December 14, 2006
Books: Shmegegis of old, shmegegis of gold
"Weep before God. Laugh before people."
-- Jewish Folk-Saying.
Who doesn't love old Jewish comedians? Those mamzers of mirth and halutzim of humor who paved the road from the Catskills to Vegas as first-generation entertainers. Now comes "Old Jewish Comedians," a book to honor these slapsticklers and ticklemen of the 20th century. Thirty-two pages of funny faces (all guys), the book is "An Illustrated Gallery of Jewish American Comedians, Comics, Comic Actors, Clowns, and Tummlers Depicted in the Sunset of Their Years." Artist Drew Friedman's portraits cover the greats and the greatly forgotten, from George Burns and Buddy Hackett, to Benny Rubin and Joe Smith.
Friedman, whom I first enjoyed for his funny illustrations in SPY Magazine, and whose work currently is seen in MAD, the New York Observer, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, said that none of the comedians posed for him.
"I have a fairly extensive photo file which was very helpful," he said.
He's collected pictures of comedians since he was a child. (Bruce Jay Friedman, the author's father, appears in "Old Jewish Comedians" in a photo from 1940 in the Catskills with comedian Jackie Miles.)
"Rich reality" is how Leonard Maltin describes Friedman's style in his foreword. Included in the book are the real names for these "show-business survivors" as Maltin calls them: Shecky Green/Sheldon Greenfield, Freddie Roman/Fred Martin Kirschenbaum, Rodney Dangerfield/Jacob Cohen, Henny/Henry Youngman, et al.
Unfortunately, the only writing in "Old Jewish Comedians" is Maltin's foreword.
"I didn't want it to be 'history' book," Friedman explained. "There are already those out there. I wanted their styles to be illustrated in their faces and the context of the drawing. Maltin's intro puts everything into historical context."
So where to go if you want to learn more about these Jewish jesters? The ones who didn't make it because comedy was less marketable back then, 50 years before HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central and clubs expanded stand-up venues are described in detail by Betsy Borns in her 1987 treatise, "Comic Lives." Most never even flashed the free- wheeling coffeehouse style that Gerald Nachman recounts in "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 60s." (Shelley/Sheldon Leonard Berman being the exception, appearing in that 2003 book and this one.)
To really evaluate the book, I went to 92-year-old Irving Brecher. After all, Brecher is old, Jewish and he has not only done stand-up, he wrote for some of Friedman's alter kackers, like Milton Berlinger (Berle, on the cover), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns, inside cover), and the Marx Brothers (Julius, Adolph and Leonard, middle two pages of book.)
Book open, over split pea soup and half a pastrami on rye at Label's Table on Pico Boulevard, I quizzed Brecher about "OJC" who never found the fame of a Moses -- Harry Horwitz/Moe Howard or Jerome Levitch/Jerry Lewis, a Jack Chakrin/Jack Carter or Archibald Donald Rickles/ Don Rickles, et al.
-- Irv, here's Harry Joachim.
"That's Harry Ritz of the Ritz Brothers. Harry was the only one who was talented. Al and Jimmy were nothing."
-- Menasha Skulnik?
"That's his real name. Great Yiddish comedian. The Yiddish theater was a remarkable place. I wish you'd seen it."
-- Joseph Seltzer?
"Joe Smith of Smith & Dale, the famous vaudeville team. They made a movie called "The Heart of New York," which is a museum piece. For collectors."
-- Abraham Kalish?
"Al Kelly. Al did double talk. That was his style. He spoke gibberish in vaudeville sketches and all the people would try to be polite.
-- While he mocked them?
"No, not mocking them. The audience would laugh. But people in the real world he dealt with would be taken in."
-- Sounds like what Borat does!
"Haven't seen it. But most comedians couldn't do it like Al Kelly could. He was unique."
-- Here's a fellow named Ben Rubin...
"Benny Rubin used to work for me! When he was up in vaudeville. I'd give him a part in "The Life of Riley" radio show. In Hollywood, when they wanted a Jew with a long nose, they'd hire him. The lousy Hollywood producers. He'd make $150. I'd never use a character with a Jewish accent. Like Jack Benny [Benjamin Kubelsky] did with 'Mr. Schlepperman.'"
-- He used a thick Jewish accent?
"I hated it, that very stereotypical annoying character.
-- Who played him?
"Artie Auerbach. Listen, do they have Jan Murray in this book?"
Friedman said not to worry; Jan Murray/Murray Janofsky will appear in the sequel, "More Old Jewish Comedians," due in 2008. Brecher said he hopes the sequel has a bit, or routine, a catchphrase, something from each comedian to go with the pictures.