When Comedy Went to School

The title is perfect, if the idea is to turn a joy into a labor. That can’t be the idea. Can it? When Comedy Went to School, it’s called, and it’s an oddly dispiriting documentary history lesson, from directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank, on the influential postwar stand-up scene in the Catskills, a.k.a. the Jewish Alps, a.k.a, the Sour Cream Sierras, a.k.a. the Borscht Belt. It is somewhat informative, but very muddled, and more maudlin than funny. The filmmakers have some face time with famous veterans, including Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, and Jerry Stiller, plus some lively archive footage, plus some dull recreations which might as well be stock footage. Worse, it’s all very stiffly “hosted” by a quite faded-seeming Robert Klein, who once worked as a Catskills busboy. So did Larry King, as ever obviously not a comedian but nonetheless a talking head, here to tell us about funniness and about how he lost his virginity. Speaking of major bombs, there is at least some helpful context, and humor, in Mort Saul’s “most of the western philosophers were Jewish” bit, where he explains how Moses, Marx, and Freud all suggested ways for humans to get through life, but nobody wanted to listen, and finally Einstein came up with “a bomb that can destroy everything we’ve built until now, and this caught on.”