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EXCLUSIVE: Director Ron Frank on the Impact of the Catskills and Jewish comedy

The director of “When Comedy Went to School” chats with Shalom Life about his latest documentary

By: Ilan Mester
Published: October 6th, 2013 in Culture » Film » Interviews

“Why are there so many Jewish comedians?” The new documentary When Comedy Went to School aims to answer that age-old question by profiling some of comedy’s biggest veterans (Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason and Jerry Stiller just to name a few) and the place where they all had their start: the Catskills. The film is set to have its Canadian premiere this Sunday and Shalom Life got to chat with co-director Ron Frank ahead of the debut.

What drew you to make this documentary?

The original idea came from writer-producer Lawrence Richards. He wanted to explore where these famous comedians got their roots, went to school so to speak. It turns out, they honed their skills in what was once the largest resort area in the country. What drew me is the Jewish subject matter and the comedians that I grew up with as well as the region that I knew and spent time in. I watched many of these comic legends on television and in movies. I particularly loved the Jewish comics, and took their Jewishness for granted. I marveled at the fact that their Jewish jokes would play for a national audience. Making this film was like being surrounded by the cast of "Its a Mad Mad Mad Mad World."

You seem to have captured the essence of the Catskills pretty well. Were you familiar with the area before making this movie?

I was born in New York and raised in Long Island. I spent time as a kid in the 60s and 70s in the mountains, Monticello, Kutsher's hotel and in summer camp. Although my generation was not really part of the Catskills' golden era, my family experienced some of the hotels and bungalows during the summer. My in-laws had a home up there so for a time I was like a commuting Catskill husband, going to the mountains from the city on weekends.

A lot of Jewish comedy-related documentaries have come out in the last few years. Why do you think this topic is in the zeitgeist?

For one thing we could all use a good laugh these days, no? I can't speak for other films, but we tried to make the connection between what was called the Borscht Belt and American humour and the influence that Jewish humour had overall. We wanted to discover what made us - and still makes us laugh. Its not all Jewish, but Jews, as an historically persecuted people, knew how to tell a good joke to ease the oppression and bring down the oppressor to a lower level by poking fun. It’s still done today by comedians like Jon Stewart among others.


A lot of research must have gone into making this film. What was the most surprising thing you learned about the Catskills and/or Jewish comedy?

I had no idea what an influence this region was to the nation. As a New Yorker, I saw it as a great place to go to escape the city - waterfalls, hikes in the woods, fresh air. But beyond New York, the Catskills became much more than that. I learned that the familiar topography for Jews who came from eastern Europe drew them to upstate New York to break ground and start farms. With anti-Semitism in the 20th century, there were few places where would-be Jewish vacationers were welcomed, except as guests on farms that eventually grew into resorts. Then out of all this a new form of entertainment was born - the modern-day standup comic. It was a unique culture all its own and very funny.

It’s interesting that Robert Klein, who presents the documentary, actually worked as a busboy in the Catskills. Were you specifically looking for a narrator/host that had experienced the Catskills firsthand?

I'm not sure we knew at the time that Robert had actually worked there specifically as a busboy until we read his book, "Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue." Then he became the natural choice. He turned out to be a terrific host and narrator. He also is a wonderful bridge between the older and younger generations. He was great to work with and is a tremendous asset to the film.

Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason and Jerry Stiller are just some of the comedians interviewed in the documentary. How did you get so many comedy legends on board?

We explained that we wanted to interview these legends for posterity. I don't think these guys get the opportunity to talk about their childhood, parents or early careers too often. They all had an emotional connection about their roots and where they all came from. Its only natural, as they approached their golden years, that they are more open to talk about their life stories. Some could have gone on longer. With Jerry Lewis there was even a hint of sorrow when the interview was over. Jerry Stiller called after the film was done to tell us how honoured he was to be in it.

Do you have a favourite interviewee?

Related articles: Jewish comedy, jewish humour, jewish humor, When Comedy Went to School, interview, Jerry Stiller, Jerry Lewis, documentary, catskills
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