks to solidify the region’s place at the center of comedy history, underscoring its influence on global pop culture. To quote Jackie Mason, who worked as a resort social director after realizing he wasn’t cut out to be a rabbi, “The Catskills was a school for comedy.”
“When Comedy Went to School” is co-directed by Ron Frank, who as a kid attended summer camp in the Catskills, and Mevlut Akkaya, a Muslim from Turkey. That already sounds like the beginning of a joke but the film makes some thought-provoking points as it tells the story of a place, a people, and comedy’s 20th-century evolution. It’s brought to life by interviews with Catskills alums like Jerry Lewis, Larry King and the narrator, Robert Klein.
The resort sprang up from a small cluster of boarding houses run by impoverished Jews from Eastern Europe. From the 1930s to the late 1960s, it was one of the largest vacation resorts in the U.S. Every summer, city folk came to keep cool, to eat (breakfast supposedly included a choice of seven different types of herring) and to meet (Sid Caesar met his wife there). Above all, they came to laugh, though that didn’t mean they weren’t the toughest audience in the world.
The earliest acts were colored by vaudeville, burlesque and Yiddish theater. The Yiddish lingered on in punch lines, much to the frustration of younger generations. After WWII, stand-up was born. In vintage footage of a live show, Woody Allen displays an antique timepiece, telling the audience “My grandfather on his deathbed sold me this watch.”
Jewish humor, the film suggests, goes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah who, tickled by having had their first kid so late in life, named him Isaac, meaning “he shall laugh.” As time wore on, humor became a survival mechanism.
The beginning of the end came when increased affluence made foreign travel possible, and air conditioning lessened the need to escape the city. Those breakfast herrings were replaced with granola and the counter-culture altered what people found funny. Not all comedians kept up, and too little money was invested in the infrastructure.
It’s tempting to wonder whether affluence hasn’t made Jews less funny, too. The film’s most comical contributors all look to be in that ageless phase somewhere beyond 70, wearing a little too much camera make-up and shirts in splashy colors. It’s notable, too, that one of this summer’s off-Broadway hits is called “Old Jews Telling Jokes.”
By that measure, Cory Kahaney, who’s had her own comedy specials on HBO and Comedy Central and appears briefly in the documentary, is too young to be as funny as she is. She was only five when she was taken to Grossinger’s to see Buddy Hackett perform. “It was the first time I saw a live comedian. It’s certainly ingrained in my memory,” she told me in an interview. It isn’t that Jews have become less funny, she says, but they have become touchier. She recently went to see the hit show “Book of Mormon,” and through her laughter couldn’t help reflecting that if ever such a show were made about Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League would be all over it. “People are so much more sensitive today,” she sighs.
The film’s co-executive producer, Dan Setton, is Israeli, and Frank himself has lived and worked in Israel. They’re hoping for an Israeli release. Does Israeli humor differ from Jewish humor? It does, Frank believes, though he detects a shared smartness. “There’s an edge to it,” he says, adding that though borscht belt humor could be corny, its jokes frequently headed in one direction and then came back round to bite you on the ass.
The Catskills may yet do the same. One thing they aren’t, Kahaney says, is dead. She performed there just last weekend. Some of the smaller communities remain, populated by less religious retirees as well as Orthodox groups. And while legendary hotels like The Concord and Grossinger’s are at best mere shells, rebuilding is rumored. There’s even talk of introducing gambling.
Regardless of its future, its legacy as a comedy boot camp is undeniable. To quote Mason again, the Catskills “created the language and timing of modern comedy, regardless of ethnicity.”