Happy hour was in full swing when Freddie Roman entered the room, late for a meeting with a reporter. Still, as he made his way down the bar, he stopped group by group to chat, leaving laughter in his wake. “Is it 4 o’clock already?” he asked. It was 4:30 p.m.
The venerable Friars Club — famous for a membership of entertainers — hosted a packed ceremony to honor Roman, their much-loved dean and resident social butterfly. Once known for his performances on the Catskills comedy cir- cuit, the 66-year-old’s career hardly vanished with the
Borscht Belt scene. In the early 1990s, he produced and starred in “Catskills on Broadway,” a comedy revue featuring Dick Capri, Mal Z. Lawrence and Louise DuArt (originally played by Marilyn Michaels) doing Borscht Belt stand-up to rave reviews. And now, as Friars Club dean, he is at the center of the comedy world, constantly planning such events as the recent book-warming party for Soupy Sales and the Friars Club comedy night in July.
But as dean, Roman’s most public function is as emcee at the club’s infamous roasts, which air on Comedy Central. “He’s a great emcee. He has the kind of personality you need,” said Joy Behar of “The View,” a fellow Friar. His colleagues agree that he is the consummate host. Roman’s reign at the Friars Club has lasted an unprecedented 10 years — and counting — even though the club’s constitution puts an eight-year limit on the office. Executive director Jean-Pierre Trebot said the executive board plans to adjust the bylaws to accommodate Roman.
With its mahogany decor and stained-glass windows, the Friars Club, on East 55th Street in Manhattan, seems a somewhat somber home for its loud, joke-cracking members — Roman in particular. (“They call him Roman because they can hear him all the way in Italy,” fellow comedian Jeffrey Ross once teased at a roast.) But it is precisely his gregarious sociability that makes Roman a likely candidate for “Most Popular Friar.”
“He walks into the dining room and shakes every hand in there,” Trebot said. “You don’t meet Freddie, he meets you,” Ross quipped. “He walks up to you with an open hand and starts shaking and kissing…. He’s famous for his kissing. He kisses women, men, babies, ex-comics — and they’re always these wet kisses! He’s kissed more people than anyone I know.”
Roman likes to protest that he’s not really the performer people see on stage, but his distinctive voice betrays him as a consummate storyteller. Though raspy from smoking, it has a singsong quality — a combination that is simultaneously emphatic and deadpan. And his features — squinty, laughing eyes and a wide mouth posed in a perpetual, almost mischievous grin — suggest that he was born to tell jokes.
“Onstage, he is so transparently the person he is,” said Roman’s son, Alan Kirschenbaum, who recalled fondly the nights during his childhood when his parents would host their comedian friends, and he would be allowed to stay up late and “listen to the rhythm of these guys speaking.” A social gathering, Kirschenbaum said, would always turn into “a competition to make each other laugh.”
Roman got his start at age 15, after begging his uncle, who owned a small resort in the Catskills, to let him emcee the nightly entertainment shows. Early in his career, when comedy failed to support his wife and two small children, Roman sold women’s shoes and then insurance, but he was miserable. Trying to alleviate his pain, his wife took a teaching job so that Roman could spend more time performing. Friend and fellow Friar Dick Capri knows that, for Roman, performing is like oxygen.
“Freddie, oh he loves the microphone!” Capri said. “He has a medical-alert medal on his neck that if he’s found unconscious, put a microphone in his hand and that will revive him. He loves the spotlight so much, the man will talk to deaf people. He will talk to anybody in the whole world…. You get on an airplane with that man — most people, they want to read a book, take a nap — Freddie is up and down the aisles talking to people.”
“The legacy of the Borscht Belt comedians,” Behar said, “is the idea that you don’t need anything but a microphone and a light in order to be funny. You don’t need props or music. All you have to do is get up there with your shtick and relate to the audience and make them laugh.”
Some members of the old boys’ club are cynical about how much today’s younger comedians have learned from the Borscht Belt alumni. But Roman is optimistic. The rise of comedy clubs means more comedians and more diversity.
“The greatest change of all is the number of women making a living [in comedy] today,” he said, naming Behar as a favorite. He also admires a number of younger comics. He recalled that before their own careers exploded, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser would come to see him perform — looking to him, perhaps, for inspiration.
And there are a few up-and-coming performers Roman adores — he cited newcomers Jeffrey Ross and Richard Jeni as two rising stars. As Friars dean, he has been instrumental in bringing younger entertainers into the fold — there are now 200 members under age 40, compared to only about 60 such members five years ago. He’s also something of a mentor to these young comics, who come to the club to absorb the word play of the Borscht Belt elders huddled around the card tables. “When I was becoming a member, there weren’t many of us who were younger,” Ross said. “But Freddie would always come over and spend time with me and my friends and be real lovable.” Eventually, he said, “you stop noticing who’s young and who’s old.”
Roman’s act has always reflected both his own stage of life and that of his audience. On stage, he now refers to cholesterol tests, grandkids and penny-pinching trips to Costco. (“You come home with 100 rolls of toilet paper; you pray for diarrhea.”) But his senior citizen status hasn’t slowed him down. Capri, an old friend, said it is his intense liveliness and addiction to people that makes Roman the ideal ambassador of comedy. “He’s the social director of the world,” he said. “And he loves every second of it.”
Danielle Stein is a writer living in New York City.