Last Thursday afternoon I met illustrator Drew Friedman at the Society of Illustrators to talk with him about his book trilogy, Old Jewish Comedians, and his two-floor show filled with portraits of every old Jewish comedian you can imagine. We sat on the showroom floor steps, right in between a bunch of 7th graders on a school trip who came to view Friedman’s amazing portraiture. While they probably knew very little about the characters lining the walls, Friedman knows everything about old, comedic Jews. In fact, he’s a master.
Friedman grew up in New York City and was born into a prominent artistic family. His father, satirist and writer, Bruce Jay Friedman, opened many doors for Drew to pursue his drawing, professionally. Friedman, who burst on the scene in the 1980s, is most well known for his impeccable ability to portray realistic parodies of public figures and personalities.
That day, Drew was gearing up for a panel exhibit, “From the Borscht Belt to Seinfeld,” which was inspired by his walls of drawings and sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities. Comedians Larry Storch, Bill Persky, and Tom Leopold would all attend later that evening to celebrate Jewish comedy and its impact on our Jewish identity. I spoke with Drew about his impressive career, pissing off Woody Allen, and meeting his childhood idols.
How did you get into drawing and portraiture?
I’m from a creative family. My father is a creative writer, a humorist, a playwright, so there was always that creative thing going on, but I didn’t want to be a writer. I didn’t want to compete with him; he was very funny. I loved comic books and MAD Magazine, so early on I wanted to be a contributor to MAD. That was my goal, and eventually I became one of the usual gang. I was obsessively drawing from early on. I was always hunched over my desk, just drawing. I drew all over desks, books, notebook; I couldn’t get enough. I was also always interested in old comedy and stuff I’d see on T.V. It wasn’t like I grew up thinking, ‘oh what do I want to do someday?’ All I wanted to do was draw. I was obsessed. I wasn’t fit for anything else.
As you got older and started portraying all these public figures, was it propelled by an interest in exploring the human experience coupled with fame?
No, basically just an interest I had when I was a kid. I loved the Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and The Marx Brothers, and I still love them. I love the same things I loved when I was a kid, nothing changed. And that’s what this show represents. I love these comedians’ faces. My little secret is that I’m not crazy about all the comedians in the show. Some of them I don’t think are very funny. But most of them I do love.
Depending on if you like someone or not, do you think that comes out in your representation of them?
It shouldn’t, but it probably does. It does when I draw politicians; Dick Cheney, how could I not? Or George W. Bush or Sarah Palin. If I go overboard with liver spots or what not, it’s not meant to be mean, it’s just trying to be as honest as possible.
Several years ago you drew Woody Allen for the New York Observer and he was not happy with the portrayal. Part of me understood why he got a bit upset. While being an unbelievable and very funny photo, it almost looked like he had a disease or something, with all of the marks on his head.
You’re right. Well, sometimes I go overboard, I admit it.
But at the same time, it seems like some comedians can’t take it when people actually poke fun at them.
Well some of them are very touchy. Woody especially. When I heard Woody was upset, I was upset, because I loved the old Woody Allen movies back when he was funny. I’m not so crazy about him anymore. I don’t know if he was naughty lately or what, but I’m more offended by his lousy movies. So yes, of course I felt bad when I heard he didn’t like the picture. He was hired by the NY Observer to write an article, and they thought he was going to be a regular, but when he saw my drawing, his assistant said, “he’s never going to work for you guys again.” But the editor was so cool, he said “fuck it, it’s a great drawing.” But usually it’s the opposite, where they fully embrace the picture. Like, Jerry Lewis, he loved his.
I read somewhere that someone compared your skill to an X-ray machine, which is a pretty cool compliment. Your ability to really see through people and show those qualities on their face is amazing.
Somebody else said that what Drew does is tough love. Even Robert Klein, when he came to the opening of this show, looked at his portrait and said, “that’s kind of brutal.” I said, “are you upset?” And he said, “No, I’m upset because it’s downstairs!” The layout of the show is in deference to the older comedians. The older comedians are upstairs, so I told him that since he’s one of the younger-older comedians, he’s downstairs. He was cool with it.
How long does a portrait take you?
Three to four days. I was doing these portraits in between assignments, so I wasn’t under pressure or under a deadline so I could take my time. But I had a whole year to do the first book before it was due to the publisher.
What are you working on now?
I have a book coming out in July on comic book heroes, specifically the men and women who drew comic books from the 30s to the 50s. I tried to get away from the Jews, but I got sucked back in, because most of them turned out to be Jewish. The most talented people are Jewish, right?
What can we say?
We just can’t avoid it! We know that. I was like, ok, I guess I’ll draw the people who drew comic books. I have a past with a lot of them because when my father was a magazine editor, he sat right next to Stan Lee. So he knew him pretty well and I got to know him when I was a kid. Then I had guys like Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner who were legendary comic book guys as teachers at The School of Visual Arts. The book is called Heroes of the Comics.
I think it would be funny if you did portraits of all the crazy pop stars today, like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry.
It would be funny if I aged them. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas people think I should do. For example, imagine what middle-aged comedians like Adam Sandler would look like when they’re older. Or wives of Jewish comedians, or old Italian and black comedians. But yours is good. The thing about it is that it would do well, and I don’t want mine to do well. Why would you do books of old Jewish comedians? I don’t want to pander to the kids, though lots of young kids liked this trilogy. The books have been embraced by all ages, which is nice.
You worked for legendary magazine, MAD and manufacturing company, Topps. To me, they represent this time period filled with specific, boyish goods that no longer appear relevant to our society. Little boys don’t really trade cards anymore. Do you think that technology has aided in the withdrawal of these interests?
I could speak for myself; I don’t know any kids who read MAD anymore. It’s just a different world now where everything is on the Internet. So trading cards, are being aimed more towards collectors, rather than the general public. I don’t really pay attention to it too much–I just do what I do–but yes, it’s a different world. In the old days MAD was my bible, I could not miss an issue. But you’ll never hear from me, “oh it used to be so great then.” I’m sure it’s great today in a different way. I’ll die out with the old ways, I don’t mind.
I know you’ve met so many of your idols, but who are three that you were extremely excited about or who surprised you?
I’ve met and drawn a lot of people and most of them have been happy with the results. The biggest surprise for me, were guys who you hear have a horrible reputation and ego, like Jerry Lewis. And he’s been incredibly sweet with me on the phone. He calls and inquires what I’m doing and working on. I don’t hear any ego from him. He’s very sweet and low key. We have great conversations. Another guy is Howard Stern. You hear things about him, but he’s been incredibly nice to me and supportive. He hired me to illustrate two of his books. He still hasn’t made it over to the show yet. He’s so busy with American Idol or whatever he does, but he’s trying to get over here. I’ve had a great experience with him. When people meet me, they’re interested in what I do, so it’s not like I’m a fan approaching them. I wait for people to approach me, because you can get disappointed when you seek out your idols. Another guy is Robert Crumb, who’s not the most sociable guy. Fan boys come up to him and he can’t be bothered. But he’s another guy who has been very supportive to me over the years and seems to love what I do. He’s my favorite artist, so it’s mutual admiration.
Are you into any younger artists today that channel your style?
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I see artwork and I hear from other people, “this guy is drawing like you,” and I’m fine with it. I don’t see any direct rip-off’s, maybe the stipple stuff that I used to do. I tell people, don’t do it. It’s highly time consuming and affects your eyesight. I had to give it up because I was doing more and more assignments and it was just slowing me up to much. I didn’t want to turn things down, so I gave it up 20 years ago. I was stippling for Spy Magazine in the 80s, and after that my work started appearing there, and the New York Times and Rolling Stone were constantly calling. I had to figure out how I would be able to make deadlines.
Do people commission you do to themselves or their family members?
I get that occasionally, but I don’t really like doing that. Some people ask, “can you draw my husband or my kids?” It’s not really my thing. I’ve rarely done it, so people don’t assume I do regular people, whereas other artists do. I haven’t done that yet because I like drawing interesting faces, and the most painful thing to do is draw someone with a blank expression. When I used to do a lot of assignments, art directors would send photographs of the celebrity or politician, and occasionally they’d send just a blank smiling face looking straight at the camera. That’s of no help to me.
I’m drawing Kevin Spacey next week for the New York Observer cover, and I told the art director not to send me anything because I can just come up with the stuff myself. And I did. I found the right angle I wanted to use on him and that’s it.
Do you study these people the way you would study someone you’re interviewing?
No, I like to just approach it as I’m starting it. Even when I’m illustrating for Entertainment Weekly for TV show characters like, Friends, they told me they’d send tapes of episodes. I told them not to, because then I wouldn’t want to draw them, because I know I’m going to hate that show. Just send me the assignment, but don’t ask me to watch the show, or a movie. I don’t want to go there.
What is your favorite movie?
My wife asks me sometimes, what’s your favorite movie? Your favorite song? I don’t have a favorite song or movie, but I have a favorite wife and a favorite artist, Robert Crumb. Oh, favorite movie, I don’t know. I guess Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I’ll go on the record. Oh look, I just scared the kids away.
Doubt it. They’re just confused and on a school trip.
I was at Marywood University in Pennsylvania recently and gave a talk–hopefully some of the stuff I’ll talk about tonight–and these kids just sat there with their blank faces, staring at me. I was like Milton Berle, anything? Jerry Lewis, nothing? They had no reaction. They were looking at their computer screens and looking up at me with no expression. I was like, should I push the envelope and talk about Milton Berle? And my wife was looking at me, like don’t do it. Marywood is a Catholic university, so I had to hold off on it. And for this talk, I’m going to have to hold off on certain things too, because it’s sponsored by the Department of Humanities, so all these humanities people are going to be here. I have to behave myself, which is going to be hard. I hope people are fighting and screaming and throwing punches. I hope there’s some chaos.
(Image credit: Kipp Friedman)