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August 2, 2013 2:11 pm

New Film ‘When Comedy Went to School’ Explores the Genesis of the Jewish Comedian (VIDEO)

avatar by Zach Pontz

Jackie Mason in "When Comedy Went to School." Photo:

“Why do Jewish people represent such a small percentage of the overall population but such an overwhelmingly large percentage of well-known comedians?”

This question was the starting point for writer and producer Lawrence Richards’ exploration of the rise and staggering influence of 2oth century Jewish comedians that has resulted in the new film “When Comedy Went to School,” screening now in New York.

In an interview with The Algemeiner, Richards said in a 1970’s survey, it was found that although Jews represented approximately 3% of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 80% of professional comedians. Years earlier, in the mid-20th century, names like Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl and Jackie Mason came to dominate comedy club marquees. They gave rise to a whole different generation: Woody Allen, Joan Rivers and Jerry Seinfeld, to name just a few.

Richards was able to trace the phenomenon back to the 1930s and the upstate New York hotels of Sullivan and Ulster Counties, which numbered in excess of 900 and were collectively known as The Catskills. The area, later dubbed The Borscht Belt,was the largest resort area in the world at the time, and it attracted many young Jewish males looking to break into the comedy business.

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“That generation really transformed stand-up comedy, because they had that training ground in the Catskills,” Richards told The Algemeiner.

The area attracted those who would later become household names. Lenny Bruce and Buddy Hackett were busboys who bunked together. Irving Kniberg and Joseph Levitch, later to be known as Alan King and Jerry Lewis, worked there as teens. Aaron Schwatt, who had bright red hair and large buttons on his uniform, figured he’d name himself Red Buttons. And he did, as Hollywood fans knew him until Buttons passed away in 2006.

But this comedy boot camp only acted as the kitchen in which to make the meal, the ingredients being gathered elsewhere, and that became as much a focal point of the movie as the Catskills did.

“From [the Catskills] it became more of a multi-layered thing, it was not just about guys who were very funny, but assimilation, immigration, laughter as a defense mechanism; if I make you laugh people won’t hurt me—that type of thing,” Richards said.

“Humor as a defense mechanism is not necessarily just a Jewish area, every ethnic group has faced discrimination. It’s just that the Jewish people have for millennia had to learn how to survive and perhaps at points maybe the only thing we could do was try to make a joke to get through,” Richards concluded.

Watch the trailer for the “When Comedy Went to School” below.

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