American comedy once found a fertile training ground in New York’s Catskill Mountains. There, fledgling comics like Jerry Lewis honed their acts while also working as bus boys or waiters at resort hotels where New York City families flocked during summer.
The documentary “When Comedy Went to School,” showing at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Crest Theatre as part of the 17th Sacramento Jewish Film Festival, recounts the Catskill resorts’ most robust period, from the 1930s to early 1960s, and the influential comics who started there.
Lewis, for instance, recalls in the film that he found his comedy calling thanks to an accident on a Catskills stage.
A 5-year-old Lewis would join his Russian Jewish vaudevillian parents on the Catskills’ “Borscht Belt” hotel circuit, so nicknamed for the beet soup popular with immigrant hotel guests. The youngster would sing a song or two with his parents. During one such performance, he accidentally kicked a stage light, and its subsequent explosion provoked big laughs from the audience.
Lewis was hooked. He told his father he didn’t want to sing. He wanted to make people laugh.
So does the Jewish Film Festival, the loyal patrons of which “have told us they like lighthearted stuff,” festival co-director Sid Garcia-Heberger said. Garcia-Heberger, also the Crest’s general manager, founded and directs the festival – the 2014 edition runs Thursday, Saturday and Sunday – with Margi Park. “This one caught my eye because it has ‘comedy’ in the title.”
Directed by Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya, the 2013 doc highlights famous Catskills comedians ranging from ba-da-bum one-liner specialists Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield to television sketch-comedy pioneer Sid Caesar (who died in February at age 91) to observational comics such as Robert Klein. (Klein also narrates).
These comedians entertained Jewish families from high-density New York who sought open space and clean mountain air. The Catskills idyll would not withstand the upward mobility of guests who later would move to the suburbs, build their own swimming pools and journey to more exotic destinations as air travel became more accessible. But it had a great run.
Festival co-director Park grew up in New York and spent time in the Catskills.
“All Jewish children would go to the Catskills with their parents because New York is so hot, and you had to get away,” Park said. “Our apartments were very small and tight and dark.”
Park, 64, was too young to see comedians when she visited the Catskills. But she was aware of Catskill comedians’ legacy through her Warsaw-born psychologist father’s devotion to Caesar’s 1950-54 TV variety series “Your Show of Shows” and to “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which featured Catskills comics.
Caesar “would make fun of accents and make up silly words, and I think it made my father happy,” Park said.
The son of immigrants, Caesar worked from the Catskills tradition of humor that helped lighten the emotional burden of immigrants who had left Russia and Europe under dire circumstances.
Interviewed in the documentary, Caesar credited humor as an outlet during tough times: “You’re going through something, and it’s hard, and it’s rough, but you make a joke. If you can laugh at your situation – what a gift.”
Caesar began working in the Catskills as a teenager, playing saxophone and entertaining hotel guests as a tummler – a combination clown and emcee who goofed off for guests in between outdoor activities. Like another Catskills tummler, Danny Kaye, Caesar would leave the Borscht Belt for the big time.
But he never left Florence Levy, niece of a Catskills hotel owner. The pair met in the Catskills, and their marriage lasted from 1943 until Florence’s death in 2010.
The makers of “When Comedy Went to School” ask their subjects that elusive question: What’s funny? Caesar answers most concretely, in a response appropriate to a comedian credited with paving the way for “Saturday Night Live” and other sketch-comedy shows.
“A story is most important,” Caesar says. “I don’t care if it’s a five-minute sketch – you gotta have a beginning, you gotta have a middle, you gotta have an end.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.