Although I am sure that just about everybody will be as enchanted by “When Comedy went to School”—a documentary on stand-up comedians of the Borscht Belt that opens today at the IFC in NY—as me, I have a particular connection to the film as someone who lived in the midst of the resort area in its heyday. The film will give you much more of an insight into this yeasty slice of Jewish life than any fictional film like “Dirty Dancing” can.
A WSJ interview with Robert Klein (it is behind a paywall but can be read through Google News on a search for the article’s title “Borscht Belt, Behind the Scenes”), the film’s narrator and veteran stand-up comic who launched his career in the Catskills, mentions him working at the Alamac Hotel as a lifeguard. My mother was very close to the family who owned the hotel in my hometown and connected me to Kenny Gottlieb, a busboy who worked there. Kenny, who was an opera-loving Amherst student, turned me on to Weiser’s bookstore in N.Y. that was owned by his uncle Sam. Weiser’s was devoted to occult religions and as such was a shrine for Beat poets who went there to gather material on Plotinus, Gnosticism, St. John of the Cross et al. It was after my own visits to Weiser’s in my teens that I decided to become a religion major at Bard College as a latecomer to the beat generation. (Through Google’s long tentacles, I learned that Kenny died in 2009 after flying his Cessna into a hillside in Napa, California.)
Despite the Borscht Belt’s rural location, the “townies” were always absorbing New York’s cultural influences from the young men and women who worked in the hotels. It was at the New Roxy, my friend Eli’s hotel where Rodney Dangerfield used to perform as Jack Roy, where I made contact with Don the lifeguard. I have vivid memories of chatting with Don, who looked like James Dean and screwed half the women who stayed there over the summer, about what he was reading at the time. He turned me on to Genet. I was also turned on to Panamanian Red that I bought from Freddy the waiter. It cost $15 an ounce back in 1961 and one shared joint could put four people on their ass.
You get a flavor of the affinity between the comedians who worked there and the burgeoning bohemian scene from Sandy Hackett, who reminisces about his dad Buddy in the film. It turns out that Buddy and Lenny Bruce, who both got started performing in the Catskills, were roommates in New York. If you knew anything about their respective public personae, it is a little bit like hearing that Charlie Parker and James Brown were roommates. The two comedians lived in a cheap studio apartment in the Village, where they covered the floor with sand in which they planted a beach umbrella. Women were invited up to smoke a joint and enjoy a faux day at the ocean.
For me one of the great pleasures of the film was watching the 87-year-old Jerry Lewis and the 91-year-old Sid Caesar holding forth on their early days in the Catskills in the 30s and 40s. By 1958, the two were king of the motion picture and television respectively. If you went to a premiere of a Martin and Lewis comedy, you’d expect to stand on a line to buy tickets that went around the block. Around the same time Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” had a bigger audience share on NBC than Seinfeld. For my money, Caesar’s show was ten times hipper than Seinfeld’s (Seinfeld’s career was also launched in the Catskill’s but at a time when it was on the decline.) It was on the “Show of Shows” where I saw him leading the cast in a parody of what was obviously a Kurosawa movie long before I knew that Kurosawa existed.
At this point, it is worth including the panels above are from my abortive memoir done with Harvey Pekar even though his widow has warned me that I do not have her permission to do so. The shrill and vindictive woman obviously understands nothing about “fair use” laws.
Mel Brooks was among the writers for “The Show of Shows”. Some years later Woody Allen wrote for Sid Caesar TV specials. Both men got started in the Catskills. In a Wikipedia article on Borscht Belt humor, Brooks is included as an example of puns, one of the four dominant characteristics:
- Bad luck: “When I was a kid, I was breast-fed by my father.” (Dangerfield)
- Puns: “Sire, the peasants are revolting!” “You said it. They stink on ice.” (Harvey Korman as Count de Money (Monet) and Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI, in History of the World Part I)
- Physical complaints and ailments (often relating to bowels and cramping): “My doctor said I was in terrible shape. I told him, ‘I want a second opinion.’ He said, ‘All right, you’re ugly too!’” “I told my doctor, ‘This morning when I got up and saw myself in the mirror, I looked awful! What’s wrong with me?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know, but your eyesight is perfect!’” (Dangerfield)
- Aggravating relatives and nagging wives: “My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” (Dangerfield). “Take my wife—please!” (Henny Youngman); “My wife drowned in the pool because she was wearing so much jewelry.” (Rickles); “My wife ain’t too bright. One day our car got stolen. I said to her, ‘Did you get a look at the guy?’ She said, ‘No, but I got the license number.’” (Dangerfield) “This morning the doorbell rang. I said ‘Who is it?’ He said ‘It’s the Boston strangler.’ I said ‘It’s for you dear!’” (Youngman)
I don’t care much for the sexist junk about wives but all the rest of it rings a bell and was certainly an influence on my own sense of humor. The Wikipedia summary, however, does not mention what for me is the crowing element of Borscht Belt humor: self-deprecation. Although he was only part of the Catskills in the eleventh hour, Woody Allen was a master of self-deprecation. A typical Allen joke from this period: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”
Some say that brevity is the soul of wit. For me it is self-deprecation. While I am the target of deprecators near and far, I always beat them to the punch. In order to make my posts on the most abstruse topics palatable to the average radical, I try to thrown in a few jokes like the chopped meat surrounding a pill given to a pet dog.
When I was in the early stages of writing the text for the memoir I did with Pekar, I told him that it would be filled with jokes. I said that it would be in the spirit of the stand-up comedians I used to hear when I was a teen in the Catskills. Too bad it will never see the light of day except for these “fair use” samples. That’s her loss financially and mine creatively. But most of all, it is a loss to her late husband’s legacy that matters less to her than her petty feud with me.