When Comedy Went To School

We were so looking forward to this new documentary about Catskill comedians, right up until it came out and the ratings (audience and critic) were so poor. The trailers are hilarious, which all these great old comedians doing one liners that are still funny, even when you’ve seen the trailer over and over again.

But it’s not unusual for a documentary to have stellar source material which it then handles poorly. It presents a problem for the reviewer and the careless reader when the reviewer must say “I hated that handicapped documentary” or (in the reverse) “That Nazi documentary was fabulous!”

But the ratings are pretty dead on. 2/3rds of the movie is centered around great material by classic comedians. But the remaining third, and the stuff that isn’t the comedy, is unfocused, weirdly self-important and, yes, schmaltzy.

It can’t really live up to its title. That could be because of the material, of course. Maybe Jewish comedians weren’t really very influential in post-War America. (Heh.) But it’s more likely that, beyond the low-hanging fruit of having great comedians-emeritus relate stories, the producers felt like they had to set the stage (why were Jews going to the Catskills in the first place?), then they wanted to talk about the culture surrounding the Catskills-type summer vacations, then they wanted to talk about the hotels and industry that rose, then they wanted to talk about how things changed in the ‘60s, and then they wanted to talk about how things are there today.

This mission creep, if you will, subjects the film to a few of the frailties common to the genre.

It’s instructive to consider the very first movie I reviewed on this blog six years ago: The King of Kong. This is a documentary about something supremely trivial (playing arcade games) but it’s so tightly focused that it becomes compelling, and the humanness emerges in such a way that you can’t help but become invested.

And it does so without the director (who’s gone on to work on high profile projects like directing Identity Thief and the new TV series “The Goldbergs”) trying to force you to care.

WCWTS meanders like an old man telling a story. And it suffers from the “Well, this one period of time was just the most awesome thing ever and now it’s gone” seen recently in Casting By and 20 Feet From Stardom. But, sort of weirdly, it’s doing the nostalgia thing on its own. Apart from a hotel heiress with a waning empire, you don’t really see the people interviewed (all of whom enjoyed popularity the likes of which cannot be appreciated today) talking it up.

Then there’s the ’60s which were a weird time for everyone, I guess (although my parents barely noticed them, apparently), but which really signalled the end of the Catskill era. Doing the math, that means the Golden Age was about 20 years long (the youth of, that’s right, the Baby Boomers).

Let’s turn over the camera to noted Catskill comedian Dick Gregory!

Wait, what?

So bizarre. There wasn’t enough to talk about so the civil rights movement has to make an appearance?

Another funny thing happens in the ’60s: The comedy changes, and the movie by-and-large stops being funny. It’s not entirely deliberate, I don’t think. It’s that the comedy of what’s essentially the post-Catskills era (Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, et al.) were less about straight-up joke telling and more about story telling and, of course, transgressing.

Transgressions, of course, are more dated than Groucho glasses in the world of comedy, and I thought it telling that my teenaged kids laughed at and enjoyed the old-school humor of Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason and those guys than they did the later stuff. (And I did, too, even though my nostalgia factor is much higher for the later comedians.)

One of my tweeps, @Crevek, was watching Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop the other night and was hating on the post WWII parts. “It goes to hell in the ’60s,” I told him. And that’s a remarkably applicable statement to many things, including this movie, where the little focus it had scatters to the four winds, and its start talking about comedians who were never in the Catskills, TV shows (Seinfeld!) from the ’90s and, you know, whatever.

It’s not that the connections aren’t there, mind you. (You can learn about them from other great sources on the history of comedy at your local library! Or the Internet, I guess.) No, it’s just that the movie doesn’t make those connections effectively, or even at all sometimes.

As a result, this sub-90 minute film feels strangely long.

If you really want to get a sense of the thing, it’s probably epitomized by two things: The use of “Make ’em Laugh” to open the film (and punctuating stock footage rolls throughout), and to close the film—I am not kidding—"Send In The Clowns", with narrator Robert Klein lugubriously addressing “Mr. Sondheim” as to the presence and/or absence of said clowns.

I can’t believe someone wrote that. Someone said it. And someone filmed it. And then, someone edited the film, and left that stuff in.

Despite my numerous grievances aired here, we were glad to have seen it, but we probably would’ve been happier with a Catskills highlight reel.

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