From roughly the 1920s to the ’70s, the so-called Borscht Belt, an area in the Catskills where a swath of the New York City Jewish population would spend their summers, produced a substantial amount of talent within the stand-up comedy scene with its clubs populated by tough audiences. It was a fine place for young Jewish comics, among them Jackie Mason, Sid Caesar, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Jerry Lewis, to cut their teeth before breaking out. The locale’s popularity has since drastically declined, with the comedy clubs essentially gone, but its place as a “comedy boot camp” of sorts has been firmly established in comic lore.
When Comedy Went to School confuses nostalgia for earth-shaking cultural upheaval, never really expounding on the actual effect of the Borscht Belt’s influence. The already thin arguments detailing how salient the circuit was in cultivating talent quickly become repetitive, which isn’t helped when bolstered by suspect references (narrator Robert Klein admits on screen to using Wikipedia as a source). By positing its story as surprisingly self-serious mythos, the doc never finds a lively air of reflection, numbing the jokes and seemingly existing only to please the various talking heads. A refusal to delve further into present impact throughout drags much of the context with it, rendering the history contained in the film as dubious in its effect.
The truly engaging anecdotes become desultory amid an increasingly analogous message of better times, particularly remarks concerning the various eccentricities contained in Borscht Belt resorts (I can’t say I wanted to hear Lary King tell how he lost his virginity, but there’s a bizarre endearment in watching him deadpan through it). Enhancing these small and unfortunately spotty moments is fascinating archive footage that eloquently expresses more than the sledgehammer rhetoric, explicating a disparity in nimble looseness and sober lionizing that peaks in the finale. An extended and humorous aside made early in the film examines the Jewish culture’s knack for self-deprecation, an inherent (even courageous) feature comedians take pride in. But the convictions of the film are too strong for self-awareness, ultimately doubling down, reducing itself into gooey melodramatics sans irony. The film isn’t just skeptical toward the future; it’s afraid of it.