Attending the book release party for the last volume of Old Jewish Comedians was one of the great pleasure I’ve been afforded thanks to this site. The event, fittingly, was held in the legendary Friars Club in midtown Manhattan, with the likes of Joe Franklin, Mickey Freeman, Larry Storch, and Jerry Stiller all present to celebrate the Drew Friedman’s collection of comic portraits.
Earlier this month, Fantagraphics released the third and final entry in the series, yet another tribute to the cartoonist’s love of capturing every wrinkle and liver spot of a well-seasoned face.
We sat down with Friedman to discuss the new collection and the club’s place in comedy history.
I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while, and I got the invite for the upcoming Friars Club book release, so the timing made sense.
I hope you can make it—I really enjoyed your piece on the last party.
It’s one of the few things that I’ve done in the past five years that I felt like I had to send to my grandfather, who is himself an old Jew.
Bring him. Is he in New York?
No, he’s an old LA Jew.
Ah, yeah. There’s no more Friars Club in LA. There was one for years that opened in the late-50s, but it recently closed. I think the building lost its lease, or something. But it was sort of a half-assed Friars Club. It wasn’t like the New York one. But when Milton Berle was still around, those guys would frequent it, but there are less and less of those guys, so it just finally closed. I had never gone there, but the New York one is the real-deal.
Not to be too much of a downer, but that generation is dying out—are they still admitting new members?
I guess. I’m not even a member. Mostly these days it’s dentists and lawyers and chiropractors. I guess there are some younger comedians, but I’m not even a member. It’s just too expensive and I don’t live in the city, so I wouldn’t take advantage of it.
But they’ve been very generous, throwing these parties. It seems like the perfect place to have a party for these particular books.
That’s sort of a bummer to hear—that it’s all dentists now.
Yeah, it’s mostly dentists. You walk around and where’s the comedians? Where’s the people in show business? They show up for events and stuff, but usually when you walk through and go to the pool table, it’s dentists and people who want to be mingling with people in show business.
The place is so legendary—I’ll be talking about it on Thursday, the whole place. It’s hard to find any famous comedians there, these days, unless it’s a private party or a roast. But they’re all coming out on Thursday—or whoever’s left, anyway.
Is that the state of the Jewish comedian? Is it just not as prominent as it once was?
Yeah, I guess it’s kind of faded away. It’s part of history now. People are going to be flocking to this thing, because just to be in the Friar’s Club is like stepping into the past. People just never assumed that they would never be in there or would never be invited to a party, so it’s kind of a novelty now.
It’s kind of yesterday’s news, but I love going there. Again, I’m not a member, and I’m not ever going to be a member. But where else are you going to see Freddie Roman and Stewie Stone and Irwin Corey all under the same roof at the same time? Every year, some of them pass away, like Mickey Freeman, who passed away last year. This book is dedicated to him, and I’m going to do a mini-tribute to him. And his wife died earlier this year, which is sad.
Where else are you going to find a gathering of these guys, except at the Friar’s Club? So, for that reason alone, it’s still an important place. And a lot of younger comedians want to join, just for the tradition. Jeff Ross is very active with the Friar’s aside from the roasts. And I know a lot of younger comedians think they have to join it because they grew up knowing about it.
This is the third book.
It’s the third and last one. No more. I’m done with it.
Did you run out of old Jewish comedians?
No, believe it or not, I have a list of probably over one hundred, and I always get new ones—people I’ve never heard of. I have a long list. But it would be overkill to do a fourth one, at this point—also, I don’t want to scrape the bottom of the barrel. When I did the first one, I thought that would be it, so I threw all of the really big ones in there—Jerry Lewis, Sid Caeser, the Marx Brothers, Phil Silvers, etc., thinking there.
Then it sold really well, so I did a second and then a third one. I don’t want to say that I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel, but there are some comedians that I’m not exactly thrilled with—I’m not going to say who they are. But I’m not really a fan of some of these people—some of them are pretty annoying, I think [laughs]. But they have great faces. That’s what everyone has in common, they have great faces and are fun to draw.
That’s what it comes down to? The actual act of drawing the face?
Basically when Monte Beauchamp who edits those books invited me to do a book, I thought about what I like to draw the most. I like to draw comedians and old Jews. So I put those two together and started working on them between assignments over a year. I just got pleasure in drawing them. I could put aside any annoying assignment I had and just get down to drawing those old Jewish faces. That’s what it came down to.
They’re like in your face—you probably encountered them at the last party. They just never slow down. I might have to fight for the microphone on Thursday. They’re just such hams. And they never stop. Mickey Freeman was in his hospital bed at age 93, and all he wanted to do was get on the phone are start calling people and talk show business.
I wanted to capture that in these books.
[Continued in Part Two]