When Borscht Belt Comedy Went to School


“The birth of modern stand-up comedy begins in the Catskills Mountains,” so says When Comedy Went To School, a new film that traces the evolution of comedy as we know it. Narrated by Robert Klein, it’s peppered with reflections from comedy greats like Larry King, as well as footage of a younger Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen, among others.

What is Jewish humor? the film asks. “You had to have a sense of humor—that’s what got the Jews through it,” Jerry Lewis suggests on why Jews tend toward laughter in the face of adversity. Klein says Jews have “jokes in the genes,” and historian Joseph Dorinson suggests that Jews’ survival is due to psychological alertness, and that that same alertness makes for great comedy.

Wherever humor comes from, it seems to have ended up in the Borscht Belt. As Joe Franklin says of the 1920s through 1960s, “The Catskills were the American Idol of that period,” creating a comedy boot-camp, while serving as a haven for the general Jewish public—a place to be together, and a place to eat.

When Comedy Went to School is informational, it’s nostalgic, and we’re glad to report that it’s very, very funny.

Watch the trailer for When Comedy Went to School:

Recommended from JTA