International Film Circuit
When Robert Klein was a busboy in the Catskills, he saw the best Jewish comedians of the day. From Rodney Dangerfield and Mel Brooks, to comedy in its modern form, Klein was there to see the evolution of what makes us laugh. It made him the perfect person to narrate the documentary that opened this week in New York City, When Comedy Went to School. It's a look back at how many famous comedians got their start by spending their summers in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. The film features clips and commentary from stand-up classics like Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar and Jackie Mason. Klein tells the host of weekends on All Things Considered, Jacki Lyden, about being there during the golden age of comedy.
On the Catskill Mountains
"This was a place where immigrant people and first generation could go to get away from the city heat. This is before air conditioning and jet travel. It started with a little farm and developed into Grossinger's, which became a tremendous hotel and then, literally thousands of smaller hotels, bungalow colonies, rented rooms. Humor was a kind of backbone."
On Jewish humor
"Humor has always been a very, very important part of the Jewish culture. I daresay all cultures laugh. But let's face it, Jews are over-represented in professional comedy by an enormous amount and under-represented in the priesthood!"
On Klein's comedy beginnings
E"very Saturday night show, even in the smallest hotels, had a comedian. The largest ones had really big stars. I didn't play the Borscht Belt until I had some reputation and played the Concord and Kutsher's. However, as a busboy and a lifeguard, that was the first time I ever saw live comedy. It really made an impression on me and I thought, gee, that's a wonderful life, to make people laugh. It's better than being a doctor, I thought."
On meeting Jewish Holocaust survivors in the Catskills
"I met many, many survivors in these hotels, and I recall befriending a few of them. There was a couple that checked in with a young daughter, and they were survivors. He had a Cadillac convertible, he was clearly a wealthy man, smoked expensive cigars. I said to him, 'Why don't you have that number removed?' He said, 'If I ever get too big for my britches, I want to look down at my arm and know where I came from.' There was an awful lot of wonderful people who had been through hell and back. It's amazing."
On what's left of the Catskills today
"Not only figuratively is this whole era gone, but literally the buildings that once stood are piles of rubble. The Nevele was a famous hotel that's still around. They do conventions. There's a couple of other, but, it's gone. I think several things, air conditioning, big factor. People didn't have to escape as readily as they once had. The other thing is Boeing 707, the first intercontinental jet. You could take a family of four to Paris and spend as much as you would for a week at the Concord."
On one of his favorite jokes
"Mickey Freeman has the wonderful joke where he went to a hospital to entertain people in the ward and he's in front of this sick man, and he's working and working and the guy's not laughing. So finally he gives up and he says, 'Look, I hope you get better.' And the guy says, 'You too!' "