Many people who grew up in the NYC area knew the Catskills upstate not for its fresh, mountain air but for the incredible comedians who passed through. Back in the day (roughly from the ’20s-’70s), summer resorts like The Concord, Kutsher’s and Grossinger’s were a kind of boot camp for stand-up acts like Jerry Stiller, Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, the dearly departed Sid Caesar, and even Woody Allen.
The new documentary style indie When Comedy Went to School sheds light on the so-called Borscht Belt. We spoke to one of the kings of comedy — and former Catskills busboy — Robert Klein, who narrates:
How important was the Borscht Belt?
It was a place where a kid looking to get something done could get on stage and perform. It was a place where people could come and see a comedian and forget their troubles or disappointments in their children or their health. There’s nothing scientific about it: Laughter is curative. There’s no doubt watching a good comedian is therapeutic in a practical way. The Catskills was definitely the spine of the culture.
How has comedy evolved?
Television killed nightclub comedy for a while. People didn’t want to spend that kind of money if they could sit at home and be entertained. Oddly enough, cable TV caused the resurgence of comedy clubs. I did the first HBO special ever at Haverford College in 1975 so maybe I was partly responsible [laughs].
How did you know you wanted to be a comedian?
I saw Jerry Lewis when I was 8, and he made me fall off my chair. His stuff still gets me. Not his movies so much, when he became kind of aloof and professorial, but those Colgate Comedy Hours were a riot. And I admired Sid Caesar so much. He’s one of the ones that will always stand out in my mind.
What do you want readers to know about this movie?
I think for anyone who isn’t aware of the history it will be interesting and amusing and informative. For those folks who lived it, there will be a sense of nostalgia. The area is very depressed now so it’s sad. The whole thing is just dead. A completely silent echo. This film is a worthwhile project. Imagine them watching it at the University of Iowa.
Would you recommend the profession to up-and-comers now?
Sure. At colleges, they actually teach stand-up. And you can try it out at a lot of these clubs. The deal is you bring in 10 friends, and they buy two drinks, and they’ll put you on. If you really have a burning desire, there are places to do it. There are so many pathways, and the industry seems to be sustaining itself now.
You just turned 72. How are you feeling?
I recently was in South Florida, did a show in Boca. I’ve lost some weight. I can do it on a dime. Cut out the wine. I had a little champagne on New Year’s Eve. I just feel better. I feel good.