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Originally published August 22, 2013 at 3:06 PM | Page modified August 23, 2013 at 7:37 AM

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‘When Comedy Went to School’ revisits the Borscht Belt

Movie review: The documentary “When Comedy Went to School” looks at the history of the Catskills as a training ground for young comedians.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 2.5 stars

‘When Comedy Went to School,’ a documentary directed by Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank. 77 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Varsity.

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Back in the heyday of the Catskills, that upstate New York region of hotels and resorts known as the Borscht Belt and serving a predominantly Jewish clientele, you got a comedy act free with your dinner. Brisket was $1 extra.

“When Comedy Went to School,” a nostalgic documentary from Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank, looks at the history of the Catskills as a training ground for young comedians, most of them Jewish. Robert Klein, who himself honed his skills there, is the film’s genial host. The Catskills as a comedy lab, he says, peaked between the 1930s and the ’60s, with the likes of Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory and Jerry Stiller — all of whom turn up in this film, reminiscing about the role of the Catskills in their careers. We also see clips of other Catskills veterans at the microphone: Danny Kaye, Buddy Hackett, Woody Allen (fondling an antique-looking watch, he says “My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold it to me”), Totie Fields, Joan Rivers, a young Jerry Seinfeld and many more.

All this blends with archival footage of smiling Catskills guests (unfortunately, Akkaya and Frank tend to use the same clips over and over, and rely a bit too much on awkward re-enactments) and exposition from the usual assortment of talking heads: hotel owners/guests, comedy agents, academics. “When Comedy Went to School” doesn’t go much beyond the surface — the filmmakers seem more interested in presenting a variety of clips and voices than in analyzing the comedy itself. But it’s a pleasant-enough trip down memory lane, with its participants clearly having a ball sharing their stories. Hackett’s son, for example, tells us that his father once roomed with Lenny Bruce — a pairing that should immediately inspire some playwright, somewhere.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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