May 30, 2013
When comedy was kosher
The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival would not be worthy of its name without a substantial serving of Jewish humor, and much of this year’s nourishment is provided by two movies honoring the great comedians and writers who flourished around the middle of last century and later.
For many of the great practitioners of the craft, their professional boot camps were the Catskill Mountains resorts, the places where a kosher jester “had a place where you could be bad,” as Jerry Lewis observes in “When Comedy Went to School.”
For Brooklyn and Bronx Jews, two weeks at Grossinger’s, The Concord or Kutsher’s in the Borscht Belt were the places to escape the stifling summer heat of the city and the reward for slaving the other 50 weeks of the year.
Graduates of these comedic boot camps, honed by facing some of the toughest audiences in the world, went on to fame and fortune on radio, television, movies and Broadway. And for the families who thronged to the resorts in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, their names still reverberate.
Popping up in “Comedy,” first as young performers in black-and-white footage and later as seniors looking back in wry nostalgia, are the likes of Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Larry King, Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, Jerry Stiller, Mickey Freeman, Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield and Jerry Seinfeld, and the list goes on and on.
A 15-year-old lad named David Kaminsky started as a busboy and went on to Broadway and Hollywood, along the way changing his name to Danny Kaye.
Others, like Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny and Milton Berle, have passed on, but their gags live on.
Joan Rivers showed that women could hold their own, and Dick Gregory became the first black comedian to break the color barrier.
Among the film’s little jewels is Billy Crystal imagining Edward G. Robinson as Moses telling Pharaoh: “Let my people go” — or else.
Above all, the Catskills — or as Mickey Katz had it, the “Katzkills” — was a place where Jews could be among Jews and escape the pervasive anti-Semitism of the era.
Many of the patrons remembered the hunger in the old country, either from their own experience or their parents’ reminiscences, and the heaping portions of food, augmented by round-the-clock noshes, might have challenged the digestive capacity of Henry VIII.
“Wir gehn essen,” Yiddish for “We’re going out to eat,” was the universal battle cry, but at a place like Grossinger’s, which had its own airport, the younger set could also frolic on the tennis courts and in the outdoor and indoor swimming pools.
Given the carefree ambience and the accommodating staff, a more intimate indoor sport also enjoyed considerable popularity.
Larry King, then a busboy, fondly recalls a 1948 escapade with an attractive guest, which was interrupted by the appearance of the lady’s husband.
In the 1960s, the tone of comedy changed and the attraction of the “Jewish Alps” faded. Henny Youngman’s time-tested “Take my wife — please” was replaced by Mort Sahl’s mordant political gags and Lenny Bruce’s pot jokes.
Other changes in lifestyle, and the prosperity of the postwar years, also contributed to the decline of the Catskills resorts.
With air conditioning it was possible to survive the New York summer heat, one could fly to London in the time it took to drive to the mountains, the nouveau riche could afford their own tennis courts and swimming pools, and newly diet conscious Jews replaced “six kinds of herring for breakfast with a bowl of granola,” as one disapproving chef put it.
Comedy clubs replaced the old resorts as the training grounds for aspiring comedians, whose goal was to make it on Broadway or in television, not at Grossinger’s.
The few remaining hotels now cater mainly to an Orthodox clientele, though some of the senior guests come up occasionally to show the grandchildren how life was in the not-so-good olden days.
Fittingly, “When Comedy Went to School” will be the closing attraction of this year’s Jewish Film Festival, on June 6 at 7:30 p.m., at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. The film’s co-director Ron Frank (with Mevlut Akkaya) and invited comedians will participate in a Q-and-A session.
A kind of bookend to “Comedy” is the more tersely titled “Lunch,” which refers to a circle of comedy writers of the old school that gathers every other Wednesday at Factor’s Famous Deli for companionship, reminiscences and to regale each other with old jokes.
Some of the great performers of the Catskills and radio era drop in, foremost Caesar, still revered as the “king” of the oval deli table.
The equally venerable Carl Reiner, who wrote and performed his own routines, is a regular, as is Monty Hall.
Except for show-biz insiders, the names of the writers may be less known, but they include Arthur Marx (son of Groucho), director-writer Arthur Hiller (“People always ask if I’m Arthur Miller”), Ben Starr and the “kids,” like Gary Owens and John Rappaport.
The Wednesday lunch bunch has been meeting since 1989 and most of the participants — as well as their jokes — show their age.
“Most of the guys are deaf,” observes one participant, so there is a good deal of shouting, amid general agreement that comedy ain’t what it used to be.
“What’s going on today is a lot of shmutz [dirt],” Caesar observes. “That’s cheating. Anyone can get a laugh [by talking dirty].”
At a time when many professions discriminated against Jews, “Vomedy writing was one of the things open to Jews,” Reiner remembered. “If you could make them laugh, they’d hire you.”
Most of the writers suffered from another kind of prejudice — against “old age.” “Mark Twain couldn’t get the time of day in this town nowadays,” remarked one participant. “Were Twain to pitch a story to a producer, the producer would ask how old he was.
“ ‘Just past 40,’ the imaginary Twain would admit, to which the producer would answer scornfully, ‘At your age, you can’t write about a 13-year-old boy.’ ”
While the old-timers have aged in body and hearing, their minds remain sharp. As prolific writer Hal Kanter observed, “At this luncheon, we speak the truth, which is a very rare commodity in Hollywood.”
“Lunch,” by director Donna Kanter (Hal’s daughter), will be served on June 2 at 3 p.m. at Laemmle’s Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills, followed by a discussion with the director, Hiller, Rocky Kalish, Ben Starr and others.
For tickets and more information, visit whencomedywenttoschool.com.