More Old Jewish Comedians (Fantagraphics)

friedman-header.jpgAnother collection of celebrated caricaturist Drew Friedman’s portraits of Jewish comedians as they enter their very golden (read: ancient) years.



32 pgs. B&W; $16.99

(A: Drew Friedman)


Drew Friedman’s celebrated skill as a painter of grotesque caricatures is such that he could do a book on any of society’s subcults—dentists, murderers, boxing promoters, you name it—and the results would merit the standard, rapt, freak-show gawk his work always inspires.

That he’s obsessed with Jewish comedians in their very golden (read: ancient) years adds to that gawk a singular note of damaged humanity. Friedman is drawn not just to the time- and nightclub-ravaged faces of these altacoccers, but to the weird, individual expressions of pathos and failure he somehow manages to emphasize with each portrait.

Take the cover image of Joe E. Lewis (please). Early in his career, Lewis was assaulted by three of Al Capone’s thugs for declining an offer to perform at Chicago’s Green Mill club, a Capone hideaway. He was beaten so badly it took him several years to learn to speak again. His subsequent triumphs may be viewed, morbidly, through the dark lenses of his near-death at the hands of professional monsters. Levity through gravity. Or maybe the other way around.

The cover to More Old Jewish Comedians by Drew Friedman. Click for a larger image.At any rate, Friedman’s pitch-perfect painting of the gap-toothed comedian yukking it up at a nightclub captures something in the eyes, just so— the gaze of a clown making merry in a long shadow of pain. If that sounds stupid, consider that these are Jews. They come from a long tradition of laughter and ethnic cleansing, twisted together for thousands of years. Consider that these men—and a few women—are rendered in their dotage, when everyone deals with his own special little crescendo of physical pain and personal reckoning. Consider that Friedman is particularly drawn to the avowed madmen. In his first volume, Old Jewish Comedians, Friedman painted Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, and Jerry Lewis, all supernatural forces of comedy, and all supposedly wracked offstage by their apoplectic, punctured rage at the world.

Consider that, like Joe E. Lewis, many of these survivors have unenviable stories to tell. The death-obsessed, incest-friendly, former talent that is Woody Allen here fixes his jaw and eyes in a joyless combo so familiar from paparazzi photos of the protonebbish shlepping around Manhattan.

And then there are men that wear such bleak looks, we don’t even wanna know. That would include the long-faced final Rat Packer, Joey Bishop, and the positively suicidal-looking Bert Lahr, best known as the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz. Friedman exults in the unresolved joining of private tsuris (pain) and public naches (joy) in the faces of his subjects. This is simply an album of neurotic, sweaty, oily, liver-spotted, famous faces that, like comedy itself, repackage suffering as a circus of queasy laughs.

On a more practical note, the book encourages the reader to learn about the careers of some of the forgotten jokers Friedman remembers for us. These would include big-eyed Molly Picon, who starred in NY’s extinct Yiddish theater scene, opened her own theater in the ‘30s, and played Yente the Matchmaker in Norman Jewison’s film version of Fiddler on the Roof. Jew-froed "Hollywood Squares" stalwart Marty Allen is here, as is Carl Ballantine, a magician whose tricks were designed to fail, for laughs. The multitalented Mickey Katz provided "glugging" vocal sound effects for Spike Jones and His City Slickers, recorded ethnic parody songs that influenced a young Weird Al Yankovic, was a widely admired klezmer clarinetist, and, in his spare time, fathered Joel Grey.

Joe E. Ross, from "The Phil Silvers Show" and "Car 54, Where Are You?", came up with his signature line "Ooh! Ooh!" one night when he forgot his lines onstage. He also died onstage (literally) in 1982. "F-Troop"’s Larry Storch, who sports the wild, white beard of a homeless schizophrenic, demonstrated why he’s considered a comic genius in The Aristocrats. Belle Barth was the Jewish Moms Mabley, a taboo-busting party comedian who was as vulgar as she wanna be.

Many of these comedians are performing at the great sleazy casino in the sky, and just about all of the living ones have been slowed by age. It’s fitting that so many of them earned their stripes in entertainment media that have died, too. Catskills resort hotels, vaudeville stages, burlesque houses, Yiddish theaters, and big-budget musical-film spectaculars are all gone. Friedman earns a last laugh for an all-star cast of greats with his signature flop sweat oozing from their desperate, dying, hilarious, Semitic mugs. | Byron Kerman


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