Opera House to screen documentary on Jewish-American comedians

“When Comedy Went to School,” a new documentary about the rise of comedic talent among the Jewish American community in New York’s Catskill Mountains, is the next featured film in the Fredonia Opera House Cinema Series. It will be screened on Saturday and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

This remarkable documentary presents an entertaining portrait of this country’s greatest generation of comedians – the generation that includes the likes of Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Robert Klein, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Jerry Stiller, Larry King, and others – all of whom make appearances in the film, sharing hilarious and personal experiences.

Why are there so many Jewish comedians? In a 1970s survey, it was found that although Jews represented approximately 3 percent of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 80 percent of professional comedians. How did it come to pass that a nation that started the 20th century laughing at the folk humor of Will Rogers, ended being captivated by the urbane parodies of “Seinfeld?” Is there a common denominator within the generation of Jewish-Americans that produced literally dozens of comedy legends? How could that happen? And why did that happen? What is their legacy? As Butch Cassidy in awe asked The Sundance Kid regarding the posse tracking them: “Who are those guys?”

“When Comedy Went to School” poses those questions and finds that most of the answers can be traced to upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains, a/k/a the Borscht Belt, where Jewish immigrants transformed lush farmland into the 20th century’s largest resort complex. Those Catskill hotels and bungalow colonies provided the setting for a remarkable group of young Jewish-American comedians to hone their craft and become worldwide legends.

Stephen Whitty, in the Newark Star-Ledger, calls the film “a very entertaining documentary, mostly because of the entertainers it spotlights who learned their craft and went on to create modern American humor.” Ernest Hardy, in the Village Voice, calls it “an enchanting documentary with something of a fairy tale quality.” Joe Neumaier, in the New York Daily News, says “the archival footage is rich. The interviews – with Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Jerry Stiller and others – are saucy and spirited; and the history is terrific.” Unrated, “When Comedy Went to School” runs 83 minutes.

The Opera House Cinema Series is sponsored by Lake Shore Savings Bank. Tickets are available at the door for $7 (adults), $6.50 (seniors & Opera House members) and $5 (students) the night of each screening. A book of ten movie passes is available for $60 at the door or online at For more information, call the Opera House Box Office at 716-679-1891. The series continues with “Austenland,” starring Keri Russell and Jane Seymour, on Oct. 12 and 15; the biopic documentary “Salinger” on Oct. 19 and 22; and Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, on Oct. 26 and 29.

Chautauqua County’s only performing arts center presenting its own programming year-round, the 1891 Fredonia Opera House is a member-supported not-for-profit organization located in Village Hall in downtown Fredonia. For a complete schedule of events, visit