Hail Caesar! How Catskills helped define America's sense of humor

Your favorite jokes would be very different — you certainly wouldn’t tell them the same way — if it were not for a generation of Jewish comedians who helped define America’s sense of humor in the Catskill Mountains from the 1930s through the 1960s.

That’s the lesson of “When Comedy Went to School,” a film with plenty of South Florida ties opening in theaters nationwide on Friday.

“It was the breeding ground for the standup comic,” former Miami resident Larry King says with a wink, before launching into a story about how he lost his virginity while working as a Catskills busboy.

Narrated by comic Robert Klein, the film is first a paean to the petri dish that produced such influential humorists as Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Billy Crystal, Dick Gregory, Joan Rivers, Bill Maher and Jerry Seinfeld. The movie has gained poignancy with the recent passing of one of its stars, Sid Caesar.

“Sid Caesar was my inspiration for writing ‘When Comedy Went to School,’ “ says its writer and producer, Lawrence Richards. “His brilliance at sketch comedy, improvisation and satirizing previously untouched topics was edgy, groundbreaking and courageous.”

Co-director Ron Frank calls filming the recent scenes with Caesar "a privilege."

"He taught us the secret to getting through life — make a little fun of it.  He did that even during our interview with him, while he was under some physical pain," Frank says.

The film is also a postcard from an age when Jewish families, unwelcome at many inns and country clubs, found community, entertainment and open-windowed relaxation among the hundreds of so-called Borscht Belt hotels and bungalows in Sullivan and Ulster counties in upstate New York.

“It gives you a real appreciation for the era and that great entertainment cadre that was the Catskills,” Elaine Grossinger Etess says. “The older I get, the more wonderful it becomes.”

Grossinger Etess, of Boca Raton, is the daughter of the couple who founded the famed Grossinger’s Hotel. She lived at the hotel from the time she was an infant and later ran it with her brother, Paul, up until its sale in 1985. She now books entertainment as the director of hospitality at Forest Trace Retirement Community in Lauderhill.

"The Catskills were so culturally important, especially during its heyday," she says. But moviegoers who have spent time in the mountains also will be reminded of "what a wonderful place it was to go, to get away from the city during the summer."

Grossinger’s was at the center of the Catskills universe and figures prominently in the movie. Its former owner has many fond memories of those years: ice skating with Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle, palling around with Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, watching a busboy named Robert Klein.

While the Catskills as an crucial comedy proving ground no longer exists, the entertainment concept is alive in places such as Forest Trace, where the Jennie Grossinger Theater is named for the hotel’s founder (who appears in archival footage in the movie).

Pompano Beach comedian Dick Capri, who has worked the room at Forest Trace, also is seen in “When Comedy Went to School,” telling a joke that neatly captures the essence of the film: A waiter walks up to a table with two Jewish women and asks, “Is anything all right?”

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