Last night I had the honor of attending an event hosted by the New York Council for the Humanities at The Society of Illustrators. “From the Borscht Belt to Seinfeld: The Evolution of Jewish American Comedy” was held in honor of legendary cartoonist Drew Friedman’s portraiture exhibit on “Old Jewish Comedians.” The exhibit and loaded panel of famed comedians was a celebration of Friedman’s trilogy, which depict the greatest Jewish American comedians of all time.
The panel was moderated by Dr. Edward Portnoy, a master of Yiddish Studies, and included stand up routines and presentations by Drew Friedman, Larry Storch, Tom Leopold, and Bill Persky.
The room was packed with Jews of all ages and lined with Friedman’s exquisite portraits, which included all of the members standing on stage. Portnoy opened with a brief history of Yiddish culture and vaudeville in New York City, as well as the metropolis of comedy, The Catskills.
Larry Storch was the oldest and funniest comedian there. Widely known for his unbelievable impersonation ability, the 91 year old imitated Marlon Brando, a little Puerto Rican boy, an Israeli in conversation with an Arab, and told a myriad of jokes. Though his age was ostensibly a factor in his ability to remember all of his punchlines, the audience helped him along, and reveled in his performance.
Friedman told the story of his life as a cartoonist who grew up loving and drawing Jewish comedians. He grew up drawing obsessively, and even showed his 7th grade notebook filled with pages and pages of faces. He told hilarious stories of his experiences knowing and befriending comedians such as, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Gilbert Gottfried, and numerous others.
Persky and Tom Leopold also took the stage and spoke of their iconic careers as writers and comedians growing up in the thick of Jewish comedy in the Borscht Belt. Renowned Catskills hotels such as The Concord, Kutshers, and The Laurels were all spoken about in depth, as every person sitting there had a tie to the that time, those places, and their summer memories.
The room, constantly roaring with laughter, was an iconic celebration of Jewish culture, our charged history, and our place as comical outsiders, just trying to make it in America.