Drew Friedman is not just one of America's most well-known and widely respected illustrators, but his work is arguably the most identifiable. Having worked for counterculture bibles over the years like National Lampoon, RAW, Screw, SPY and Mad, Friedman has, in the past fifteen years, garnered mainstream respectability with onslaughts of work for Entertainment Weekly, Mother Jones, Newsweek, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, Time and countless others. Friedman has also published several entertaining books, including his two critically acclaimed collections of portraits titled Old Jewish Comedians. I spoke with Drew Friedman recently in anticipation of his new collection, an overview of those last fifteen years of mainstream respectability: Too Soon? Famous/Infamous Faces 1995-2010 from Fantagraphics Books.
Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that you were recently at a party with Albert Brooks. Had you met Albert before?
Drew Friedman: No, that was the first time. It was a recent party in Los Angeles and Albert was a guest at the party. I'm a huge Albert Brooks fan, dating back to the early seventies - seeing him on The Flip Wilson Show and Saturday Night Live, even Ed Sullivan. It was a treat to meet him. I'm not sure if he knew who I was, but I gave him a couple copies of my Jewish comedian books, which he enjoyed. He asked if his dad was in there because his dad had been a comedian called Parkyarkarkus. His father was actually named Harry Einstein and as a joke named his son Albert. Albert Brooks' real name is Albert Einstein, he changed it to Brooks when he became a comedian. I said, "No, your father died a little too young." His dad actually died on the dais at the Friar's Club in nineteen fifty-eight at a tribute to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He died right on the dais right after doing his act, when Albert was twelve. This is all incidental. When I was talking to Albert at this party he said, "Drew, did you know that Harpo's ex-wife married Frank Sinatra?" I said, "No, it was Zeppo's ex-wife." He said, "No, no, it was Harpo's ex-wife." I said, "No, it was Zeppo's ex-wife. Look, we have Andy Marx, Groucho's grandson standing right here. Let's ask him." I said, "Andy, which one of your uncles married Frank Sinatra's wife?" He said, "Well, that was Zeppo's wife." That's why I love L.A. It's handy to have Groucho's grandson [around] when you need him.
Kliph Nesteroff: The reason I was asking if you had met Albert Brooks before is that I have heard that when he befriends somebody and he likes them, he lets them [listen to] the audio of his father's death. He owns the audio of that Friar's Club Roast.
Drew Friedman: Yeah? No, I didn't know that, but I'm not surprised because he actually helped his dad write some of the jokes for that roast when he was twelve years old. He talked about it in a Rolling Stone interview from a few years ago. I'd love to hear that. I guess he didn't like me that much because he hadn't offered for me to listen to that yet. I would love to.
Kliph Nesteroff: I interviewed Bob Einstein a few years ago and I made the mistake of comparing their father, Parkyarkarkus, to Bert Gordon, who you've rendered in one of your Old Jewish Comedians books. Apparently it's a sore nerve because Harry Einstein always felt that The Mad Russian, Bert Gordon, was coasting off his coattails or trying to cash-in as they were both regulars on The Eddie Cantor Show.
Drew Friedman: Yeah, wow. I didn't know that.
Kliph Nesteroff: And the interview did not get off on the right foot when I compared Bert Gordon to Parkyarkarkus.
Drew Friedman: I would imagine not. I will know not to bring him up in the future with Albert. Kind of similar dialect comedians in the overly-Jewish shtick and what not. I didn't know that, so I'll be careful in the future.
Kliph Nesteroff: Herbie Faye shows up in your second collection of Old Jewish Comedians, but I read that Joey Faye had been rejected?
Drew Friedman: I did a portrait of Joey Faye for the first book and it was ready to go. Then I did a little last minute research online to get his real name because the novelty of my Jewish Comedians books is they're not biographies, they're portraits of Jewish comedians as older people. It's all about the faces, but I have their real Jewish names. They all changed their names. The only guy who never changed his name, aside from Myron Cohen who had a middle name, was Carl Reiner. Joey Faye, I looked him up and sure enough his name was Joey Palladino. So, he was a Jew poser. Joey Faye was the little bald guy who sneezed on the commercials, but on so many movies and TV shows he'd play a Jewish waiter or the Jewish guy that worked in a haberdashery. He was always like a little Jewish guy and it turns out he was Italian. So, I had to reject him and when I did I decided to add Freddie Roman at the last minute. He wasn't quite old enough to qualify, but I had to change that rule. I wanted to include comedians born before 1930 in the first volume. I bent that rule because Freddie was born in 1932. Freddie is the dean of the Friar's Club. I love his face and I had some great reference on him, so I put him in at the last minute and it worked out well. Freddie loved the book and arranged for a party at the Friar's Club. That just worked out perfectly.
Drew Friedman: Herbie Faye was actually Jewish and Joey Faye was Italian.
Kliph Nesteroff: For some reason, I had always connected them because you'd always see them crossing paths on TV shows.
Drew Friedman: Yeah, well, Herbie Faye was a regular on Bilko and Joey Faye was on The Phil Silvers Bilko show once, a famous episode - Harry Speakup with the chimp. All of a sudden they induct [a monkey] into the army. Herbie Faye was in everything. He was in every sitcom. He too would play Jewish tailors or, kind of, downtrodden, beaten down guys who were weary about everything.
Kliph Nesteroff: In your new book Too Soon, there is a wonderful introduction that you have written about your life and your career. It's a wonderful, fascinating biography and I wanted to ask you about a couple of things that you talk about at length in the book. When you were a teenager, you had the chance to spend a day in the offices of Mad magazine. At that point, you were a pretty big fan of Mad, as I understand. What was that like and how did that come about?
Drew Friedman: Of course, I was a big fan of Mad. My dream as a youngster was to be a Mad contributor some day and also to do work for Topps bubblegum cards. I grew up loving Mad. Those guys were my favorite artists especially Don Martin and Mort Drucker and the obvious choices. As I got older I went back and looked at the earlier issues with Will Elder and all that stuff, the EC Comics. My dad, who was a writer, just arranged it in 1972 with Bill Gaines to have me come up for the day through my school. They were doing work study programs [where] students would go out to some interesting job and just observe and then write about it. So, I asked my dad to do me that favor and set it up with Bill Gaines, which he did. I spent the whole afternoon there, and of course it was a great treat, mostly in Gaines' office, but I wandered around. They let me wander around freely and I got to spend time with Sergio Aragones and a couple of editors, Jerry DeFuccio ... So that was a real treat. In my head I thought, "I'm hanging out here, so of course they're going to ask me to contribute because I brought some of my cartoon samples." Of course, they weren't very good because I was twelve years old. I thought they were good, but they weren't very good. I had this fantasy that they were going to hire me and love what I do. So, they sat me down and said, "Look, you have to go to art school and you have to draw from live models" and all this stuff. So, I decided it'd never happen, but sure enough, twenty years later, I did join the staff of Mad as one of the Usual Gang of Idiots. It took twenty years, but it did happen.
Kliph Nesteroff: Did you encounter Dave Berg?
Drew Friedman: I met Dave Berg years later when I first started doing work for Mad around 1994. Mad used to have an annual Christmas party at the Society of Illustrators. I went to that, my first Mad Christmas party, and sat at the table with Dave Berg, which was a real treat. He dominates the conversation, but everything he had to say was amusing, so it was just a treat to sit there and listen to him. He was how he portrayed himself [in the Mad feature The Lighter Side Of...]. He loved talking about Mad and cartoons and himself. I think he wore a Dave Berg t-shirt, like, "I'm Dave Berg. I'm Mad magazine's Dave Berg." Like a cartoon come to life and he looked just like how he'd draw himself with a corn pipe and all of that stuff.
Kliph Nesteroff: I read an interview with Al Jaffee from last year and he was talking about Dave Berg and he said that he had a messianic like complex in which he felt that if there was no Dave Berg there would be no Mad magazine. He also thought that Mad was hiding all his fan mail from him.
Drew Friedman: Interesting theory. He was one of the essential guys in the sixties. People looked forward to The Lighter Side as much as they looked forward to Spy vs. Spy or the movie parodies. His paperbacks, I think, I'm guessing, sold as well as the Don Martin paperbacks. I loved his stuff as much as I loved all the other guys, back in the sixties growing up. That's funny [though], I guess there could be a book about Dave Berg. Everyone has a Dave Berg story. I love the late Dave Berg's work, but I also love the National Lampoon parody of Dave Berg they did in the early seventies, which was dead-on. But all of those guys, to meet them was a great treat. Some of them, Al Jaffee, he's about ninety, but he's still attune to what's going on and he's still lively. It's great talking to him. Terrific guys.
Kliph Nesteroff: The same year that you spent a day at Mad magazine, you spent a week at Marvel Comics. What can you tell me about that?
Drew Friedman: Yes, I did that too. Same arrangement. My dad actually worked at Magazine Management, which was the company that owned Marvel Comics in the fifties and sixties, so he knew Stan Lee pretty well. He knew him before the superhero revival in the early sixties, when Stan Lee had one office, one secretary and that was it. The story was that Martin Goodman who ran the company was trying to phase him out because the comics weren't selling too well. Then all of a sudden [the superheroes] hit in the early sixties and the rest is history. My father stayed in touch with him and it was the same kind of a deal. He arranged for me to spend a week up there as part of this work studies programs and run errands for the artists and writers. That was a lot of fun too. I think I was twelve or thirteen at that point. I spent time in Stan's office and with John Romita, who was very sweet. Roy Thomas was up there. Some of these guys didn't know what to do with me so they sent me on errands to pick up artwork across town and things like that. I felt like part of the team for a week, but I didn't aspire to work for them as much as Mad because, as much as I enjoyed the superhero comics at that time, I knew that wasn't the direction I wanted to head in. Still, it was fun to be part of that for a week and I'm sure nobody has any memory of me hanging around there.
Kliph Nesteroff: In the late seventies you attended the New York School of Visual Arts. It was an art school with a pretty impressive faculty. Some of our readers would be intrigued and surprised to learn who some of your teachers were. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Drew Friedman: The reason I chose that school was because I looked at the catalogue of teachers and, sure enough, there was Harvey Kurtzman teaching a course, Will Eisner teaching a course, other cartoonists - Edward Sorel was teaching a course and Stan Mack. Art Spiegelman was teaching. All of these guys. Most of them lived in New York, it was right in Manhattan ... At the school they were just teachers and some people took them for granted. I was in Will Eisner's class and there was [only] one other student in the class at one point. It was no big deal, but it was a big deal to me. It was a thrill to be in Harvey Kurtzman's class and I took his class for three years running. We got to be very friendly. We had our ups and downs in the class, but we got to be friends. In fact, a couple years later he was planning to do a humor magazine - again - and he asked if I would be interested in editing it. I said, "Oh, of course!" Knowing Harvey, he was sometimes referred to as Harvey the Vague, he never brought it up again. I never heard another thing about it, but that's okay. I was flattered that he had asked me.
Kliph Nesteroff: Is there some kind of story about his throwing a chair out the window during a class?
Drew Friedman: Yeah, there are stories that have been exaggerated over the years. Harvey encouraged a party like atmosphere in his class. Very first class every year, he'd bring in balloons and he'd have everyone blow them up. The whole deal was, you blow it up til it explodes, and that's [supposed] to be what you expect from a cartoon strip; it builds up and then you get the punchline at the end or the big bang. He encouraged a party like atmosphere, so I gave it to him. The class was festive, it was thirteenth grade, it was like Romper Room. Things went flying around, I think a chair may have gone - I don't know if I threw it. Somebody threw it, I am sure, but worse things happened than that. That's minor. That's the G-rated version: A chair went out the window. I think some people went out the window too. It was a lot of fun. Overall, he enjoyed it. A couple times he came in, maybe he had had a bad day, so he'd have to compose himself. But overall he enjoyed the atmosphere of the class and whatever I brought to it. It was like clown college, basically.
Kliph Nesteroff: And Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman were also teaching there...
Drew Friedman: Yes, Spiegelman was teaching The Language of the Comics course and Eisner was teaching... he was actually teaching himself. He was interested in talking about himself and his work, so that's what he was teaching.
Kliph Nesteroff: You have mentioned in the past that Will Eisner was a bit a of a pompous blowhard.
Drew Friedman: That's how he came off. I got along with him fine. He liked me too. In fact, he once said, "Friedman, you remind me of me when I was your age." We got along. He would mimic people behind their back; the kids at comic book conventions that would come up to him, and would wink at me, let me in on what he was actually thinking about some of the fanboys and people he had to deal with. So, we got along, but we fell out of touch after SVA, for whatever reason. I think he was a little hurt by that. Later on he would say some negative things about me and distort some of the facts about things that happened with other students. It became about me because he was aware that I was having some success in my career, I think he felt a little left out. But I have fond memories of him as a teacher. It was great to be in his presence as much as Harvey Kurtzman's presence and Art Spiegelman, who was starting Raw magazine.
Kliph Nesteroff: In the late eighties, Drew, you got the opportunity to cash-in on a dream. I don't know how much of a dream it was anymore by that point, but you got to work for the Topps trading card company. How did you get that job and what was the Topps facility that you worked at like?
Drew Friedman: Well, Art Spiegelman had been out there in Brooklyn working at the Topps company since the late sixties. He was involved in Wacky Packages and a lot of the humor series they did. When I was going to school at Visual Arts one of my classmates was Mark Newgarden. Art Spiegelman invited him to be his assistant at Topps, to create new products and, basically, to just work at his side. One of the first things they came up with together was The Garbage Pail Kids, which was a huge phenomenal hit. Went into thirty-six different series - it was huge. At that point, Mark had enough clout to come up with a new series and one of them was a series about an insane high school. The extreme of a high school. He invited me to come work on that, to do the artwork and work on the scripts and do all the penciling and sketching around nineteen eighty-eight. So, that's how I wound up at Topps which was, again, one of my childhood dreams. I grew up loving the Ugly Stickers that Wally Wood and Basil Wolverton were responsible for and Norm Saunders who did some of the beautiful painting for them and for the Batman cards and Mars Attacks; a hero of mine as well. Also the Wacky Packages, which I collected like everybody else. That's what brought me out there, and the building itself was an old warehouse in Brooklyn, close to the East River. It just looked like a dark, gray factory. You'd never notice it. There was just a small sign outside: Topps Bubblegum. Never would have noticed it. I would take the subway out there, huge factory, they're not there anymore. It was just like stepping back into the past to walk through their offices and the building. It was just a lot of fun. That took up most of my time at that point.
Kliph Nesteroff: Was it the same spot where they manufactured the baseball cards and things like that?
Drew Friedman: Everything was done there ... the place smelled like gum. It permeated the building, the gum. I don't know if they actually made the stuff there - I'm not entirely sure. That's where they created the stuff and I think it was all shipped out, but again, it was just like a throwback. Like going back in time to go to that building and being part of that. I worked on a few series starting with Toxic High and also designed some candy products like the Barfo Family, which were like these little accordians with a person's head and you'd squeeze it and the candy would come out of their mouth and some other rude candy products.
Kliph Nesteroff: Seems like you had a great deal of creative freedom for such a mainstream operation.
Drew Friedman: We did and we didn't. Once we finally finished the whole [insane high school] project, the guys in charge finally looked at it. They felt that maybe we went a little too far with some of the violence and some of the blood letting, et cetera. It was toned down a bit. They finally released it, but it wasn't exactly what we had in mind. They really cut back and played it safe. There had been a lot of random school killings in the late eighties, so that affected their decision to tone it down. They didn't want to get in trouble for releasing something that might instigate more violence. So the whole project was castrated a bit. I'm still pleased with it, it was fun to work on. The best thing about doing work for Topps, for me, was it forced me to loosen up stylistically. I had been doing a stipple style for a few years. With the Topps work, most of the work I did for them was penciling. I turned out a lot; twenty drawings per week or more. It really forced me to work a lot faster, not labor over the work, which I had been doing. That was valuable for me. All of a sudden I realized I could meet a deadline, which I had never really considered before. I was always working at my own pace, doing my comic strips. A panel of a comic strip would take me a week and that wasn't even an issue for me. It dawned on me, "I can work a lot faster" and that's when I started doing a lot more work for magazines on a regular basis.
Kliph Nesteroff: I think most Drew Friedman fans out there are aware that you were sued by WOR talk show host Joe Franklin. Before that happened, what did you think of Joe Franklin? Did you watch his show growing up?
Drew Friedman: Yes, I always watched it growing up, on channel nine. It was always on. If I was reading, The Joe Franklin Show would be on as a night light. I loved Joe. My brother Josh who wrote some of the early comic strips about Joe Franklin, including "Life Story" which we did in our first book, was also a huge fan and had done research on Joe and saved clippings. That lead to the first piece we did on him: The Joe Franklin Story. The piece I did on him called The incredible Shrinking Joe Franklin ran in Heavy Metal magazine in the early eighties. Joe is very short, which is obvious, but he's very touchy about his height. When the piece came out... the day it came out, he called the editor of Heavy Metal and said he was very displeased and he was going to sue. So he sued National Lampoon, which owned Heavy Metal, and me for forty million dollars, which I thought was a reasonable amount. I had about a dollar in my bank account at the time. He was entitled to that. Fortunately, he also sued the Lampoon, so they handled the lawyers. The whole thing cost me about a dollar because I had to take the subway to meet the lawyers to talk about it. Long story short, the suit was dismissed before it ever went to trial. Whoever made the decision, the judge decided, "This is a comic strip, this is a parody. Nobody is really going to believe you are shrinking. There's no lawsuit here." That was the end of that (laughs). Joe has sued other people, so I am in good company. He sued Uncle Floyd once for thirty-five million and he's threatened to sue some other people including Billy Crystal and lately, Sarah Silverman after her turn in The Artistocrats. When I had my Friar's party for my second Jewish comedian book two years ago, who should walk in but Joe Franklin. "Joe Franklin is here!?" So I approached him and said, "Joe, no hard feelings." He looked at me and said, "Drew Friedman, nice to meet you. Joe Franklin. I love your book, I love your book, I'm going to promote it on my radio show. I want you to come to one of my one hundred and twenty-five restaurants." He had no restaurants. He had no memory of ever suing me. It comes down to that. He had no memory. So, we're best friends now.
Drew Friedman: That - I have no idea. But he's still - if you call his office he'll pick up the phone ... maybe he saved his money over the years, I have no idea. But I know he still walks the streets of Manhattan. You can still see him at the Friar's Club, he's on the dais at Friar's Roasts. He gets a meal. He's still there. He's in his early eighties, I guess. He's still kicking.
Kliph Nesteroff: Yes, he's eighty-four. I did actually speak to him a couple of weeks ago because I was writing an article about Rusty Warren...
Drew Friedman: Rusty is going to be in my third - I'm doing a third Old Jewish Comedians book and Rusty Warren is going to be in it.
Kliph Nesteroff: Excellent. Ilene Goldman. Have you talked to her?
Drew Friedman: No, I'm trying not to speak to the people I'm drawing, because then you get into, "Well, can I see the drawing? Can I see a sample of what you're going to do?" I don't want to go there. So far everyone has been delighted with the way I portrayed them. A lot of these people are deceased, of course, so a lot of the time I hear from their wife or their husband or their children. The only person who didn't like their portrait was Jack Carter, who is notoriously angry. He's always angry. He didn't like it. He complained. My friend Ben Schwartz did a piece about the book for the Los Angeles Times and talked to Jack Carter, talked to Jerry Lewis, Freddie Roman, Mickey Freeman, my dad, Larry Gelbart. The only guy who was angry, who hated it, was Jack Carter. He said, "First of all - Jewish? I don't work Jewish. And old? I'm not old!" He's close to ninety. He said, "And he made me look stupid with that haircut with the bald in the middle! I'm not bald in the middle! And the liver spots?" But the other portraits he praised. "Sid Caesar? Dead on. Buddy Hackett? That's him!" He wanted me to draw him again. I didn't. I was delighted with his response because that's what you expect from Jack Carter. You expect anger, so that's what I got. Everyone else had been pleased.
Kliph Nesteroff: Do you ever have trouble finding a photograph of a more obscure comedian that you're doing a portrait of? Has it ever come to a point where you wanted to do someone, but you just couldn't find a proper image to base it on?
Drew Friedman: One of the reasons I decided to do the first book of Old Jewish Comedians was because I had saved so many clippings over the years. I have a file, including the cover drawing of Milton Berle with a cigar pointing his finger. I had saved that photo of Milton Berle for twenty years ... I just loved that face staring at the reader. I converted that into color and added his hand pointing at the reader. One of my fondest memories was angry Milton Berle - when he'd go on Joe Franklin especially. Joe would interrupt him occasionally and Milton would point the finger at him, "Joe. Don't you interrupt me when I'm talking!" With the cigar shoved in his mouth, just angry. I love the angry comedians. These guys that are supposed to make you laugh, but they're always angry. Buddy Hackett was another one who always looked angry. A lot of them are like that. Usually I can come up with the reference. People now send me photographs because they know what I do. Now with the web you can dig up obscure... but I want to do London Lee for the next book, but I'm not really able to come up with much. Some of the comedians are contacting me now to be in the books. I'm doing the last one now, this is the third of the trilogy. I said the second one was going to be the final one but, I have a list of about one hundred and fifty more [comedians] including Arnold Stang and so many others, that I kind of left out and I feel bad - and more women. And some of the younger-older comedians that are now in their late sixties, early seventies like Richard Belzer, Gabe Kaplan, David Brenner and Robert Klein. David Brenner is actually in his mid-seventies now! Some of the guys you think of as younger are now - so I'm including some of those guys now. One of the things that is happening ... people are contacting me. Larry Storch wrote me a nice letter and said he would love to be included in the second book; sure enough he sent me a great photo and I used it as reference ... Mickey Freeman was in the first book. He used to play Fielding Zimmerman in Sgt Bilko in the fifties, of course. He has become somewhat of a mascot for the books. He's sending me his old friends from the Catskills, dating back to the forties, some of the guys he used to perform with. A lot of them I'd never heard of - one guy Van Harris. I said, "Is he Jewish?" He said, "Of course he's Jewish!" I said, "Okay. Send me some photos." So Van Harris sent me this photo of him posed with Milton Berle and Joe E. Lewis and sends me a long biography of himself. I wrote him back and said, "Hi Van. Thanks for sending the stuff, it's terrific and it's great to learn about your career and everything, but I think Mickey misinformed you. I'm doing a book of portraits of Jewish comedians as they look now." He wrote back and said, "Oh, Drew, that's an interesting idea. I don't really have any photos of myself as I look now. I'll see if I can get my grandchildren to take some photos," but I haven't heard back from him. I think he wanted to be included in a book about the past ... That's not what I was doing. I hope to still hear back from him.
Drew Friedman: I know his name, but I don't think I've heard him before.
Kliph Nesteroff: The comedy record is interesting - the set-ups are in English and the punchlines are in Yiddish.
Drew Friedman: (laughs) That's a great concept.
Kliph Nesteroff: I can't really find out any information about him even though he is America's "foremost" Jewish comedian.
Drew Friedman: Interesting. Yes, I think I posted a photograph of him on Plonsky, which is a group on Facebook. I put the Emil Cohen album cover up. I have a friend, Ron Smith, who is a comedy historian and he knows everyone across the board, and he had never heard of Van Harris... and Bobbi Baker, who's in my second book, a female friend of Mickey Freeman's who was billed as The Queen of the Cruise Ship.
Drew Friedman: Is it the one where she's on the elephant?
Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, I'll Do Anything For Money.
Drew Friedman: That's a famous album cover because it's included as one of the worst album covers of all time - one of those books. I hadn't heard of her, but I know that album cover now. She's in the book and she sent me photographs as she looks today. She was thrilled to be included. I think some of these folks are convinced that if they get in these books it's going to help revive their career. If that's the way they feel - I'm delighted. Some of the people, Mickey Freeman and Larry Storch, have been taking the books to the autograph shows they do and selling them there, autographing them and inscribing them. So, that's nice for me to hear.
Kliph Nesteroff: Larry Storch is a great guy.
Drew Friedman: Yes, he is. He came to the second Friar's party and he's just as sharp as ever. Funny. Does dead-on impersonations. He's getting up there. He's about eighty-seven. He's just really, really funny. A brilliant comedian, I think. He was great on F-Troop too. He was great on everything.
Kliph Nesteroff: In the fifties he was gigantic. People forget, he was a huge, huge draw as a nightclub comic.
Drew Friedman: He was. Even on TV - he was host of Texaco Star Theater for a while and he's the guy who invented the "Judy, Judy, Judy" Cary Grant impersonation. The routine was about Cary Grant encountering Judy Garland backstage, but Larry Storch was the guy who instigated that. He's a real sweet guy. A real treat to meet him, and he came up and did about ten minutes of material. Dead on impersonations of Joan Rivers and other people at the Friar's.
Kliph Nesteroff: I saw him do a recent impression of John McCain and Larry Storch was able to distort his entire face, I don't even know if he spoke.
Drew Friedman: I can sort of picture that.
Kliph Nesteroff: When I finish speaking with you today, I'm actually phoning Norm Crosby...
Drew Friedman: Ah, okay, well, Norm is going to be in the third book as well.
Kliph Nesteroff: Have you ever considered doing a book of old gentile comedians?
Drew Friedman: Actually, funny you brought up Norm Crosby. I really check into this stuff, just to be careful. Norm Crosby's father was not Jewish, hence the name Crosby. But his mother was Jewish. The same with Bud Abbott. So, you know. He was raised Jewish ... I have considered doing a book of non-Jewish comedians, Protestant comedians, but it would be a pamphlet, right? You can come up with a couple of them here and there. Someone suggested a book of Italian comedians - because there's a lot of them Joey Faye, Pat Cooper, Jackie Gleason half-Italian, Lou Costello half-Italian, you could even include Dean Martin. But an Italian artist should do that book ... someone suggested I do a book of old Black comedians, but a young Black artist should do that. I'm going to stick to the Jews.
Kliph Nesteroff: You met some of these people when you were a youngster. You had a chance to actually meet Groucho Marx when you were a kid?
Drew Friedman: I actually met him three times in my young life. The first time was at a production of Minnie's Boys, which was the Broadway production about the Marx Brothers and their mother. Groucho was a consultant on the show in 1970 and sat in the front row every night. I approached him and got an autograph on my playbill, that was very brief. Then, again, at a party in 1973 in New York. He was doing print ads for Teacher's Scotch. George Burns was also doing ads for them. So there was a party for him at a New York City nightclub and my dad took me and my brothers to that. We got to talk to him a little bit there. But the best time was, my dad was invited to his house in 1975 in the Hollywood Hills. His girlfriend at the time, Erin Flemming, knew my father and invited him [explaining], "Groucho loves to be surrounded by young people." So he invited my dad and my brothers and I to his house to spend the afternoon there. I was about fifteen. It was amazing. It was an amazing afternoon. We were there for about four or five hours and it was incredible. We got to the door - our hair was long then. They opened the door and Groucho approached us. He was wearing shorts. He was eigthy-five at the time. He'd been slowed down by a series of strokes, but he walked toward us and he looked at us and he said to my dad, "It's a pleasure to meet you and your three lovely daughters." Everything out of his mouth was a punchline. You couldn't say anything without him finishing the sentence ... a guy walked in and said, "Hi, my name is Mark," and Groucho looked at him and said, "What's your first name? Trade?" Then Dennis Wilson came in from The Beach Boys and he said, "Hey, Mr. Marx. It's an honor to meet you." Groucho looked at him, and obviously didn't know who he was and said," Well, it oughta be." Then my brother Josh asked Groucho about... Groucho had lived in Great Neck, Long Island in the twenties before he moved out to Hollywood. We lived in Great Neck in the sixties. There was a theater in Great Neck called The Playhouse. It had been a vaudeville theater years ago and it became a movie theater when we lived there. My brother asked Groucho about this theater. "Groucho, do you remember The Playhouse Theater in Great Neck? It had had an old organ in the back." Groucho stopped and said, "I've got an old organ myself." It was amazing and he did all his old songs, or lots of them, and one of his nephews, Bill Marx, accompanied him on piano. So, it was an amazing afternoon. The end of the story - the sad part for me is when we got home, Erin Flemming called my dad and said, "Groucho really loved having all of you - he'd like you all to come back next week because he's going to be having a reunion with Mae West, who he hasn't seen for thirty-five years." So, my dad turned to us and said, "Hey guys, Groucho would like us all to come back." We all kind of looked at each other and said, "Ahhh, we had enough Groucho." To this day I'm still kicking myself for not going back.
Kliph Nesteroff: You had the chance to meet some other legends when you were a kid. Carl Ballantine, whom you rendered in one of your Old Jewish Comedians books...
Drew Friedman: He was in one of my dad's plays. He was in a musical my dad wrote. I got to meet him briefly when I was little, seven or eight years old ... years later I did a signing for one of the Old Jewish Comedians books and he came to the signing and sat in the audience and then came up and sat with me; this was a year before he died. That was a real treat. When he was sitting in the audience he was sort of nodding off. He was going to sleep. At one point he raised his hand, "When do I get my supper?" That was his only question.
Kliph Nesteroff: You have mentioned that you have an affinity for Jimmy Olsen comics, especially when they took a turn for the weird. I always kind of felt that the installment of the Jimmy Olsen comic series in which Don Rickles makes a cameo - was like something that you would have conceived.
Drew Friedman: (laughs) Well, at the time I appreciated it! Seeing Don Rickles' big face on the cover of that issue ... I did love those Jimmy Olsen comics, especially in the late sixties when he'd turn into the giant lizard man or the wolfman or sing like Frank Sinatra or whatever. I think those guys really let down their hair with those comics. Especially with the Planet of the Capes series, I think there were three of them or something. I know Dan Clowes has an affection for them as well. I haven't looked at them for many years, but if I think back what comics I enjoyed the most from that period, it would be the Jimmy Olsen comics.
Kliph Nesteroff: I believe they were the lowest selling of the DC Comics.
Drew Friedman: Yes, maybe that's another reason I appreciated them. They were lower selling than Lois Lane?
Kliph Nesteroff: I think they were on par, but I think that also gave them more license to be far more ridiculous.
Drew Friedman: You could tell they were having fun with those. Why Jimmy Olsen of all people, a cub reporter - to put him in those situations? Is there a collection of those Jimmy Olsen comics that you know of?
Kliph Nesteroff: I think just of the [Jack] Kirby work there is.
Drew Friedman: Well, someone is missing the boat then. They should all be collected (laughs).
Kliph Nesteroff: You have mentioned in the past that you have always enjoyed drawing Woody Allen - but that he has not always been pleased with the results. Something about a New York Observer piece that he objected to?
Drew Friedman: Yes. I'm a huge Woody Allen fan from way back from his first films ... I like drawing comedians and old Jews the most ... and people with interesting faces and Woody Allen is right up there. I have always enjoyed drawing him. I always like adding his freckles. One of my strongest memories is seeing him when I was a kid at the opening of Play It Again, Sam where he's sitting in the movie theater and the camera comes up close. Woody didn't direct that. Herbert Ross did. But the camera pulls up and you can really see how many freckles he had all over his face. He was covered with orange freckles. That kind of stuck with me. You don't really pick up on that in later films when Woody played that down ... Even if I've drawn him in a bathing suit, he's always covered in orange freckles. Now as he's getting older he's got more liver spots. It's a combination of liver spots and freckles. Liver spots are my Ninas. Hirschfeld had Ninas, I have liver spots. It's sort of my trademark.
Kliph Nesteroff: I think I learned what the phrase "liver spots" meant or heard it for the first time because of your work.
Drew Friedman: I learned about them from David Levine. Levine always appreciated the fine art of liver spots ... I always noticed those dots on the foreheads ... I didn't know what a liver spot was. I think I might have one right now. I'm sure I'm going to be inflicted with them sooner or later. Woody took offense to one drawing. He did a piece for the New York Observer about his love for the New York Knicks. It was a cover piece. So I drew him at a typewriter, an old fashioned Underwood typewriter, sitting ringside with a fedora on his head and a press pass. A throwback drawing, looking like it was from the nineteen thirties with Woody typing away watching The New York Knicks. It ran large on the cover along with this piece. The next day, his sister called on his behalf saying, "Woody is furious and he's never going to write for you guys again. He's angry about this drawing." I was upset. I was hurt because I love Woody and the last thing I want to do is to upset him, but I want my work to be as honest as possible. I don't want to hold back. I have a great deal of affection for my subjects. Not always - not Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin, but that's different. I go back and forth between politics and show business, but usually for the show business I have to have affection for these people if I am going to spend the time drawing them. Woody I had drawn a few times since then and I've tried to be kinder - but I still add the liver spots. I can't stop (laughs).
Kliph Nesteroff: And you do have a lot of politics and show business in your new book Too Soon... what can you tell us about the contents of the new book that's coming out at the end of the month from Fantagraphics?
Drew Friedman: Well, Too Soon... it's like Too Soon? I think Gilbert Gottfried was the first to use that phrase. He went out after 9/11 and did a comedy show the next night and made some reference to a plane hitting the Empire State Building or something and someone yelled out, "Too soon!" from the audience. So that sort of stuck and now people use it on Facebook or if you say something inappropriate too soon after a tragedy. I had to go online and [check if] someone else used this as a title already and nobody had used it ... The book is half politics and half show business. It covers the last fifteen years. It covers my magazine work and newspapers; a lot of work I've done for Time magazine, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and The New Yorker. The first half is the political section and starts with Clinton ... and ending with Obama becoming president. The show business section is a mix of old timers like Groucho on You Bet Your Life, Bob & Ray, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, leading up to more contemporary pieces. There's no Friends in the book. When I worked on Entertainment Weekly they always assigned me to do pieces on the TV show Friends. I could never bring myself to watch it. There was just something about it that prevented me from watching it ... but I had to draw them over and over, and it was work. Finally I just had a no-Friends clause that I instigated, and I finally stopped drawing the Friends. I couldn't deal with it anymore. If you don't want to see any images of the Friends - this is the book for you.
Drew Friedman has limited edition prints available for sale. Your quality of life would improve with Lord Buckley on your wall. Check out the gallery at DREWFRIEDMAN.NET
An audio version of this interview is also available on Inkstuds, a radio program about comic books.