Pictured: Sid Caesar
New York’s Catskill Comedians Celebrated
By Skip Sheffield
The golden era of the Catskills may be over in New York, but the spirit of the great Jewish resorts continues here in South Florida in the form of the comedians who got their start in the Catskills and went on to become big stars and continue to tour.
“When Comedy Went to School” is a 77-minute documentary film that examines the phenomenon of Jewish comedians. Through archival footage and contemporary interviews with such greats as Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, Larry King and a very young Jerry Seinfield, the film answers the question, Why are there so many Jewish comedians?
Robert Klein serves as host of this semi-academic examination of the roots of Jewish and Yiddish comedy.
“Comedy is a Jewish survival mechanism,” explains filmmaker, comedian and playwright Mel Brooks. "You laugh to survive."
“The Catskills were some place to be bad,” says Jerry Lewis, who goes on to relate how we performed with his parents as a child to earn the family an extra $5 a night. Lewis began his career as a Catskill “tummler” who performed pratfalls. It was a skill that came in handy in his comedy films with Dean Martin and on his own.
The first Catskill “resort” was a simple farmhouse owned by a family named Grossinger, who began taking in guests in 1914. At its peak in the 1950s, the Catskill resort area had over 500 hotels. Now there are just a handful left. Television, cheap, fast travel and the Internet all contributed to the decline of this “comedy boot camp.” This film provides a nostalgic look back at the beginnings of comedians who have become household names. I was amazed to realize how many of the comedians I have interviewed and met, because South Florida and its condos and performing arts centers are a regular stop for comedians who continue to perform into very old age.
The film can be seen at Living Room Theaters and Shadowood in Boca Raton and Movies of Delray.