Two Jews walk into a Catskills hotel...

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Jews from the Borscht Belt.

Jews from the Borscht Belt who?

WhenComedy_poster.jpg

Jews from the Borscht Belt who can't finish their story because technical difficulties at the screening Tuesday night at the Museum of Tolerance stopped "When Comedy Went to School" five minutes before the end.

The tolerant audience was mostly gracious, but co-director Ron Frank was mortified.

"That's never happened," Frank said today in a telephone interview. The documentary, co-directed by Frank, a resident of L.A., and Mevlut Akkaya, a New Yorker, traces the lineage of standup comedy to New York's Catskills Mountains where, from the 1930s through the 1960s, East Coast Jews vacationed, comedians refined their craft and busboys scored.

"If you're a Jew and you marry a Jew, that means everything you hated is now in your house." -- Marc Maron
It's a fun film whose talking heads wrap immigrant history, ethnic identity and cultural change around a hot mike. The Borscht Belt is where funny people learned how to turn a sense of humor into a profession.


"In those days," Jerry Lewis says in the film, "comedians had some place to be bad."

Mickey Freeman was one of them. Asked to take his stage act to a hospital to entertain the patients, he obliged by "singing, dancing, telling my best stories. On the way out I said to the patient, 'I hope you get better.' " he said to me, " 'You too.' "

Jewish humor, suggests narrator Robert Klein, is Isaac's fault. As the son of Abraham and Sarah, his name, Klein says, means "he shall laugh." Which is what his parents reportedly did when he was born. "Hey," says Klein, "if you had your first kid at 100 and your wife was 90, you'd have to laugh too."

Jokes are in Jews' genes, the product of the extreme experiences of pain and pleasure that forges the psychological skill to make fun of adversity.

"People are standing in front of a German firing squad. One says, 'Long live the homeland.' 'Shhh,' says another. 'Don't make trouble.' " -- Mort Sahl

In the early 20th century, New York's lower east side had a denser population than Calcutta does today -- there were 500 people per acre, and a pervasive sense of doom and gloom. "But what a fabulous new field for complaints, doubts and guilt," Klein observes. "A triple 'oy vey.' "

As Jews climbed into the middle-class, they escaped the stress of city life to summer in the Catskills. Their common experience was fodder for Edward Israel Iskowitz, rebranded as Eddie Cantor; Nathan Birnbaum, reborn as George Burns; and orthodox Benjamin Kubelsky, who emerged as Jack Benny.

The successful ones moved into the broader American entertainment landscape of network TV, where Danny Kaye (nee David Daniel Kaminsky), Sid Caesar and Woody Allen helped America become somewhat less culturally homogenous. Where Alan King was so big he gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth. According to Frank, there is no record of Her Majesty's reaction when, after greeting the comedian,"Hello, Mr. King," he replied in kind: "Hello Mrs. Queen."

From Catskills' mouth to Liz's ears.

"No Jew at that time ever went back to Europe [on vacation]," Jackie Mason explained, "because they just came from Europe ... and that's where everybody got killed."

Deprivation and scarcity were American Jews' history, and they continue to reside in the collective memory. Black-and-white footage depicts a young Woody Allen in front of a microphone, fingering his pocket watch. "An antique gold heirloom," he muses. "My grandfather on his deathbed sold me this watch."

Every summer Jews poured into New York's Ulster and Sullivan counties to fill 500-plus hotels, bungalows and rooming houses. Big and plenty was the antidote to scarcity, and here in the Borscht Belt -- the Sour Cream Sierras, the Right Stuffing -- more was more, for guest and entertainer alike.

"Jewish parents feed their children certain kinds of foods to keep them from moving quick ... matzo balls." -- Dick Shawn

"Gentiles almost never went [to the Catskills]," Jackie Mason says, "They never heard of the place. Half of the Jews never saw a gentile. A gentile was something you saw in the movies. ... You saw Gary Cooper, you said, 'That was a gentile.' ... there's no such thing as a 6-foot tall Jew."

His career change from rabbi to hotel social director provided Mason with material for his standup routine: "Gentiles are running, playing basketball, volleyball, handball, running back and forth... A Jew says, 'You see a piece of cake here?' "

Family life and gender relations were regular fare for the comedians -- well, the male comedians, anyway. And apart from Fanny Brice, Totie Fields and Joan Rivers, the comedians were male.

"My wife can't cook at all. In my backyard the flies chipped in to fix the screen door." -- Rodney Dangerfield

One of the talking head professors who clearly has the gene, remarks that, "Sex, according to my mother, is a very fine department store on Fifth Avenue."

But summer is for romance, and there was no shortage in the Borscht Belt. As a young male hotel worker, to Klein, the pool of potential hookups was a"kosher candy store ... for other guys."

"In my house I can't relax. I told my kid, 'Someday you'll have children of your own.' He said, 'so will you.' " -- Rodney Dangerfield

"Bungalow bunny" was the term for housewives who had flings with younger men. Larry King, who has been married to seven women over eight marriages, got his first carnal sample when he was a high schooler working as a busboy.

It happened on the baseball field with a married woman whose husband came to the mountains only on the weekends. He "scored," King says, at home plate.

"This woman goes to a palm reader to have her palm read. The palm reader says, 'Your husband will die a violent death.' The woman says, 'Will I be acquitted?' " -- Mickey Freeman

Today, almost nothing is left of what, for 50 years, was the largest resort region in the U.S. Only one hotel remains, and, as Frank said, much of what's left is rubble. There are weeds, he says, growing in the stairway of the once-grand Concord Hotel, where there's also a chandelier and a mirror.

Weird. Not funny.

What happened was time. The Woodstock music festival in Sullivan County signified the cultural change in America, and comedians like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, who were never popular in the Borscht Belt, took center stage with their edgy political humor as restless America moved into the 1970s. By the 1980s the Catskills were over.

"Nixon's the kind of guy who, if you were drowning 20 feet from the shore, would throw you a 15-foot rope. Kissinger would say he met you more than halfway." -- Mort Sahl

That's sad. But this film isn't, so maybe the techno-interruptus of our screening was kismet. The screening audience was deprived of the post-mortem comments, but left the theater smiling.

You can see the whole story starting Friday at some Laemmle Theatres. Link here for a trailer, and here for the production's website.


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