Why are so many comedians Jewish? Besides the hallmark explanation that humor has always been a way for Jews to make light of our common anxieties and fears, there is also one place in particular that has a lot to do with it, and that place is the Catskills.
“When Comedy Went to School”, a new documentary in theaters at the end of July, explores the birth of modern stand up comedy in the Catskill Mountains, ” a boot camp for the greatest generation of comedians.”
Hundreds of hotels and bungalow colonies in Sullivan and Ulster Counties offered young Jews a summer getaway experience, and provided a venue for Jewish entertainers to gain an audience.
Co-directed by Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya and written by Lawrence Richards, the trio paints a picture of the rise of Jewish comedians amid the expansion of a classic Jewish-American summer destination. The film is narrated by Robert Klein and includes first hand accounts from Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl, Mickey Freeman and Dick Gregory.
There are also interviews with family members of the Kutshers and Grossingers, two families whose hotels laid the groundwork for a business booming Catskills.
As Jerry Lewis observes in the film, the Borscht Belt was a place that offered freedom of expression for young talented Jews, “It was a place to be bad.”