Movie Interviews
3:58 pm
Sat August 3, 2013

Robert Klein And The Golden Age Of Comedy

Originally published on Sat August 3, 2013 4:29 pm

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.


Interview Highlights

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!' "

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It used to be called Borscht Belt comedy, and you've heard some of the jokes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

RODNEY DANGERFIELD: Boy, what a crowd. What a crowd. Last week, I told my wife a man is like wine. He gets better with age. She locked me in a cellar.

MEL BROOKS: I take my wife everywhere, but she finds her way home.

LYDEN: Robert Klein was there to see this comedy evolve. It made him the perfect person to narrate a documentary opening this week in New York entitled "When Comedy Went to School," a look back at how many comedians got their start by spending their summers in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL")

ROBERT KLEIN: The Catskill hotels were the settings for the most important, fascinating era in American humor.

LYDEN: The film features clips and commentary by stand-up classics like Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, so many more.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You see, in those days, comics had someplace to be bad.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: They didn't tell you go away because you had a dream of being a comedian.

LYDEN: Robert Klein, thank you for joining us.

KLEIN: Oh, thank you.

LYDEN: Well, this documentary really is a tribute to the Catskill Mountains' entertainment circuit. A lot of comedians went from there to become the household names we know today. For those who don't know about the origin of comedy in the Catskills, would you just tell us a little bit about the beginnings?

KLEIN: Well, the beginning of the 20th century, New York tenements were streaming with immigrants, and 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. And 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. And humor was a kind of backbone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: He got a crazy phobia. He thought he was a taxi cab. Well, I took him to a psychiatrist. And after two years, I went to the psychiatrist - nothing was happening. I said, come here. My friend's been coming to you two years. He thinks he's a taxi cab. I said, are you going to cure him? The doctor says, what for? He takes me home every night.

LYDEN: What was the connection between Jewish humor and the Catskills? Why were so many people coming from New York City itself and why had a lot of people congregated there from the diaspora around Europe?

KLEIN: Well, of course, we're talking about people who settled in New York. It was only about 90 miles away. It was inexpensive in the small places. And, of course, 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 overrepresented in professional comedy by an enormous amount and underrepresented in the priesthood. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I have a girlfriend. To me, she's the most remarkable, the most wonderful person in the world. That's to me. But to my wife...

KLEIN: Every Saturday night show, even in the smallest hotels, had a comedian. The largest ones had really big stars. And I didn't play the Borscht Belt until I had some reputation and played the Concord and Kutsher's. However, I was - 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, you know? It's better than being a doctor, I thought.

LYDEN: Let's go back to your clip. You finally get to play one of these clubs. Let's hear a little vintage Robert Klein.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KLEIN: Then they'd go into these English jokes with Yiddish punch lines. They did this sometimes. And it drove me crazy. I don't understand Yiddish. And the guy has me hooked on a good story. And I'm trailing along, he's, know what happened last night? I went to my wife. I said, let's make love. She said, I can't. Went to the doctor, got a pill. You know what happened? (Yiddish spoken)

LYDEN: It's really funny to see you doing that. Tell me what was going on there in that routine.

KLEIN: When I was a young man working in these hotels, a lot of the older clientele still very much understood Yiddish. And even though I didn't understand what the punch line was, it still sounded funny. It normally was an idiom or something. I asked the old man laughing next to me: What did he say? He says I have you in the earth. Yes, yes, I have you in the earth, and that's an insult? Yes. So, you know, it even sounded funny. It was wonderful.

LYDEN: You know, you bring up something - you've touched on something in this film which gave me a little bit of an ache. These people - especially if we're talking about the '30s and the '40s - the people who are able to go up to the Catskills, many of them are survivors, many of them are kin to people who might be missing...

KLEIN: Indeed.

LYDEN: ...or had been in exile. And yet, by the '50s, we see people kind of sending that up, turning it into irony. Mel Brooks' version of the "History of the World" injects this Spanish inquisition routine. Then there's this Hitler on ice business that we've got going on, where someone's doing an ice-skating routine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HISTORY OF THE WORLD")

BROOKS: See Hitler on ice.

KLEIN: That's a very true observation. 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. And he had a Cadillac convertible. He was clearly a wealthy man, smoked expensive cigars. And I said to him: Why don't you have that number removed? He said: Well, if I ever get too big for my breeches, I want to look down at my arm and know where I came from.

You know, there was an awful lot of wonderful people who had been through hell and back. It's amazing. And I think that it's gone the way - all of that - it's sad - not only figuratively has this whole era gone, but literally, the buildings that once stood are now piles of rubble.

LYDEN: I wanted to ask you if there - what was left, what remains, if anything, in the Catskills scene?

KLEIN: Mm. The Nevele was a famous hotel that's still around. They do conventions. There's a couple of - it's gone. And I think several things: air conditioning, big factor that 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.

LYDEN: That's Robert Klein. His new documentary, "When Comedy Went to School," opened this week in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE 'EM LAUGH")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Make 'em laugh, make 'em...

LYDEN: Maybe you could close us out with a joke.

KLEIN: 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, he says: Look, I hope you get better. And the guy says: You too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE 'EM LAUGH")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite. And you can charm the critics and have nothin' to eat. Just slip on a banana peel the world's at your feet. Make 'em laugh, make 'eam laugh, make 'em laugh. Make 'em laugh. Make 'em laugh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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