Abe Vigoda was pronounced dead again, Gilbert Gottfried was stuck in the bathroom, and Milton Berle’s member exerted the same allure nine years after it expired as when he was pulling out “just enough to win” at size contests. In some respects it was just another night at the Friar’s Club, except this September night was different: The release party for Even More Jewish Comedians, the final installment in Drew Friedman’s critically kvelled-upon Tummler Trilogy, Old Jewish Comedians.
One of the most searing satirists working in any medium, Friedman depicts the grit behind the glamour in disarming detail, from mesmerizing stipples to lush watercolors. In one of his earliest comics, written by his brother Josh for the first issue of Art Spiegelman’s RAW, Friedman conjured what would happen in the universe of “The Andy Griffith Show” if a black man showed up looking to fill his car with gas. (The piece ends with a Ku Klux Klan lynching.) From there, he’s continued to capture the underbelly of American dreams in The New York Observer, The New Yorker, The New York Times and in several book collections. Most recently, his Old Jewish Comedians trilogy has set new standards for portraiture, earning him the title “Vermeer of the Borscht Belt” by The New York Times Book Review. The Jewish Daily Forward Artist-in-Residence Eli Valley spoke with Friedman about schtick, liver spots versus freckles, and the fury unique to people who tell jokes for a living.
So much of your work breaks down the subject mercilessly. But with Old Jewish Comedians, your affection is palpable, even when the alter kockers are portrayed in pajamas. Where’d this love come from?
A lot has to do with growing up with Jewish relatives and encountering them at Seders and Bar Mitzvahs. I don’t have any professional comedians in my family, but I kind of knew these people, or where they came from – the Bronx or Brooklyn, where my parents come from. Even Jews who aren’t professional comedians can be funny, especially the older ones.
You recognized some schtick from home.
Yeah. We’d go to Seders, and as a little kid with my brothers, we’d be kind of quiet, but everybody was outdoing each other. It’s sort of a tradition in Jewish families, at least from New York, that everybody’s a comedian. To this day, when I get together with whatever older relatives I still have, everybody’s trying to outdo each other with schtick. So that reflects in these books as well, just trying to capture that feeling.
Despite the love, though, you can feel the comedians’ passion, even anger. You once said “I love the angry comedians. These guys that are supposed to make you laugh, but they’re always angry.” What is it about that anger?
That’s very appealing to me, comedians who are angry. It’s a contradiction. Shouldn’t these guys be happy? Also, I enjoy angry cartoonists, that’s just a little thing I have.
Buddy Hackett — later in life he just seemed like an angry guy. I’ve heard the contrary, that he was actually very sweet, and people adored him. I never met him, but my older brother once asked for his autograph, and Hackett waved him away, which I never forgot. My family, we never forget slights. I remember George Carlin adored Danny Kaye when he was growing up; Kaye was his idol. Then he encountered Kaye at a restaurant, and Kaye waved him off. “I got no time for you, kid.” All he wanted was an autograph. He said it was never the same for him again, with Danny Kaye or with comedians in general. It just broke his spirit.
You know, it’s never a good idea to meet your idols.
Were you trying to channel the comedians’ anger in your art, or were you just drawing them as lively as possible?
The main guy I really wanted to put the anger across with was Milton Berle. He’s got his trademark cigar, pointing at the readers as if demanding they buy the book. I remember watching him on “The Joe Franklin Show” in the 70s and 80s, and he seemed like an angry guy, especially when interrupted. Joe Franklin tended to interrupt people. Milton Berle would go on there, start talking, and Joe would say something and Milton Berle would just – you could see the anger, it was palpable. He would point his bony finger at Joe, as if to warn him, “Don’t you dare interrupt me again.” With the big cigar in his mouth, dribbling cigar juice down his chin. That image stuck with me. So I knew some day I would try to bring that back to life, and that’s why I put him on the cover of the first book – to have him shilling for it.
Was it like Don Rickles’s, the anger kinda turned on for the audience?
I think it was real. I love Rickles too, but his anger seems scripted. He’s not an angry guy, what does he have to be angry about? A guy in his mid-80s and he’s still as hot as ever. But Milton Berle, it was much more genuine, he just seemed angry. A lot of these guys, they get to a point where they’re angry they’re not getting the attention they used to get. I guess that’s true for anybody getting old who used to be in the limelight. I wanted to capture that. “Pay attention to me, I’m old but I’m still funny and I want you to pay attention to me.”
These guys are still in your face, they never slow down, but basically it’s over. There’s no more work. A lot of them would just be happy to receive an award for their work. You just don’t want to be forgotten.
Did you go to the Borscht Belt resorts a lot as a kid, or is your knowledge mostly based on books and documentaries?
My dad would take us up to Kutsher’s or The Concord occasionally, but we didn’t make a habit of it. I was more of a Hamptons’ kid. That’s where my parents vacationed. But my dad, who was a writer, would actually meet and work with some of these guys over the years. All they wanted to do was joke around and tell great stories. That was a perk of being the son of a writer.
I was going to ask, because your father is Bruce Jay Friedman, the great “black humorist,” and I think some of his sensibility comes out in your work.
He was basically the center of our universe. His sense of humor was bound to rub off on us. I became more of a visual guy, I guess. But just being associated with him, we got to meet a lot of those performers. I’m not a fan of all of them. I don’t buy into across the board, easy nostalgia. I’m not crazy about Eddy Cantor. He’s kind of annoying. He minces around, prances around. Or Red Buttons, I was never a Red Buttons fan. But what they all have in common are those great faces. That’s what drew me to draw them.
You went with the liver spots on Red Buttons pretty assiduously.
He was more of a freckles guy actually. Some people think I gave Woody Allen too many liver spots, including him. He once complained to The New York Observer that he’d never write for them again because my drawing that ran with his piece was covered with freckles. He’s a pretty freckly guy, although they’re fading with age. There’s a difference between freckles and liver spots, so I take offense by the assumption that they’re always liver spots.
What is the difference? Is a liver spot a freckle when it gets old?
I think liver spots come on later in life. You don’t see kids with liver spots. I’m in my fifties now, so I’m not quite detecting liver spots, but I know they’re coming. I’m gonna be plagued with them – poetic justice. But my dad is 81 now and I haven’t seen any liver spots on him, so they’re not automatic.
I love drawing liver spots. Like Al Hirschfeld had his Ninas, liver spots are my Ninas. If I’m drawing a face and there’s not much going on, even an older face, if I add some liver spots up there, it just adds another dynamic quality. Also, David Levine, one of my heroes, mastered liver spots years before I did my first one. I just loved how he’d add just a touch of liver spots. Maybe I’ve gone overboard in some cases.
I think Old Jewish Comedians might have more liver spots than any other work in human history.
You’re probably right, and I think I’m gonna have to tone them down in the future. But people like them. You can count them if you wanna become obsessive. I gave up the stipple work years ago, so I sort of compensate with the liver spots now; they’re just larger.
Milton Berle’s penis was a major focus of attention at the Friar’s Club party. Any chance you’d do a book of illustrated jokes about his member?
Yes, I would take part in that. I don’t think I would instigate it. There’s actually a documentary in the works that I’ve been hearing about for a while – a “cockumentary” about Milton Berle’s penis. I forget the guy who’s doing it, but I’m anticipating it.
That should happen.
It would be an interesting film. Everybody knows Milton Berle had a legendary appendage. That’s no secret; he discussed it himself in his autobiography. The few people who saw it said it was the most horrific, most grotesque thing they’d ever seen in their lives. They never got over it. When Milton Berle appeared on the cover of Spy Magazine 25 years ago, as a woman, a couple of interns had to help him get dressed. One of the interns, I was told this years later, actually saw him naked and fainted.
A lot of people claim they were there when Miltion Berle had his size contest, where he only took out enough to win. But there are so many different variations to that story; some people claim it happened at the Friars in New York, others that it happened at the Friars in Los Angeles, others that it happened at the Hillcrest Country Club. So many different versions, it would be like The Aristocrats. Maybe they should make this movie as everybody’s version of seeing Milton Berle’s penis and what they’ve heard about it.
Exactly. When Milton went on the Howard Stern show, he was pretty old at the time, but all Howard wanted to talk about was his penis. Milton would act embarrassed, like “Howard, you’re a grown man, I don’t want to talk about this, your mother’s listening.” But Howard would say “No, no, I only want to talk about your penis.” So Milton would go along with it, telling stories Howard wanted to hear. But then as Howard started changing the subject, interestingly, Milton would veer back towards his penis. He was into the whole thing. He loved people knowing he had the largest schlong in Hollywood. When Howard put out Private Parts, he had a chapter about Milton Berle, and he wanted me to illustrate it with Milton Berle with his zipper down and appendage coming out, wrapping around the page, wrapping around the second page, wrapping around the next three, four, five pages, throughout the entire chapter, and ending on the last page. But it was nixed. Simon and Schuster wouldn’t go there.
For illustrations of a clothed Milton Berle along with dozens of other icons from the golden age of American comedy, grab all three volumes of Drew Friedman’s Old Jewish Comedians here.
For comics by Eli Valley go here.
Thanks to Jeff Newelt & Kristina DeFonte
“That’s very appealing to me, comedians who are angry. It’s a contradiction. Shouldn’t these guys be happy?”
It’s almost axiomatic that great comedians are unhappy. That’s the way it used to be, at any rate. Perhaps, with these last couple of generations, not so much.
(Richard Belzer qualifies as old? He’s 67. Abe Vigoda, I can understand. He’s 167.)
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