By Elizabeth Heyman, on the ground at MoCCA Fest in New York City
First off, apologies go out to any artists who felt that their conversations were disturbed by an ongoing roar of laughter erupting from the downstairs panel rooms at MoCCA Fest this past weekend. This was absolutely the result of Saturday's panel for Old Jewish Comedians hosted by iconic cartoonist Drew Friedman. Though the discussion was highly informative, explaining the process of creating the three book series as well as previewing Friedman's upcoming book Heroes of the Comics, it seemed nothing was taken too seriously and everything has a punchline.
That is not to say that a single joke was out of place or even unrelated. With TV and radio icon Joe Franklin at his side, Friedman brought even more life to his already lively portrait illustrations by telling real stories of the performers depicted in his books. As anyone already familiar with the series that premiered in 2006 knows, there are only two types of texts seen alongside the drawings within the collection: the stage name and the original Jewish name of each comedian. What this panel allowed for is previously unheard of stories and interactions with these men and women to come out and show another (still very funny) side of the show biz world. For instance, Franklin laughed while confessing his experience of almost having actor Jerry Lewis take a swing at him for mentioning Dean Martin and
Much like in his work, Friedman's humor and comedic commentary definitely reached the audience first, but was always paired with a more subtle, genuine sentimentality for the real people living behind the acts, especially as many have unfortunately passed away since the initial publication. Eddy Lawrence, as Friedman announced, had died only earlier within the week.
The true impact of these comedy legends' work can be noticed in the way both the artist and the audience spoke with warm familiarity about figures they had never even met, as if there work reached so far and influenced so many that plenty of people they had become like distant relatives, providing a sense of comfort and home every time their routines or TV shows aired. Truly, Friedman's caricatures capture this and celebrate it in a way that doesn't necessarily needs words.
There's certainly a reason why Friedman's style of drawing has been so popular, appearing in various publications from RAW to the New York Observer. Now, the Society of Illustrators, MoCCA Fest's hosts and organizers, will be exploring the root of his success even further with a two floor exhibition dedicated to Old Jewish Comedians. The show which opened March 5th is curated by Monte Beauchamp and will run through May 3rd. Friedman will also appear at another panel hosted by the Society on April 24th from 7-9 pm. The event is titled "From Borcht Belt to Seinfeld: The Evolution of Jewish American Comedy" and will also feature Larry Storch, Bill Perksy, Tom Leopold, and Edward Portnoy, Ph.D of Yiddish language and literature.
However, there are even more plans on the horizon for the Old Jewish illustrator, ones that even speak more directly to our Bleeding Cool audience. At the panel, Friedman announced and previewed a few pages from his next book, Heroes of the Comics, which is structured in the same vain as Old Jewish Comedians but features caricatures of well-known comic book artist and writers. Friedman describes growing up knowing some of his subjects like Stan Lee who worked within the same building as his father. As apparent by the thoughtfully drawn portrait of Jack Kirby that graces the book's cover, this next work shows the very human side of a superhuman genre that might go unnoticed by an outside, uninvolved public. Contrasting from the other series, Heroes will even include a short biography written by Friedman himself. He felt that it was necessary for this piece in particular as many people even within the industry overlook a lot of these creators such as Bill Finger who Friedman makes a point to attribute as the real creator of Batman.
Heroes of the Comics still lacks a set release date although they estimate it will arrive in late June, if not July. Until then, you can expect Friedman to be taking his Jewish comedy and illustration routine on the road, even making an appearance at San Diego Comic Con.
Elizabeth Heyman has spent years studying the historic relationship between American public mentalities and classic comic book superheroes. Now she uses her academic eye to give her critical opinion on the latest titles, regardless of whether or not the main character wears a cape. She is enrolled at Fordham University Lincoln Center in New York City.