Classic comic sketches

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.

"My father was once invited to Groucho's house in the 1970s," Friedman recalled. "My brothers and I went over to dinner. We were all long-haired teenagers and Groucho greeted my father saying, 'How nice to meet you and your three lovely daughters.' " It's that wary, octogenarian Groucho, in his beret and turtlenecks of the 1970s, that Friedman chose to depict.

Roman actually made it into the book on a technicality. Friedman had finished a portrait of Joey Faye when he learned, too late, that his real name was Palladino.

"I got in when he found out Faye was Italian," said Roman, who was born two years after the cut-off date. (Full disclosure: I referred Friedman, who I've written about before, to Roman, and gave him photo references for Faye.)

The comics in the book are the last of a breed, those who recall the transition from the vaudeville houses to the nightclubs and the birth of modern stand-up. Of Friedman's portrait of vaudeville genius Harry Ritz, Lewis said: "I saw Harry Ritz when I was 5. In 1936, on my 10th birthday, after my birthday lunch, my father took me to see him at Loew's State in New York. Harry was a teacher to us all. He had the greatest theatrical abandon ever seen on the American stage. He was off the wall very early on. He showed us all it was OK to go there."

"I closed Loew's State Theater," said Carter of that period. "At the end of my act, George Jessel came out to reminisce about the theater. I couldn't believe I was on stage with him. Then, later, to meet [Milton] Berle, who was good to young comics, or have George Burns come to my house ... Burns came to my wedding when my wife and I got married a second time. He said, 'You kids keep doing it until you get it right.' "

The heart and soul of "Old Jewish Comedians" is a comic forgotten today, Jackie Miles, whose motto was "miles and miles of laughs." He was the only comedian in the book whose real name Friedman was unable to track down. Friedman knew Miles only from a photo hung in the foyer of his grandparents' Bronx home. It shows Bruce Jay Friedman, age 10, with Miles at the Laurels Country Club in the Catskills. "He was my Joe DiMaggio of comedy," the elder Friedman said.

"Miles has always been sort of a mythic figure to me," said Drew Friedman. "All I had to go on was that one lone photo. It intrigued me that he was so popular in the '40s and is now so forgotten -- aside from the old comics and people like my dad, who fondly remember him as one of the best."

Lewis concurred. "Yes, Jackie, Lenny Kent, Jan Murray, Joe E. Lewis, Henny Youngman ... " he said of that first wave of pure stand-ups, the post-vaudeville guys who most resemble our modern stand-up comics. "He had a wonderful device of speaking softly -- he made sure you heard him. I was at his opening at La Martinique when I was 16 in New York. My dad took me. Marvelous, marvelous monologuist."

Miles riffed on westerns, did an edgy (for 1940) gay bit and young Bruce Jay Friedman's favorite shtick: Miles turning around before doing an impression, pretending to be changing his appearance and clothes, and then turning around exactly the same as he had been, to lampoon bad mimics.

"OK, maybe not so hilarious today," said Bruce Jay Friedman, "But when I was 10 -- a howler."

"Wonderful comedian," sighed Freeman, "but he got into drugs and drinking, long before it was fashionable."

Carter said, "He had great bits early on, like the western bit, but he never changed. Never modernized. He and Joe E. Lewis ravaged Miami, a couple of stay-up-all-night drunks."

Bruce Jay Friedman ran into Miles years later on the streets of New York, finding a changed man from the hero of his youth. "I told him he was my favorite comic, that I was onstage with him, and he nodded like he remembered, but he didn't. He was a different man."

Recalled Carter, "At the end, there was no money left to bury him. Jan Murray had to call around and we all chipped in to raise $3,500."

Besides showing the photo of his father and Miles, Drew Friedman includes in the book a portrait of Miles as his friends would like to remember him -- smooth, relaxed, laughing.

While several comics are cagey about giving their age -- it's hard enough getting work after 40, much less 75 -- most take an attitude toward aging summed up in a story Roman tells.

"I was in the Catskills with George Burns when he was 95 or 96," Roman said. "A man came up to us at lunch and said 'I'm 80 and I just jogged two miles.' Unimpressed, Burns shrugged and said, 'When I was 80 I had the clap.' "

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