20 Years of Inappropriate Laughter

We all have our seminal texts.  These are the books that made us who we are, that are hard-wired to our psyches, whose very pages float like paper sailboats in the salty brine of our DNA.  At the far end of my life, I’d rate Don Whitehead’s THE FBI STORY (a sanitized “adapted for young readers” spin on the Bureau’s history minus J. Edgar Hoover’s endless fascination with other people’s sex lives ), Jules Feiffer’s THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES (my THE HERO HAS A THOUSAND FACES) and Carlos Clarens’ AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM as the most influential in sculpting the bona fide weirdo that is me.  Somewhere in the middle, encompassing my college and bohemian years in New Haven and New York, I’d have to say Bram Stoker’s DRACULA and Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD are (you should pardon the expression) neck and neck for the most character-building and aesthetic shaping… although both might be overshadowed by WARTS AND ALL.

Published by Penguin Books in 1990, the year I turned 29, WARTS is a collection of graphic panels (I’d hesitate to call them comics but many have) drawn by (then) New York artist Drew Friedman and scripted with his brother, Josh Alan Friedman (whose professional career began with a reporter’s gig at Al Goldstein’s Screw).  Most of the stuff collected within its slim but oh-so-rich page count was published previously in such far flung publications as Heavy Metal, National Lampoon, The Village Voice, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW and R. Crumb’s Weirdo.  I may have seen a few panels here and there over the years and I was probably familiar with Drew Friedman’s distinctive, photorealist style, but the aptly named WARTS AND ALL brought it all together.  The book knocked me down, helped me back to my feet, and pushed me down a flight of stairs.  But it’s not just that these guys were merciless bushwackers… they knew where I lived!  Panel after brutally funny panel, the Friedmans seemed to cull for their dramatis personae all the people I had rattling around in my brain – Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Rondo Hatton, Ed Wood Jr., The Three Stooges, Franklin Pangborn, Ernest Borgnine, game show host Bill Cullen, Sandler & Young – for God’s sake, I couldn’t believe someone else actually remembered Sandler & Young, those perpetually tuxedoed songsters and occasional General Motors pitchmen who sang dulcet duets on ED SULLIVAN and other prime time entertainment revues.  The Friedmans gave Tony and Ralph a good shellacking on page 1 of WARTS AND ALL.  But brother, that was just the beginning.

WARTS AND ALL had great appeal to my singular circle of friends.  All college-educated and possessing fine sensibilities otherwise, we were to a man (and woman) all too vulnerable to broad bathroom humor and crude sexual innuendos.  It is for this reason that Bill Cullen on the Wild Side, a four-panel piece of speculative fiction about the game show host’s early days prowling “the dirty side of the curb” on Chicago’s South Side, takes me off at the ankles.  Cullen’s come-on to a disinterested dance hall floozy became something of a mantra for me in the early 90s but I can’t repeat it here.  (Uncomfortable negotiations with prostitutes are something of a leitmotif in the Friedman canon – when a hooker asks Tor Johnson what his preference is, Tor answers “Lemon sherbet.”)  That’s one of the things that WARTS does best – the precise, almost surgical use of profanity, which blindsides you every time – a lost art in these days of unexpurgated entertainment pitched to the urinals.  My friends and I would (and still do) quote one-liners from the book as if they were SEINFELD dialogue, sometimes cold calling one another late at night just to say:

“Life sure is sweet.”

“The fewd is tender.”

“At least I’m still performink!”

“I wanna get me some o’that Mag-nol-eum for mah baffroom.”

Reading WARTS AND ALL then and now it’s hard to tell where the Friedmans’ sympathies lie.  Do they hate these personalities of the past as much as they seem to?  (See Joey Heatherton get put through the ringer in the scalding 9-page I, Joey Heatherton for a taste of someone else’s Hell.)  The temptation is to view this work through a scrim of post-HOLLYWOOD BABYLON revisionist history, part of the punter’s thrill at taking potshots at the rich and famous and (in most cases) conveniently deceased.  (Still-living talk show host and old time movie buff Joe Franklin instigated a 1984 lawsuit against Friedman and Friedman for their comic strip parody The Incredible Shrinking Joe Franklin, but the case was dismissed and any ill feelings between plaintiff and defendants have dissipated.)  As sensitive as I am to that kind of celebrity necrophilia, I never took offense at WARTS AND ALL or the many satirical comics Drew Friedman has since drawn, without or without Josh.  For one thing, the work of actually drawing these panels is so painstaking, involving thousands of stippled dots laid over an already realistic caricature to give it a photorealist effect, that only the worst kind of anthracite son-of-a-bitch would put in that amount of blood, sweat and tears.  The Joey Heatherton script alone took Josh a full year to research, with trips to the library to go through dusty files and yellowed press clippings for info, while it generally took Drew a full eight hour day to produce a single panel. Clearly, cheap laughs were not the Friedman’s raison d’être.  Given that many of their comics could be more than a little nasty (not for nothing were the Friedmans known as “the most feared cartoon duo of the late 70s and 80s”), I’d wager that the love/hate ratio splits right down the middle.

Few noted personalities of the past have gotten a sweeter ride on the Friedman Express than cult film director Ed Wood, Jr.  Wood is conspicuous in his absence from WARTS AND ALL (although his spirit is felt in the presence of Tor Johnson, Vampira and a drug-addled Bela Lugosi, all of whom had roles in Wood’s magnum opus PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE) but both brothers would honor Wood through the years.  In 1992, Kitchen Sink Press put out a pack of collectible trading cars of The Ed Wood, Jr. Players, drawn with tender loving care by Drew, and Josh is the author/composer of THE WORST!, an Ed Wood musical whose song list includes an achingly acute paean to Bela Lugosi.  I suspect the bottom line for a lot of the living and the dead depicted in this book is the fascination of imagining them in situations their movies or nightclub acts never dropped them into:  Joan Crawford in bed with Rondo Hatton (Universal’s “Monster Without Makeup”), LOVE BUG star Buddy Hackett palling around with Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (the true crime inspiration for PSYCHO‘s Norman Bates), or LIFEBOAT star Tallulah Bankhead locked in a sweaty Sapphic bear hug with GONE WITH THE WIND‘s Hattie McDaniel.  At the bottom of all these scandalous panels there is a sense of child-like wonder.  Drew’s stippled style gives these stories a tabloid graininess – a snowy, televised aspect – as if broadcast on a magical old Philco that can see past the privacy curtains of celebrity privilege to the often ugly truth.  And in these imagined behind-closed-doors, there is surprising humanity and warmth, however callous it all may appear on first pass.  It’s that weird hybrid of irreverence and respect that sold me on WARTS AND ALL.  It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since I first clapped eyes on this book but it’s taken me all of that time to really understand the mad genius of it and to wish that Drew and Josh had written THE FBI STORY.

After twelve years together, Team Friedman disbanded in 1990, which marks another 20th anniversary.  Drew continues to create with unnerving (and often unflattering) pinpoint accuracy and his work has been featured in Time, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer, Esquire and other national publications, as well as on the covers of everything from Gregory William Mank’s recent HOLLYWOOD’S HELLFIRE CLUB: THE MISADVENTURES OF JOHN BARRYMORE, W.C. FIELDS, ERROL FLYNN AND “THE BUNDY DRIVE BOYS” to the The New Yorker.  He has also published several more collections, including THE FUN NEVER STOPS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF COMIC ART 1991-2005 and the BLAB! storybooks OLD JEWISH COMEDIANS and MORE OLD JEWISH COMEDIANS.  (Drew’s fourth wall shattering portrait of Marty Allen is quite possibly one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, where the buttresses are decorated with baby skeletons.)  Having long since traded the mean streets of Manhattan for family life in Dallas, Texas, Josh has continued as a musical act with the gigging, recording Josh Alan Band.  Josh is also the author of the nonfiction books TALES OF TIMES SQUARE, WHEN SEX WAS DIRTY and TELL THE TRUTH UNTIL THEY BLEED as well as the autobiographical novel BLACK CRACKER, available from Amazon Kindle.  I spoke with Josh this morning, at which time he marveled at the two decade distance between the present day and the publication of WARTS AND ALL.  “I hear about it all the time, so I don’t think of it as having been twenty years,” he remarked with a nostalgic sigh.  “Seems more like ten.  Mantan Moreland and Shemp Howard and all the things that I used to care about I still care about, even though they’re from another century now.  There’s no such thing, really, as the past.  It’s all part of a continuum, it all keeps going.  I see a very bright future for Tor Johnson.”


22 Responses 20 Years of Inappropriate Laughter
Posted By Medusa : January 8, 2010 3:15 pm

Always love this book and his others! Several of my former work colleagues and I used to photocopy many of the images and plaster them around the office and elsewhere, incessantly, cackling all the while. Used them for some subversive purposes at various media conventions also, and never had so much fun! Those were the days…

I like Friedman’s take on the continuum of the appeal of his work and these personalities. I think he’s right.

Great article, RHS! Once again, you’ve poked directly into my heart and brain with one of your posts! Thanks for the memories.

Posted By Medusa : January 8, 2010 3:15 pm

Always love this book and his others! Several of my former work colleagues and I used to photocopy many of the images and plaster them around the office and elsewhere, incessantly, cackling all the while. Used them for some subversive purposes at various media conventions also, and never had so much fun! Those were the days…

I like Friedman’s take on the continuum of the appeal of his work and these personalities. I think he’s right.

Great article, RHS! Once again, you’ve poked directly into my heart and brain with one of your posts! Thanks for the memories.

Posted By Ginger Howard Friedman : January 8, 2010 4:24 pm

I am so impressed and proud, after all these are my sons. What talent! What humor! They get it from their parents, of course!

Posted By Ginger Howard Friedman : January 8, 2010 4:24 pm

I am so impressed and proud, after all these are my sons. What talent! What humor! They get it from their parents, of course!

Posted By rhsmith : January 8, 2010 5:32 pm

Medusa, your copy of WARTS AND ALL must have been the ones with the raised warts on the cover – they stopped doing that for later printings. I never thought it would be possible to miss warts.

Posted By rhsmith : January 8, 2010 5:32 pm

Medusa, your copy of WARTS AND ALL must have been the ones with the raised warts on the cover – they stopped doing that for later printings. I never thought it would be possible to miss warts.

Posted By franko : January 8, 2010 5:35 pm

I have a prized, complete 15-year collection of Heavy Metal magazines that I was offered a considerable sum for at a time in my life when I was homeless and nearly starving. As I prepared to part with them, I remembered the strange sensation I felt whenever I read a Friedman story, kinda like roaming a deserted and haunted city street at three o’clock in the morning. Nothing else had ever really effected me in such a way. I preferred to ignore the storyline and dialog, but the drawings of characters from some dim past were impossible for me not to get lost in. I decided to starve a little longer.

I think I’ll drag out that collection and spend some time getting reacquainted with Drew Friedman. Thanks!

Posted By franko : January 8, 2010 5:35 pm

I have a prized, complete 15-year collection of Heavy Metal magazines that I was offered a considerable sum for at a time in my life when I was homeless and nearly starving. As I prepared to part with them, I remembered the strange sensation I felt whenever I read a Friedman story, kinda like roaming a deserted and haunted city street at three o’clock in the morning. Nothing else had ever really effected me in such a way. I preferred to ignore the storyline and dialog, but the drawings of characters from some dim past were impossible for me not to get lost in. I decided to starve a little longer.

I think I’ll drag out that collection and spend some time getting reacquainted with Drew Friedman. Thanks!

Posted By aiche : January 8, 2010 5:53 pm

Oh wow, this looks like a total gem, and I’ve never heard of it. I appreciate the rec –now to decide whether it goes by the bed or next to the toilet….

Posted By aiche : January 8, 2010 5:53 pm

Oh wow, this looks like a total gem, and I’ve never heard of it. I appreciate the rec –now to decide whether it goes by the bed or next to the toilet….

Posted By Irwin Chusid : January 8, 2010 6:40 pm

Excellent chronicle. However, you wrote: “Drew continues to draw with unnerving (and often unflattering) pinpoint accuracy.”

Actually, Drew now paints. Working with the artist, we started offering fine art prints in May 2009:

http://drewfriedman.net

regards, Irwin

Posted By Irwin Chusid : January 8, 2010 6:40 pm

Excellent chronicle. However, you wrote: “Drew continues to draw with unnerving (and often unflattering) pinpoint accuracy.”

Actually, Drew now paints. Working with the artist, we started offering fine art prints in May 2009:

http://drewfriedman.net

regards, Irwin

Posted By rhsmith : January 8, 2010 9:59 pm

Irwin, I knew Drew is painting now (I linked to his celebrated New Yorker cover) and should have said so more specifically. I’ve edited the text slightly to reflect his broader canvas and I thank you for the correction.

Ginger, without you there would be no WARTS!

Posted By rhsmith : January 8, 2010 9:59 pm

Irwin, I knew Drew is painting now (I linked to his celebrated New Yorker cover) and should have said so more specifically. I’ve edited the text slightly to reflect his broader canvas and I thank you for the correction.

Ginger, without you there would be no WARTS!

Posted By Drew Friedman : January 9, 2010 11:29 am

Great piece, thanks.

One correction, “The incredible Shrinking Joe Franklin” was written by me, thus only I was sued by Joe. It was dismissed before it ever went to trial and Joe and I have since patched things up. He appeared at my Friars party for my book “More Old Jewish Comedians” last year, we posed for pictures, he invited my wife and I to one of his “One Hundred restaurants”, and had no memory of ever having sued me.

Posted By Drew Friedman : January 9, 2010 11:29 am

Great piece, thanks.

One correction, “The incredible Shrinking Joe Franklin” was written by me, thus only I was sued by Joe. It was dismissed before it ever went to trial and Joe and I have since patched things up. He appeared at my Friars party for my book “More Old Jewish Comedians” last year, we posed for pictures, he invited my wife and I to one of his “One Hundred restaurants”, and had no memory of ever having sued me.

Posted By morlockjeff : January 9, 2010 11:46 am

Great post. I’ve kept a xerox of the Ethel Merman-Ernst Borgnine panel on my office wall as inspiration through the years. And of course the Frankenstein’s Daughter face gets duplicated regularly and slipped into crooks and nannies around the house where my wife will find them. She also does a great impersonation of Sandra Knight morphing into that she-creature…but only after a few glasses of wine. My thanks to the Friedmans for so much fun over the years and that includes father Bruce Jay (I just love Stern & A Mother’s Kisses).

Posted By morlockjeff : January 9, 2010 11:46 am

Great post. I’ve kept a xerox of the Ethel Merman-Ernst Borgnine panel on my office wall as inspiration through the years. And of course the Frankenstein’s Daughter face gets duplicated regularly and slipped into crooks and nannies around the house where my wife will find them. She also does a great impersonation of Sandra Knight morphing into that she-creature…but only after a few glasses of wine. My thanks to the Friedmans for so much fun over the years and that includes father Bruce Jay (I just love Stern & A Mother’s Kisses).

Posted By Kevin Kunreuther : January 10, 2010 3:55 am

It’s all a very wonderfully warped time capsule, an escape pod back to a childhood subjected to a cathode ray funhouse-nightmare of fugly vaudevillians, Golden Hollywood has-beens, B-movie horrorshows, a pre-reality scripted peek into the mundane life of a Great Neck schlub, the not so secret neuroses of high school teachers, a walk thru the life of the Grandmother of All Celebrity Train Wrecks and the nuanced non sequiturs voiced by a larger than life hyrdocephalic hipster and Tor Johnson, too. You couldn’t treat any of the celebs from today’s culture with the same affection that is given by the Friedman Bros to the people they lovingly skewer. Today’s pop culture is immediate trash and open to scorn and ridicule almost immediately, thanks to the tabloidization of the media stars. Warts and All and its predecessor, Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental, if they could ever have a ‘sequel” in any sense of the word, would be hard pressed to equal or top.

Posted By Kevin Kunreuther : January 10, 2010 3:55 am

It’s all a very wonderfully warped time capsule, an escape pod back to a childhood subjected to a cathode ray funhouse-nightmare of fugly vaudevillians, Golden Hollywood has-beens, B-movie horrorshows, a pre-reality scripted peek into the mundane life of a Great Neck schlub, the not so secret neuroses of high school teachers, a walk thru the life of the Grandmother of All Celebrity Train Wrecks and the nuanced non sequiturs voiced by a larger than life hyrdocephalic hipster and Tor Johnson, too. You couldn’t treat any of the celebs from today’s culture with the same affection that is given by the Friedman Bros to the people they lovingly skewer. Today’s pop culture is immediate trash and open to scorn and ridicule almost immediately, thanks to the tabloidization of the media stars. Warts and All and its predecessor, Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental, if they could ever have a ‘sequel” in any sense of the word, would be hard pressed to equal or top.

Posted By Christopher Allen : January 11, 2010 3:03 pm

RHS,

Wonderful article, and I’m so pleased to see both Friedmans (and mom) commenting here as well. I had a similar experience, except it was for the previous Any Resemblance, which blew me away when I bought it in high school. I took it to my first year of college and converted my new best friend, Jeff, to it, and I know to this day I could call him up out of the blue and say, “Tor like meatball” or “Here’s to you and your breed, may you never share in my riches” (from Arthur Godfrey Dines with Freaks) and he’d know exactly what I’m talking about, and laugh all over again. I’ve followed Drew’s work since, and now I’m happy to learn of what Josh has been up to and will check those books out as well. Thanks again for writing this.

Posted By Christopher Allen : January 11, 2010 3:03 pm

RHS,

Wonderful article, and I’m so pleased to see both Friedmans (and mom) commenting here as well. I had a similar experience, except it was for the previous Any Resemblance, which blew me away when I bought it in high school. I took it to my first year of college and converted my new best friend, Jeff, to it, and I know to this day I could call him up out of the blue and say, “Tor like meatball” or “Here’s to you and your breed, may you never share in my riches” (from Arthur Godfrey Dines with Freaks) and he’d know exactly what I’m talking about, and laugh all over again. I’ve followed Drew’s work since, and now I’m happy to learn of what Josh has been up to and will check those books out as well. Thanks again for writing this.

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