“I’ve read enough Roland Barthes and Foucault to know it’s all fiction, man.”
Richard Gehr’s new book, I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists (Amazon/New Harvest), profiles a dozen New Yorker cartoonists. We talk about the genesis of that project, lament the dearth of cartooning in print and online, bond over Abe Vigoda, and ponder why it is that so many New Yorker cartoonists had teachers or educators for parents. We also get into Richard’s history in the arts-journalism racket, the joys of Robert Walser, his time in the Boy Scouts with Matt Groening, how he built a career out of his oddball enthusiasms, and the most mind-blowing “Which celebrity did you totally melt down around?” story in the history of this podcast. (Seriously.) Give it a listen!
“I love New Yorker cartoons, but they might be the whitest form of art ever conceived.”
About our Guest
Richard Gehr has been writing about music, culture, and travel for quite a while. He has been an editor for the Los Angeles Reader, Spin, and Sonicnet/MTV Interactive. He currently writes for Rolling Stone, Spin, The Village Voice, Relix, AARP: The Magazine, and other publications. He was a senior writer for the book Alt. Culture: An A-To-Z Guide to the ’90S – Underground, Online, and Over-The-Counter and co-authored The Phish Book with the Vermont quartet. His new book is I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists. He resides in the Brooklyn arrondissement.
Credits: This episode’s music is Homesickness by Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou (because I’m on the road for a week). The conversation was recorded at Mr. Gehr’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on the same setup in a hotel room in San Diego, when my voice was shot from a three-day podcast-athon in Los Angeles. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Gehr by me.
“I don’t like drawing young people, attractive people. I used to get assigned drawings of the cast of ‘Friends’ for Entertainment Weekly, and it was painful. I would finish a drawing of Jennifer Aniston, and to reward myself, I’d draw Shecky Greene.”
It’s the Vermeer of the Borscht Belt! Drew Friedman, the great painter, cartoonist, chronicler of modern fame (and infamy), and Howard Stern’s favorite artist, invited me out to 2nd Ave. Deli in NYC one Saturday morning to record a conversation about art, leaving New York, show biz, R. Crumb, Joe Franklin, Tor Johnson, the Friars Club, Howard Stern, Abe Vigoda, the gallery show commemorating his books on Old Jewish Comedians, and his upcoming book of portraits on comic-book legends (as in ‘artists, writers and publishers’). We also talk about how Harry Einstein died during a roast for Lucy and Desi, trade Gilbert Gottfried stories, discuss the state of the illustration market, explore why he used stippling effects and why he stopped, and more. This one’s a lot of fun. Go listen!
“There’s a theory about why there were so many Jewish comedians: the smile behind the pain, the haunted smile. I don’t buy into it. I think they’re all just a bunch of hams. They like to be up there, telling jokes, being funny, and meeting women.”
Photo of Drew Friedman and Jerry Lewis courtesy of Jay Ruttenberg
About our Guest
Drew Friedman is an award-winning illustrator, cartoonist and painter. His work has appeared in Raw, Weirdo, SPY, National Lampoon, Snarf, The New York Times, MAD, The New Yorker, BLAB!, The New York Observer, The Wall Street Journal, HONK!, Rolling Stone, Field & Stream, TIME, The Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, and more. His comics and illustrations have been collected in several volumes, the latest, Too Soon?, published by Fantagraphics in 2010. His collection of portraits, Drew Friedman’s Sideshow Freaks, was published by Blast books in 2011. He has published three collections of paintings of Old Jewish Comedians (1, 2 and 3), but none of Old Episcopal Comedians. He also raises champion beagles with his wife, K. Bidus. You can find his full bio and buy his art at his fine art prints site and you really should read his blog.
Credits: This episode’s music is Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals by Raymond Scott. The conversation was recorded at the 2nd Ave. Deli in Manhattan on a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in my home office on a Blue Yeti USB microphone. File-splitting is done on a Mac Mini using Audacity. All editing and processing was done in Garage Band. Photo by a waiter at 2nd Ave. Deli.
What I’m reading: I left off on Moby Dick for a little while. I picked up Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, which I’d meant to write about during the summer. That was derailed by Rufus’ ordeal, so I’m hoping to get back to it this fall. I also read R. Sikoryak’s wonderful Masterpiece Comics.
What I’m listening to: Dear Science, by TV on the Radio.
What I’m watching: In The Loop, which was fantastic, followed by Local Hero, so I could have a Peter Capaldi double-feature. Now I have to find out if one of my British relatives can get hold of the DVDs of The Thick of It. Amy & I also watched a couple of the Comedy Central Roasts (Bob Saget, Joan Rivers), both of which featured fantastic Gilbert Gottfried riffs.
What I’m drinking: Plymouth & Q Tonic.
What I’m happy about: Um . . . not blogging, actually. I think I boxed myself in with all the “regular features” posts, so I’m happy not to think about those, even though I’m disappointed that I couldn’t come up with a good joke for how Wheaties’ new “EVOLVE” campaign is a broadside attack on the Intelligent Cereal Design crew.
What I’m sad about: Not getting that joke to work.
What I’m worried about: Change, y’know? And losing readers by not posting so often. I’m a (hot) neurotic mess, okay? Sue me. And go follow my twitter feed, if you want some sorta fix: twitter.com/groth18
What I’m pondering: I’ve decided to take more time off from the regular posting, and continue to rethink what I want to do with my writing. Last week, I had an idea for a new direction and a more coherent project than my standard ramblings here. So I’m pondering whether my dear readers would still be my dear readers if this project turns out to become a (self-published) book that I’d ask those readers to buy.
This month marks the 13th anniversary of one of the dumbest thoughts ever to cross my mind.
I was covering the annual Toy Fair for a trade magazine. Held in February in two buildings on the west side of Madison Square Park in NYC (it’s moved to the Javits Center now, I think), the fair brought together makers of toys, gifts, games and children’s products with distributors and retailers, to hash out orders for the next year. For some exhibitors, it was a big media event, with trade and consumer press conferences for product launches.
On my first day, I rode a cramped elevator to visit a crib-maker whom I needed to interview. Or maybe it was a breast-pump maker. That’s not important now.
What is important is what happened when the elevator reached my floor and the door opened. There was a man in front of me. I would say we were face to face, but he was at least six inches shorter than me. Still, his face was instantly recognizable.
And as we stepped aside to get past each other, I had the dumbest thought ever: “Wow! One of the toy companies actually hired a Gilbert Gottfried impersonator for the event!”
A moment or so later, of course, I thought, “You idiot! No one could make a living as a Gilbert Gottfried impersonator! You just missed your chance to –”
— to what? As I headed to my appointment, I wondered what I would actually have said to Gilbert Gottfried: “Love you on Howard Stern!” “You should’ve got more screen time in Ford Fairlane!” “Can you do that Arthur Godfrey impression for me? Or the senile Groucho Marx?”
I have to admit, I’d have been tongue-tied. Of course, he would’ve been incredibly uncomfortable, too, but that’s little consolation.
* * *
A few months later, at the annual Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association annual show in Dallas, I found myself sitting beside Jean Kasem in an overstuffed food court. She was at the show to promote her line of boutique cribs.
I’d wised up since that February and realized that this was actually Jean Kasem and not an impersonator or robot duplicate. Still, I found myself unable to acknowledge her, although I did have a joke that I simply didn’t have the balls to deliver:
I would have gone into Italian teamster voice and said to this towering, lovely, blonde woman, “I know you! I know who you are! You were on Cheers! Goddamn: Rhea Perlman! Right here at JPMA! Man! That is AWESOME!”
* * *
A year or so earlier, I went to see Bob Mould play at a 400-seat hall at Georgetown. The hall was inside a campus building and there was a long line snaking up the stairs to get to the door. Mould, on the way up the stairs, had to wait beside me on the landing for a few moments, waiting for people to move aside so he could head backstage.
Standing beside him, I thought, “I have no idea what to say right now.” It’s not that I was totally in awe of him, but the first few things I thought to say were inappropriate:
- “I really love your music.” â€“ Well, yeah, you’ve paid to see me perform, so I got the idea that you like my stuff.
- “Put on a great show tonight!” â€“ Should I? I thought I’d just half-ass it and cheat my paying audience.
- “Good luck!” â€“ Why don’t I kick you square in the nuts?
So I just said, “Hey,” and he did the same, and then he went up the stairs.
* * *
I’ve gotten a lot better with this stuff over the years, as I’ve met or bumped into more “famous” people. Part of it stems from realizing that they’re still people. Sometimes, ignorance helps too, like the time I met Frank Miller at a friend’s birthday party. In this case, it helped that we’d been talking for almost half an hour before I realized that he was Frank Miller. A friend of mine admitted that he would have genuflected before Miller all night if he’d been at the party.
But I admit, having adored Miller’s work throughout my teens, that if someone had pointed him out to me beforehand, I probably would’ve either avoided talking to him, or come up with some incredibly elaborate opening comment that would have made him really uncomfortable.
Which brings me to my big question:
What living celebrity (artist, actor, athlete, etc.) would cause you to have an absolute fawning meltdown, and why?
(I don’t mean like my Bob Mould story, where I couldn’t think of anything good. I’m talking Chris Farley meets Paul McCartney level of tonguetied-ness.)