Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

“When Comedy Went to School” Flunks

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Less hot tamale than cold latke, Ron Frank and Mevlet Akkaya’s documentary “When Comedy Went to School” turns the surefire subject of Borscht Belt comedy into a plodding exercise in nostalgia.

For a movie devoted to Catskill stand-up (the Jewish equivalent of the Delta blues), “When Comedy Went to School”—which opens at the IFC Center in New York on July 31, with Long Island and Los Angeles dates to follow—is something like an anti-shpritz. Frustratingly short clips of comic geniuses (Buddy Hackett or Lenny Bruce) in action are punctuated with awkward bits of restaged memories, sentimental piano doodles, and tiresome talking heads hauled before the camera to annotate the routines with shopworn sociology and glib theorizing on Jews and comedy. Robert Klein’s reverent, zetz-free narration doesn’t help. (If ever a movie needed Joan Rivers, it’s this one.) Indeed, “When Comedy Went to School” stops dead in its tracks every time unfunny man Larry King appears to offer his banal recollections. Why the filmmakers decided to showcase Jerry Lewis’s alternately maudlin or pompous pronouncements rather than his manic shtick is beyond me.

Given the subject, actual comic routines are in short supply. This isn’t to say that there are no laughs to be had. Aggressive energy can compensate for even the hoariest act; I mean, Billy Crystal mimicking Edward G. Robinson cracked me up. But, as Jackie Mason repeatedly demonstrates, timing is everything. “When Comedy Went to School” (which ultimately goes mega cornball to ends with a rendition of “Send in the Clowns”) doesn’t have it.

Images: International Film Circuit

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