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Jewish Journal

Cartoonist captures comics

by Jay Firestone

March 27, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Jackie Mason by Drew Friedman

Jackie Mason by Drew Friedman

The deep-wrinkled smile of Mel Brooks, the sadly nervous stare of Woody Allen and the loud-mouthed plasticity of Joan Rivers -- Drew Friedman doesn't just paint these icons, he captures their wit, charm and the poignancy of their careers.

"The history of their lives is written on their faces," said Friedman, who draws every wrinkle, scar, extra chin and drop of sweat that casually slides across a comic's face.

Friedman's new book, "More Old Jewish Comedians" (Fantagraphics Books, $16.99), a sequel to his 2006 "Old Jewish Comedians," continues his humorous, highly detailed caricatures of the Jewish comedians who once dominated the Catskills circuit.

Friedman aims to create everlasting, idiosyncratic portraits of an aging breed. "A lot of these guys invented the style," said Friedman.

Featured images include the kind pose of Joey Bishop, the age-induced freckled foreheads of Zeppo and Gummo Marx and the distinctively Jewish look of Jackie Mason.

But instead of capturing the comedians at the peak of their careers, Friedman chose to illustrate them when they had passed their prime yet were still struggling for attention.

"They're always on fire, even after their careers have been over for 30 years," said Friedman, adding that in order to be considered an "Old Jewish Comedian," there's a minimum age qualifier of 70 years old.

Friedman, 49, developed his love for drawing at an early age while growing up in Long Island. A former student of The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, he now lives in northeast Pennsylvania.

He has worked as a regular cartoonist for MAD magazine since 1994 and has been creating illustrations for The New Republic for the past eight months, in addition covers for The New York Observer. In 2000, Friedman won the National Cartoonist Society's Ruben Award for newspaper illustration.

In between magazine assignments of drawing Jennifer Anniston and Dick Cheney, Friedman said he turned to the book project as a reward for having to "draw some factless movie star or some horrible politician."

Friedman begins each caricature with several photo references and a rough pencil sketch, followed by a watercolor overlay. The finished product takes about two days and is touched up by computer.

While "Even More Old Jewish Comedians" might seem like a logical follow-up, Friedman said another book would be overkill. "I don't like to repeat myself," he said.

Although the caricatures might not seem flattering, almost all of the living comics included in Friedman's books responded with high praise.

Aside from an introduction by Friedman and a forward by TV writer Larry Gelbart ("M*A*S*H"), the stage names -- and some birth names -- for each comedian's portrait are the only text in the book.

For this type of book, Friedman said he wasn't concerned with elaborate stories or quotes. "I try not to report," he said, adding, "[the comics'] faces speak for themselves."

Drew Friedman will sign "More Old Jewish Comedians" at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, on Saturday, March 29, at 5 p.m. Special guests will include Larry Gelbart and Ben Schwartz.

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