News Column

'When Comedy Went to School' movie review: Did you see the one about the Borscht Belt comedians?

September 26, 2013


Sept. 26--If comedy is tragedy plus time, then comedy plus time can be a little tragic.

Humor does not have a long shelf life and jokes often age badly but "When Comedy Went to School," a documentary about Borscht Belt comedians of 70 or so years ago, is less about the jokes than the milieu that gave birth to them. The film looks back at the East Coast resorts and clubs where entertainers such as Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle, Alan King and Myron Cohen got their starts.

If those names mean nothing to you, then I suspect "When Comedy Went to School" isn't your cup of borscht. The movie is capably made and it takes a stab at connecting comedy's past to its present, with glimpses of present-day stand-ups such as Marc Maron. But the movie's appeal is mostly nostalgic as it combines clips of those performers with reminisces from Robert Klein, who saw many of them when he worked as a busboy, and others, including Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller and some people not named Jerry.

Every one of the people I've name-checked so far was or is Jewish and the film does try to get at the essence of Jewish humor (Says a drab historian, "It came from the shtetl. It's the ability to hold two opposite ideas at the same time." Oh. OK.) But the film is mostly an amiable excuse for these guys to tell tales of the good old, funny old days.


Directed by: Mevlut Akkaya, Ron Frank

Rated: Not rated but contains mild language and drug references

Should you go? It's not bad, but it will be a better fit when it eventually ends up on PBS or the History Channel. **-1/2


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