October 12, 2006

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Old Jewish Comedians, by Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics, 2006, 32 pages)

Word association. I’ll say a word, you say the first thing that pops into your head. The category: regions of the country. The word: belt.

If the first thing that came into your mind was “Bible” or “Rust” or “Sun,” well, I’m sure you’re a lovely person. But maybe this book isn’t so much for you.

Was the first thing you said “Borscht”? Well, ha-HA! I just found the perfect book for your coffee table.

Film critic Leonard Maltin (who wrote the foreword) starts this lovely little art collection with an explanation of his love of comedy, his and Drew Friedman’s (the illustration of this slim volume). Both of them love comedy and show biz — not our current Dane Cook and E! Online versions of those things but the original kings of comedy. The Milton Berles. The George Burns. The Buddy Hacketts. The Menasha Skulniks. Who is Menasha Skulnik? Doesn’t matter. You see his face in Friedman’s portrait (the book’s third from the end) and you know without even hearing the facts.

OK — who was Menasha Skulnik? Skulnik was a legend of Yiddish theater who was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1890, and died in New York City in 1970. He had a couple of Ed Sullivan appearances, a couple of movies but did most of his work on stage. Now you know.

But, really, you knew it before because Skulnik, like all the men in this book, has a twinkle in his eye, an appealing quality to his face, a combination of body language and expression that makes you feel, just by looking at him, that he’d be fun to know.

In the same way that the camaraderie and the giggles and the lit up faces with mischievious smiles made The Aristocrats utterly lovable and charming despite its wall-to-wall profanity, the faces of these men bring out the same feeling of nostalgia and fondness that Friedman clearly felt when he drew these “loving, liver-spotted tribute[s].” Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Your Show of Shows, you know that Sid Caesar (drawn here with wide open eyes and a starry background that makes him look like a cross between the face of God and a sky-searching UFO watcher) is a guy in touch with the kooky. Easy laughter radiates from the face of Red Buttons (born Aaron Chwatt). The talent, the effort and the rare sparkle required to work a nightclub night after night and be funny glistens on the face of Buddy Hackett (born Leonard Hacker). The screwball nature of Jerry Lewis (Jerome Levitch) comes careening out of his open mouth even though his portrait is completely silent. And even someone who never saw a minute of The Phil Silvers Show can see the former Philip Silversmith is a born huckster with a perfect sense of timing.

Pictures and names (given and created) are all that fill the bulk of this book. And yet these are enough to tell a story. Every face has character, has expression that defines its personality and has wrinkles that seem to be built around wide-mouthed, squinchy-eyed laughs.

Yeah, if Borscht is your Belt of choice, then this is your book. A

— Amy Diaz