Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and Drew Friedman, by Michael H. Price
I met Drew Friedman in 1990 through a long-standing friendship with his brother and then-frequent collaborator, the songwriter and social critic Josh Alan Friedman, while we were attending a cartoonists’ convention in Dallas as working artists and comic-book developers. Drew had built a reputation within the industry as a meticulously lifelike portraitist, capable of arraying tiny dots of ink into images of dreamlike accuracy that captured the soul – unflatteringly so, as a rule – as unerringly as it suggested a physical reality.
Poised for a leap into mass-market commercial illustration, Drew had brought to the Dallas Fantasy Fair a work-in-progress assignment for a video-box edition of a pioneering television series, The Honeymooners. The portrait of star player Jackie Gleason shone forth from the over-sized Strathmore page – Drew was working on a scale larger by far than the size of an actual videocassette sleeve – like some impossible photograph. The piece was too richly caricatured to be a photo, but it captured an essence of Gleason in a way one seldom sees in ink-on-paper.
“Needs some cleaning up,” Drew said, surveying the results. He set aside his Rapidograph, a fountain-pen drawing tool capable of dispensing near-microscopic quantities of ink, and went to work with an X-Acto knife, chiseling at one ink-speck after another with unerring near-photographic accuracy. Gleason’s face, already as convincing as if reproduced by a half-tone engraving camera, seemed to engage the observer in direct eye-contact animation under Friedman’s masterful touch.
The intervening years have found Drew Friedman moving ever deeper into pop-mainstream acclaim via such publications as MAD and Los Angeles Magazine and Entertainment Weekly – a far cry from the compassionately acerbic show-business satires that he and Josh Alan once produced for various under-the-counterculture and arts-revue publications.
But Drew has remained devoted to the soul-capturing interest that he once applied to such figures as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, nostalgic talk-show schmoozer Joe Franklin, Shemp Howard and his fellow Stooges, and the foredoomed horror-movie stars Bela Lugosi and Rondo Hatton. (The titles of two perennial Friedman Bros. books serve notice that their words-and-pictures portrayals must be as sardonic as they are affectionate: Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead Is Purely Coincidental andWarts and All.)
Drew found an ideal groove a couple of years ago with a handsome solo book called Old Jewish Comedians: A Visual Encyclopedia, its bright-eyed cover painting of an aged, still-antic Milton Berle serving as an irresistible come-on. The seemingly esoteric volume wound up triggering a popular sensation, and Friedman has delivered sequel that arrives this month.
More Old Jewish Comedians (Fantagraphics Books; $16.99) is a comparable delight – as much for its array of personalities, as for the showcase it affords for Friedman’s highly evolved ability to transform paint into seemingly animated flesh. Drew has moved long since from ink-on-Strathmore pointillism into confident, densely layered brushwork, and the fine-art reproduction technique allows the textures of the paints, the very fingerprint of the brush-tip, to command as keen an attention as the subjects themselves.
The format places such household-name figures as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen in meaningful context with the since-obscure likes of Bert Gordon – once a celebrated radio voice known as “the Mad Russian” and star of one of the out-and-out weirdest of Old Hollywood comedies – and Bill Dana and Soupy Sales and Three Stooges pinch-hitter Joe Besser.
And as the technique has matured to an Old Masterly combination of classical environmental portraiture (the occasional street-scene and dressing-room backdrops are as revealing as the central figures) and cartooning and caricature, Friedman has retained the gift that makes his much earlier work so arresting: That is, the illusion that each of his subjects is looking the absorbed viewer directly in the eye. Gaze upon Friedman’s visions of Joe E. Ross, or Belle Barth, or the forgotten Marx Bros., Gummo and Zeppo, and you come to sense the artists’ tragicomic glory.
“Loving portraits of people who do not fit the bill of classic American loveliness,” as one Web reviewer characterizes the new book. The same could be said of all Drew Friedman’s images over the long term.
In a 2006 Jewish Journal review of the first Old Jewish Comedians, Hank Rosenfeld invoked a traditional Yiddish saying: “Weep before God. Laugh before people.” Say no more.
Drew Friedman certainly needs to say no more. Both books are appropriately light on text, with a first-volume introduction by the critic-historian Leonard Maltin and a second-volume foreword by the screenwriter and funnyman Larry Gelbart, who delivers essentially a stand-up monologue in print: The Jewish humorist’s pursuit of “a life that is essentially a Kvetch-22,” writes Gelbart, deploying a heavy-artillery pun for a higher purpose, “means never letting desperation have the last word … humor as a weapon and a shield.”
The pictures, of course, are sufficient to tell the greater story. The Old Jewish Comedians books add up to an essential document of show-business history – all the more eloquent for their near-wordlessness.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press . Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com , and in the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.