The Mighty Q&A: Tom Chesek interviews Drew Friedman about his upcoming Society of Illustrators show, being sued for $40 million, and Lugosi vs. Karloff.
By TOM CHESEK
Robert Crumb…that avuncular Nucky Thompson of the comics underworld…stood in awe of his talent and technique. The Times Book Review likened him to Vermeer; Kurt Vonnegut compared him to Goya; Howard Stern said he was better than Picasso. And Joe Franklin elevated him to the pantheon of “the greats” by virtue of an epic lawsuit, about which more in a moment.
There were cautionaries among the compliments, too, with Will Eisner telling him to “lose the dots;” Harvey Kurtzman calling him “nuts” for his labor-intensive pointlllistic detail, and Crumb tempering his words of encouragement with a note of concern about the young artist’s eyesight.
Once even more obsessed with those devilishly detailed “dots” than Little Dot herself, Drew Friedman stippled his last staccato stab of the Croquill pen some twenty years ago — bravely putting aside his signature technique in favor of a watercolor flume-ride that looped crazy circles around the messy, littered carnival of the popular culture. While fans of his earlier, dottier dissections of sad old celebrities and neglected New Yorkers — often featuring the savvy and surreal script contributions of his brother Josh — could still enjoy those grainy, late-night B&W reruns in collections like Warts and All and (recently reissued) Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental, Friedman’s second-act portfolio served to get him noticed like those first glimpses of the RCA NewVista in the appliance store window. Just as everything we loved about Gilligan and Jeannie was able to transfer with ease to a more vividly expansive new TV universe, so did Drew Friedman’s cavalcade of unforgettable faces leave their niche cubbyholes of Raw, Heavy Metal, Weirdo and Screw to go blinking out into the bright lights of American mass media for what could be called “a little color.”
While he may have been regularly picturing Beltway backroomers, Botox’d bimbos and boardroom bigwigs going for the gusto in the pages of everything from The New York Times, New York Observer, Village Voice and The New Yorker to Time, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and that budding-cartoonist grail known as MAD, the man who famously said “Liver spots are my NINAs” never lost his affinity for the weathered and leathered faces of vintage entertainers. Specifically, the Old Jewish Comedians that he lovingly rendered in a series of “BLAB Storybooks” edited by Monte Beauchamp.
Those boys (and a few girls) of the Borscht Belt, burlesque houses and beyond — from Berle, Burns, Benny and Brooks to — uh, Menasha Skulnick? — reside at the big, generous heart of Drew Friedman’s new solo exhibit, also called Old Jewish Comedians and opening March 5 at Manhattan’s Society of Illustrators gallery with a reception on the evening of March 6. Populated by people whose faces were cathode-cannoned into his consciousness by a youth spent seining the phantom channels of local New York TV, it’s a kosher keynote to a two-month installation highlighted by an April 24 panel on “The Evolution of Jewish American Comedy” that teams Drew with, among others, Larry (F Troop) Storch.
Drew Friedman’s magazine-work collection Too Soon? sports an intro by the artist that answers a lot of the questions we’d normally want to ask — from his work chronology and greatest influences, to his pen nib of choice (Hunt No. 4) and his personal pick for “funniest non-Jews who ever lived” (Bob and Ray). The bio page on his website devoted to fine art prints offers a succinct summary as well — and his very entertaining blog ventures wherever it may, from “Godfrey Cambridge’s Rent A Negro Plan” to “The Musical Stylings of Anthony Quinn.”
13th Dimension rang up the ever-industrious Friedman, at the Pennsylvania home he shares with his wife and occasional collaborator Kathy Bidus, plus beagles. Read on…
Thanks for finding the time to chat, Drew. I’m calling from Asbury Park, a town I know you’re familiar with from frequent visits…although it seems I’m always missing you by like 30 seconds whenever you’re here.
I like to come around there once or twice each year. We stay in Ocean Grove, and we walk into Asbury to dine out and look up our old friend Jeffrey Seeds, who used to live across the road from us. I remember I saw Bruce Springsteen two years ago…I was so excited; I was talking about it in a restaurant and everybody else was looking at me like I was crazy, because they see that sort of thing every day. I’ve since learned to keep it to myself. It’s like when we first went to Ireland; my wife announced that we’d seen a rainbow, and they were all…so what! (laughs)
I’m aware that you make your home out in rural Pennsylvania, but I’m surprised that it’s been nearly 25 years since you moved from Manhattan to a literal log cabin…cold turkey, without passing GO or doing the suburbs thing. You always seemed so plugged into the media scene there in the city.
When my wife and I do something, we go full tilt. We don’t do things half-assed! We’re not in the log cabin anymore; more of a suburban sort of situation, only 80 miles from Manhattan, but still far enough away so I don’t get all distracted. I wouldn’t get nearly as much work done if I lived in the the city.
But never for a moment did I feel like I needed to move back to New York…we were actually in an area with a lot of New Yorkers, and the only thing that really needed to adjust was my sinuses…I was congested for the first two years we were there.
So did you have a GREEN ACRES moment or two when you first became a country gentleman? I somehow still can’t see you doing the wood chopping thing.
Well, the thing about Green Acres was that Oliver’s wife was just as insane as the neighbors! So no, it was nothing like Hooterville…and as far as chopping wood, I would hire somebody to do that for me, and being Jewish I’d pay him as little as possible!
I threw my back out installing a toilet seat once…and I still have to worry about shoveling snow. I did have a messenger guy for a number of years; he was taking cruises on the money I paid him, but everything is emailed now…none of the original artwork leaves the house.
MAD magazine was the last holdout. At first, I didn’t want to work for them, because I heard that they never returned artwork, but they assured me, after Bill Gaines died, that I’d get it all back. So since then I’ve done hundreds of pages for MAD. I am one of the Gang of Idiots, and I couldn’t be more proud.
One of the charter members of the Usual Gang of Idiots, the great Al Jaffee, was enlisted to do the foreword for your new collection HEROES OF THE COMICS. With the understanding that there introverts and extroverts in this world, do you get the sense that guys like Al Jaffee share a kinship with those classic Old Jewish Comedians that you love; that they’re really cut from the same cloth in the end?
I think that a lot of cartoonists are comedians on paper…most are shy; they hide behind their work, which is kind of what I did for a while. But I’m a lot more comfortable now, getting up and speaking in public. Having parties at the Friars Club really prepared me for that. I would have to fight those guys for the microphone, even though it was supposed to be my event!
I love the Society of Illustrators, but when you mention the Friars Club I get to thinking that the place really is the Friars Club of artists…
It has been kind of like an old boys club, but there’s a woman director there now who’s really worked to make it a hipper place to hang out; bring in a younger crowd, and the food’s a lot better now too. She did a great Harvey Kurtzman show there not too long ago. Although with all of the old Jews coming in for my event, it’s not gonna be that hip of a crowd! I can’t really promise who you’ll see at the reception, but some of the people who’ve come out for some of my previous events included Larry Storch, Jerry Stiller, Freddie Roman, Abe Vigoda…
Are you just kind of accepted into that fraternity of old guys anymore; you’re like an honorary nonagenarian yourself, someone who speaks their language?
I have to say that I’m not even much of a fan of some of the people that I draw…it’s just that I love their faces! I think I appreciate the ones where some of the magic is gone…to be replaced by anger! I love angry old comedians, like Jack Carter…he’s been around for many years, working all the same nightclubs and TV shows as all the other guys who got their own shows, and watching someone like Jackie Mason bounce back and acquire a whole new audience in their later years. But something about him…I don’t want to suggest that he burned all his bridges or anything, but they say that the Billy Crystal movie Mr. Saturday Night was based on Jack.
Have there been instances in which your renditions of public figures have really rankled someone, beyond just causing them to curse and throw the magazine in the wastebasket?
I was sued for 40 million dollars by Joe Franklin, over a one page comic called ‘The Incredible Shrinking Joe Franklin.’ He also sued Uncle Floyd for 35 million, for those ‘Joe Frankfutter’ sketches, and he speculated about suing Billy Crystal for the sketches he did on TV, so I guess I’m proud of the fact that I hold the record for largest amount of money sought by Joe Franklin. He sued Heavy Metal magazine, where the strip appeared, and the parent magazine, National Lampoon, but the suit was thrown out of court…although it did serve to cause me a fair amount of anxiety. I don’t wanna be sued again! Most people have been fine with what I do.
But then you and your brother went ahead and kept doing strips like “Joe Franklin is a Dream Walking.” And irony of ironies, Joe wound up getting sued by a Hollywood movie studio, when he briefly replaced his old “12th Street Rag” intro music with the “Axel F Theme” from BEVERLY HILLS COP, without apparently having asked…
Josh and I did the whole ‘Joe Franklin Story’ biography and I don’t think he even noticed. The funniest thing about it is that Joe and I are now friends…he loved my Old Jewish Comedians books, and I got to visit his legendary office. I honestly don’t think he even remembers suing me! And as for the thing with the theme song, I’m guessing that was the work of one of the people at the station. Joe wouldn’t even know anything that contemporary. He knows Bing Crosby!
Putting aside any subjective argument over what is or isn’t funny, who do you see out there today as the real heir to that Jewish Comedian tradition?
I don’t really go to comedy clubs, or even really follow comedy in general…some of the guys we still think of as the younger generation of Jewish comedians are getting on in years now…Robert Klein, Billy Crystal, David Brenner, who’s like gonna be 80! But Gilbert Gottfried is really an old school type of comic; he’s definitely in that tradition. He’s gonna be 58 years old; whenever we see each other we talk about Lon Chaney Jr.! That’s his obsession. Then there’s Sara Silverman; Jeff Ross…he has really followed in that George Jessel, Toastmaster General, Roastmaster tradition. He looks like Bert Lahr…like he was born to be a comedian! And he also became a friend. His first roast was also Milton Berle’s last…kind of a passing of the torch moment. Berle, who was in a wheelchair but still sharp, gave him a big thumbs up…and Buddy Hackett kind of became his mentor.
You have contributed to more magazines…and more of a variety of magazines…than anyone else that I can think of. As a real industry veteran, and with the industry being what it’s become in the past several years, whither the magazine biz?
I can’t say for sure. I don’t work in magazines as much as I used to…most of the time I turn down assignments because I don’t have the time or the inclination. Sometimes I’ll see a mention of something that ran in the latest issue of Esquire, and I’ll be surprised that Esquire, TV Guide, whatever, still exists. Things like Newsweek, The Onion are all online now…but really, I’d hate to lose that world entirely.
Alright, lightning round! All-time greatest New York kid-TV host?
Officer Joe Bolton!
Favorite movie filmed on location in New York?
Either The Godfather, or Taxi Driver...I’ll say Taxi Driver, ’cause you see the Metropole Hotel.
Between Pete Seeger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ralph Kiner…the one whose recent death hit you the hardest?
Ralph Kiner definitely. He was such a part of my childhood. And he dated Liz Taylor! But I’m actually more of a Lindsey Nelson.
Joe Pepitone, or Ron Swoboda?
Pep…if for no other reason that occasionally, his wig would come off. You gotta love that!
Karloff or Lugosi?
Oh, I love ’em both equally. Lon Chaney Jr. too! Peter Lorre, Tor Johnson. I’m actually thinking of doing a whole book on the great monster movie stars!
Take it here for more info on the Old Jewish Comedians exhibit, on display at the Society of Illustrators through May 5. And be on the lookout for Part Two of our interview with Drew Friedman, right here at the 13th Dimension!