Did you hear the one about the old Jewish comedians who got hung on the wall?
Seriously, a new show at the Society of Illustrators gallery in Manhattan is showcasing original paintings from Drew Friedman’s cult trilogy “Old Jewish Comedians” (Fantagraphics), along with a trove of memorabilia from Friedman’s own collection.
Spread across two floors, the 110 nightmarishly funny illustrations also include Friedman’s warts-and-all illustrations for media outlets like The New York Observer, and a terrifying Woody Allen portrait for “He Said/She Said,” a 1996 comic book about the director’s split from Mia Farrow.
Friedman attended New York’s School of Visual Arts from 1978 to 1981, where he studied under legendary comics masters like Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Edward Sorel, Stan Mack and Arnold Roth, as his bio explains. He launched his career in the 1980s writing and illustrating what he calls “morbid alternative comics,” often collaborating with his brother, writer Josh Alan Friedman. He’s gone mainstream since then, supplying illustrations to everyone from The New York Times to Esquire to The New Republic.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the old comedians have struck such a chord. “The subject of humor speaks to everyone, and the cultural aspect of Yiddish theater and comedy has huge appeal,” says Anelle Miller, the Society of Illustrators’ executive director. “But I’d also rank Drew with people like Ed Sorel, who did this great satirical work while continuing his illustration practice.”
The Forward caught up with Friedman a week after the show’s opening, where he mugged for photos with OJC subjects like Robert Klein and Abe Vigoda — and future OJCs like Gilbert Gottfried.