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Exclusive Flog interview with Drew Friedman
Written by Eric Reynolds | Filed under Drew Friedman 15 Feb 2008 1:43 PM

Above: Photo of Drew Friedman, in his studio. © 2008 David Burd.

Drew Friedman is, along with Daniel Clowes and Chester Brown, one of the primary reasons I am working in comics today and didn't abandon my juvenile love for the medium long after most boys have discovered girls and sports. So when we decided to start conducting some exclusive author interviews for Flog!, it didn't take me long to decide I really wanted to spotlight Drew, especially as we are on the cusp of releasing his new book, MORE OLD JEWISH COMEDIANS. It's astounding to me that throughout much of the 1990s and earlier part of this decade, there was a new generation of comics fans who weren't so familiar with Drew's work as those of us who came of age in 1980s and early 1990s, as Drew somewhat slipped out of the comics field to focus on other pursuits. But he was a powerful influence on me in my formative years, between his work for Topps, Raw Magazine and National Lampoon. His two early Fantagraphics collections, WARTS AND ALL and ANY SIMILARITIES TO PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL were two of the very earliest Fantagraphics collections I ever purchased, and remain two of my favorites. The latter is where I first discovered his strip "The Andy Griffith Show," which was easily the greatest comic strip I'd ever read at the time. I remember getting an argument with my then-girlfriend over whether the strip was brilliant satire or blatantly racist -- it was no surprise we didn't last. In his excellent introduction to THE FUN NEVER STOPS!, Clowes describes this strip as "more 'real' and truthful than any biographical comic or self-revelatory memoir... the connection I felt is like nothing I have experienced since." I couldn't agree more. Same goes for Clowes' statement that "a Friedman caricature looks more like its subject than any photograph possibly could."

Thankfully, you don't have to take our word for it: the last two years have seen the release of not one, or two, but three new Friedman books, introducing his masterful cartooning and riotous satire to a new generation of comics fans, and thankfully Drew was gracious enough to answer some questions for Flog! readers.

Reynolds: Walk us through your process in caricaturing someone. You must use some photo reference. Are your caricatures composites from photographs? Do you find the ability to capture someone's likeness is a struggle that you have to work through, or is it simply an inherent talent?

Friedman: I'm not really a "caricaturist" in the classic sense, as far as exaggerating features for the sake of exaggerating features or going just for laughs. I'm more of a "situational" artist, at least that's what I've been called by some. I think what I do is closer to what R. Crumb does when he creates a likeness of, say, an old time blues musician (not that I would compare myself to Crumb). That is, use SLIGHT exaggeration, distortion, using the photo ref as a starting off point, maintaining your particular "style," and hopefully creating something a photo couldn't. I DO rely on (good) photo reference, and I have a pretty large clipping file I've collected over the years. A good example of my "working process" would be to talk about the Milton Berle cover to the first OLD JEWISH COMEDIANS. I had clipped that little photo of "Uncle" Milty maybe 25 years ago from (maybe) PEOPLE. In the photo, he's lighting his cigar and looking off to the side a bit. I'd always kept that photo, and that particular expression in the back of my mind, waiting for the right moment to use it for something. When I decided to do the first book, I knew I wanted Berle on the cover, and I knew that would be the perfect face. But I wanted him to be pointing at the reader, almost DARING them to buy the book. I had seen Berle over the years on TV always getting up in people's faces and jabbing his finger at them! That's what I wanted to capture. So my challenge was transforming that little B+W photo into that large color image, and, of course, adding all the liver spots as well. You see the results.

Reynolds: I would agree that you are not a caricaturist in the classic sense, but you're not quite a portrait artist, either. "Satirist"? Or simply "cartoonist"? Does it matter? In the Old Jewish Comedians books, there's clearly an affection for your subjects that would seem to be at odds with with the goals of satire or caricature, but it also transcends traditional, photo-realistic portraiture. Even Crumb is a bit more rooted in naturalism in his portraits of blues musicians, I would say. Would you agree?

Friedman: I don't think it really does matter too much. I've tried not to be "labeled' as a cartoonist or illustrator. Probably something in between, but I'm not sure how to define it. With the portraits for OJC, I want them to work as humor but also get to people react (hopefully) emotionally, as I really have a lot of respect and even love for most of the subjects. I hope that comes through, even with the liver spots. My "style" or at least the portraits in the OJC books I suppose evolved over the last 2 decades, beginning with that intense "stipple" work, and gradually "mellowing" into the current work, if that makes sense. One thing for sure, my next project won't involve Jews or comedians. Time to move on.

Reynolds: When did you first learn that you had a talent for likenesses, relative to your overall interest in cartooning? It seems to me that you had this from the get-go...

Friedman: I've always loved drawing faces, first "Monster" faces, then my own family and inevitably, my teachers, which would get me into a lot of hot water, especially when I rendered them (sometimes sans clothing) on my desk. But I knew I was on to something from the response I was getting from my friends and brother. Lots o' Laffs! My early influences were the MAD guys, especially Mort Drucker and Don Martin. I knew that's what I wanted to do, work for MAD (which I would!). The "stippling" actually slowed me way down as far as drawing too fast and cartooney. It forced me to take my time and concentrate more, and using the photo ref helped me achieve the more "realistic" look to the work, which worked for my early "documentary style" comic strips.

Reynolds: Who is your favorite caricaturist of all time?

Friedman: I have a short list of mostly the obvious ones (David Levine, Drucker, Basil Wolverton, etc.), but Al Hirschfeld is probably on the top. The fact that he stayed so talented, sharp and still relevant till he was 99 is so amazing to me, when so many people seem to burn out when they're HALF that age. I still marvel looking at his work, especially his early TV GUIDE covers. I love the color stuff!

Reynolds: Which came first: the idea for a book collection called Old Jewish Comedians, or the portraits?

Friedman: I had drawn some of the OJC'S over the years (The Stooges, Jerry Lewis, Berle), but all the portraits were specifically created for the books. Monte [Beauchamp, BLAB! editor] asked if I'd be interested in doing a book for his "Blab storybook" series, which I was, and I tried to think of what I enjoy drawing the most? Old Jews, and Comedians! So I combined them and Viola!

Reynolds: For the first OJC book, the exclusive Friar's Club in NYC hosted an event to honor the book. A second is now planned for the new book. Can you explain a little bit about what happens at these events?

Friedman: The Friars club "Book-warming" parties came about because I had added Freddie Roman, the "Dean" of the Friars, at the last minute to the first OJC, and his son Alan, who's a comedy writer in LA, sent the book to his dad who loved being included and asked to host a party for it. The first party was hosted by Freddie and Mickey Freeman, who was also in the book, in the "George Burns Room", and was attended by a lot of old timers from that era of Catskills comedy, as well as many younger people. The two old comics got up to make speeches about the book, as well as doing some of their tried and true Schtick. I got up to say a few words and thank everyone for coming, and of course It was almost impossible to wrestle the mic away from the "Sunshine Boys"! Everyone had a ball! The next party will be co-hosted by the great Larry Storch, who's in the new book, and was the first OJC who ASKED to be included.

Above: Mickey Freeman (left) and Freddie Roman (right) celebrate Friedman's work at the Friar's Club in New York. Photo © 2006 K. Bidus.

Reynolds: Larry Storch! I remember when the first book came out, you asked me to call Freddie Roman and make sure he got a book. He had heard about it, and said, "I'm in it, right? I'm an old Jewish comedian!" It was great. Can you tell me again about the call you got from Jerry Lewis about the first book, I was so thrilled when you first told me that.

Friedman: Yes, Freddie was excited to be in the first book. He became a comedian fairly late in life after working in the "Shoe Business". I had a rule for the first book that all the comics depicted had to have been born before 1930. But I broke that to allow Freddie in. He was the last comic I drew and I just HAD to draw his face! He owns the original art now. He's an incredibly sweet guy.

As for Jerry, I had spoken with him a few times in the past. He first called to thank me after the piece I did called "HEY OSCAR", about why he should get a "lifetime achievement award" from the Academy, which ran in the NY OBSERVER. He called again after he got his copy of OJC. He left a quick message on my machine: "DREW, THIS IS JERRY LEWIS, PLEASE CALL ME BACK." I thought, "Oh shit, is he pissed because he's not on the cover? Or because I made him look maybe stupid?" So I called back, "Hi Jerry, did you like the book?" Jerry's response: " DID I LIKE IT? JESUS CHRIST I LOVED IT! HOLY MOLY WHAT A BOOK!" So I breathed a sigh of relief.

Reynolds: How did Larry Gelbart come about to write the intro to Vol. 2? I thought his intro was a riot, I think he crammed more shtick into one page than would have been believed possible.

Friedman: I had heard from Mickey Freeman that Larry enjoyed the first book, so when I was thinking about who could write the foreword to the sequel, and follow up after Leonard Maltin's great foreword, I thought Larry would be perfect because, aside from being a brilliant wordsmith, he had actually WORKED with so many of the comedians depicted in both books. His foreword is a worthy successor to Leonard's, which had helped put everything into an historical context. Larry's takes off from there and celebrates the joy and pain of Jewish humor in a warm and hilarious way.

Reynolds: You have an exhibition coming up at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery and we haven't yet seen what's going to be in it -- can you tell me?

Friedman: Nothing from the Jewish Comedians books alas, as all the artwork has been purchased buy a private collector (aside from the "Freddie Roman"), but some pieces from my earlier books as well as the recent FUN NEVER STOPS, something from MAD, some NY OBSERVER covers, some of my TOPPS work, and I promise, not a single drawing of the "FRIENDS"!

Reynolds: Bless you.