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Classic comic sketches

In `Old Jewish Comedians,' artist Drew Friedman captures the gag masters of vaudeville and beyond. Those laugh lines are well earned.

January 14, 2007|Ben Schwartz | Special to The Times

"WHOSE funeral was it?" asked Freddie Roman, talking to his longtime friend Mickey Freeman. Freeman shrugged, "Buddy Hackett's?" "No, Buddy was there. Sinatra's?" said Roman, who gave up on the story to sign a copy of "Old Jewish Comedians," a new collection of caricatures of elderly comedians by illustrator Drew Friedman.

When the New York City Friars Club members gathered in their headquarters' George Burns Room to celebrate a book with that title, any number of conversations started this way. It was just before the holidays, and the Friars were giving Friedman a "book warming," which was somewhere between a roast and a book release party. They alternately referred to him as "the author" and "the culprit."

In our youth-obsessed culture, the title of Friedman's book itself sounds like a challenge. Instead, it has given comedians around the country a chance to reflect, a little early, on the passing of a great era of comedy.

"Old Jewish Comedians" is the fourth book from Friedman, who has drawn for this paper, Rolling Stone, the New York Observer, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Mad magazine, among others, and is one of the original artists in Art Spiegelman's influential 1980s comics anthology series, RAW.

Friedman's new book, published by Fantagraphics, consists of 32 portraits of comedians from Bud Abbott, Jerry Lewis and Sid Caesar to lesser-known lights such as Benny Bell, Menasha Skulnik and Mousie Garner. His definition of "old" is comedians born before 1930. There's an introduction by Leonard Maltin, but otherwise, the only text, besides the dedication, is the comedians' two names: stage name and Jewish name. It's the faces that say everything: comics in their senior years, some past their prime, whether they know it or not.

"If you earn being in the book, you gotta keep your mouth shut," laughed Jerry Lewis, 80, nee Jerome Levitch, now in Las Vegas working on a musical adaptation of "The Nutty Professor." "I'm honored to be in it. I suspect we all come to age differently. I've celebrated every birthday since I was 20. It's exciting to turn 40, 60, now 80. I think it's a gift. If because of that I'm in the old Jew book, I'm happy."

As Roman (Freddie Kirschenbaum) held open the book to show his portrait, placed next to Jack Benny's, he said of his age, "I'm proud to be Jewish and the youngest comedian in the book."

Were Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky) alive today, he would be 112.

On the subject of his own age, Freeman (Irving Freeman) curtly changed the subject: "In my family we go by height."

Jack Carter (Jack Chakrin), 83, in Beverly Hills, was somewhat less excited to find out he qualified. "Not really good. Not so thrilled," said the perennially gruff comic when asked how he felt about being included. "I don't like the word 'old' and I don't work Jewish. Unless it's a Jewish crowd. My picture is the worst one. With freckles and no hair in the middle? With a stupid grin? Terrible. I mean, nothing like me."

Carter is more generous about the other comics depicted. Like Lewis or his fellow Friars in New York, he befriended or worked with most of the comedians in the book. "The Sid Caesar is fabulous, Buddy Hackett is on the nose. The Phil Foster is sensational. That's him. He really gets their attitude."

Foster (Philip Feldman), fans of "Laverne & Shirley" may recall, played Frank DeFazio, Laverne's father, and took his name from Brooklyn's Foster Avenue. He began in stand-up in the 1930s, often billing himself as "Brooklyn's ambassador to the United States." Friedman depicts him caught in a moment, perhaps waiting anxiously to see if a joke is going to get that laugh or not.

Friedman isn't after nostalgia. Instead he creates a range of emotions in "Old Jewish Comedians," from an expansively serene Benny in his Holmby Hills mansion to Abbott, in his much more modest retirement home, looking hurt after the IRS took much of his fortune.

"Ever since he could pick up a crayon he's been drawing," said Friedman's father, the novelist and screenwriter Bruce Jay Friedman. "He's always noticed the elevator operators, the comic book shop clerks, the people everyone else passes by. I never paid attention, but he does."

Face-to-face encounters

DREW Friedman was born in New York City in 1958 and grew up watching many of his subjects on television. "A lot of them were important to me growing up," he said. "Jerry Lewis, the Marx Bros., Sid Caesar, the Stooges. But many weren't. What they all have in common were those great faces, not a bland one in the batch."

Through his father, he also met many of the comedians in person. He grew up among celebrities, including authors such as Terry Southern, a family friend, and Faye Dunaway, their upstairs neighbor in Manhattan.

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