Legendary Laughs

By Shani R. Friedman

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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Old Jewish Comedians
By Drew Friedman
Fantagraphics, 32 pages, $14.95

If you’re a devotee of old-school comics of the Hebraic persuasion, Milton Berle, Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers might come to mind when you think of comedy lengeds. For those whose tastes run to the lesser known or to the slightly more obscure, the list might include Benny Rubin, Menasha Skulnik and Joe Smith. Either way, the new book “Old Jewish Comedians,” a collection of nearly three-dozen black-and-white and color portraits by Reuben Award-winning cartoonist Drew Friedman, will have casual fans and serious collectors plotzing with joy over these greats of a bygone era.

The project came about after Monte Beauchamp, the creative force behind the BLAB! Storybook series, approached Friedman about doing a book. Friedman agreed to take on the project; he had a sizable reference file of photos of old comedians that he had been collecting since childhood, and his collection proved invaluable because even the vast resources on the Internet came up empty for some of the comedy elders.

Over the course of a year, from his home in Pennsylvania, “in between drawing Jennifer Aniston for Entertainment Weekly,” Friedman would “unwind and draw Shecky Greene” and others, each portrait taking about two days. “I just love their faces,” Friedman told the Forward. “They want to make people laugh. They can’t stop.” Friedman was very specific about whom he included in the book. “I limited myself to guys born before 1930. I decided to focus on those who I’d drawn, and been drawn to, over the years. This book was strictly dedicated to them.” Friedman’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Observer and Los Angeles Magazine.

Aside from a loving foreword written by film critic Leonard Maltin, there is no text. That, according to Friedman, was deliberate. “I didn’t want this to be a history book. A lot of them didn’t have interesting careers. What I mean is, I find them [interesting] despite that fact, or maybe because of that fact. The stories depicted in their faces are interesting to me.”

Indeed, the pictures, which are rich in detail as well as touching and funny, reveal a great deal about the lives and successes these men had — perhaps more so than a biographical sketch ever could. The curious can find such information easily via the Internet, and this visual homage might leave a lasting impression, prompting newfound interest in some of history’s unsung comics.

Each illustration includes a caption identifying the performer. Virtually all the performers changed their names “because of widespread antisemitism at the time, to appeal to a larger venue, beyond the Borscht Belt,” Friedman said. Aaron Chwatt became renaissance showman Red Buttons (taking his stage name from his bellhop uniform), Jacob Cohen transformed into the respect-free Rodney Dangerfield (a pseudonym used by Ricky Nelson on “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet”) and Archibald Donald Rickles turned into the fearsome Don Rickles.

Friedman took great care in choosing who would open and close the book. “I had a little black-and-white photo with Milton Berle lighting his cigar with his eyes bugged out, and knew Uncle Milty should be on the cover with his finger pointing, as if to say: ‘You better buy this book! Pay attention to me!’” He put Moe Howard of the Three Stooges on the back cover, because he liked how he looked as an older man. “When the camera was on him, he would comb his hair forward like a Stooge. He’s looking at the reader as if asking, ‘What happened?!’”

Friedman wouldn’t reveal the comic he loved most, but he admitted his two favorite drawings: Jack Benny “in his Beverly Hills Mansion” and Paul “Mousie” Garner, “obscure to his dying day. I pulled back a bit more for those two,” he said.

Now that the book is out, Friedman is looking forward to working on the sequel, “More Old Jewish Comedians,” which will be published by Fantagraphics in 2008. He’s eager to draw Mel Brooks for the cover and to include women, such as Joan Rivers and Molly Picon.

In the meantime, Friedman will have the opportunity to kibbitz with some of the guys celebrated in the book, who have organized a December meet and greet that will take place at the infamous Friar’s Club. It will give him a chance to work on his impersonations, including a pretty spot-on Jerry Lewis.

Shani Friedman (no relation to the artist) is a freelance writer and tenant advocate living in Brooklyn.

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