News Column

'When Comedy Went to School' review: Shtick happens

October 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 04--Documentary. Directed by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank. (Not rated. 77 minutes.)

Considered as a well-constructed movie, "When Comedy Went to School" does a pratfall. But as a grab bag of reminiscences by veteran funny people, bolstered with richly entertaining performance footage, it's boffo.

The documentary recounts how a generation of Jewish comedians got their start in the Borscht Belt, the summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains. At hotels like Grossinger's, they honed their skills the hard way -- in front of live audiences.

There's a bit of prehistory that glances at the roots of Jewish humor in Yiddish theater and vaudeville. Then it's on to the Catskills, where among the earliest entertainers were the "tummlers," who specialized in a freewheeling, often physical form of comedy. Later performers stressed verbal humor.

The interview material leaves us wanting more. Jerry Lewis regales us with how he first became aware of comedy as a singing 6-year-old helping out in his parents' Borscht Belt stage act. We're also treated to recollections from Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl and others. Perhaps the most impressive interviewee, who deserves every minute of screen time he gets here, is the inimitable Jackie Mason.

Performance clips include top-notch work by Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, Caesar (with Carl Reiner in a classic "This Is Your Life" takeoff), Myron Cohen, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.

What doesn't work well are segments of the narration (by Robert Klein) in which directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank have embedded the interviews and onstage material, which are really the heart of the show. It seems scattered and is especially problematic when the film tries to shoehorn its subject into the Big Picture of Jewish history.

If you can overlook this unfortunate stuff, and a cornball windup, what's left is fascinating and funny.

Walter Addiego is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: waddiego@sfchronicle.com

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