So the Friars Club, that holy temple of Borscht Belt comedy on East 55th Street, it was getting old.
So the Friars Club, that holy temple of Borscht Belt comedy on East 55th Street, it was getting old. Even before 91-year-old Henny Youngman passed on Feb. 24- Alav Ha’Shalom , Henny-the average age of club members was “deceased,” to steal a line from Milton Berle. But instead of allowing their club to go the way of automats, the Friars decided to get some members without rugs and dentures.
So they went on a recruitment campaign. And here’s the funny part: It’s working. Unlike the hotshot countercultural comedians of the 70’s and 80’s, the new generation of stand-ups and sketch players seems to have no desire to blow their elders off the cultural stage. In fact, they’re more than happy to get right in the steam room with the old guys and hear all the stories. So at the Friars Club these days, Buddy Hackett sits with some of the youngsters at a corner table, dispensing stage wisdom picked up over almost a half-century of working the rooms. Or there’s Friar Nipsey Russell, spouting doggerel. Or Friar Joe Cates, the legendary comedy producer and father of actress Phoebe Cates, giving the new members lessons in Friars lore. Enamored of the days of Dean Martin, Damon Runyon and cheap one-liners, about 70 youngish members have signed up at the Friars Club so far-a mélange of stand-ups, sketch comics, actors and executives, as well as writers for Seinfeld and Late Night With Conan O’Brien . And not just youngish, but would you believe hep? That priestess of the alternative comedy set, Janeane Garofalo, she’s a member. “I just like being referred to as Friar Janeane Garofalo,” she said. “I make everybody call me that now.” So seven young members showed up at the club for lunch on Feb. 26. The maître d’, Frank Capitelli, treated them nice, giving them a table at the front of the club’s oak-paneled dining room. One of the new members asked what was going to happen to Henny Youngman’s usual table, in the corner. “We’re going to retire Henny’s table,” said Mr. Capitelli. Then he waited a beat. “Unless it gets crowded.” Jeffrey Ross-a burly 31-year-old stand-up comedian who killed on Late Show With David Letterman and made a name for himself among the Friars by slaying the crowd at the raunchy roast for actor Danny Aiello last year-was one of the last to arrive. He was wearing a huge-collared black comfy shirt. “What, did Hef dress you?” said Tom Lennon, 27, the sideburned co-host of Comedy Central’s Viva Variety , who was also at the table. Asked what it was like to be a Friar, Mr. Ross immediately channeled the Catskill comic within and started riffing on the age of his fellow members. “They’ve been doing comedy so long, some of their jokes are still in Latin … Early in his career, Milton Berle performed the works of Shakespeare. He also performed at Shakespeare’s bar mitzvah … Buddy Hackett has been doing comedy so long, he lost to Mark Twain on Star Search … Alan King’s S.A.G. card number is 8.” Such a kid! The insults work the other way, too. As Friar Jerry Lewis told one of the new members: “I got shorts older than you!” So what do Friar Garofalo and her junior cohorts get for their membership-aside from a classy leather briefcase and a blood-bank card? Well, the round-tablers chime in, there’s the George Burns card room (home to the kids’ semi-regular poker game), a billiards room, a barber shop stocked with Playboy s from the 80’s and, of course, there’s a nap room. A nap room? “Yes,” added a junior Friar. “And a deep sleep room.” “And a you-might-be-dead room,” topped another. Up on the fifth floor, you’ll find the weight room and, best of all, the steam room and sauna. “There are Friars Club robes,” said Randy Pearlstein, 26, who’ll soon be appearing in the movie Dead Man on Campus . “The first time Randy and I went upstairs to work out and take our shvitzes in the sauna,” said Elon Gold, 27, “we put on these Friars Club robes. We sat in these big leather chairs-we were just giggling. This is the funniest thing to do, this is the goofiest-we were real old men. When you’re wearing that Friars Club robe and you feel good and you just came out of the steam room, it’s like-” “You’re like an old shvitzing Jew,” chimed in stand-up comedian Susie Essman, 35, another recent joiner. “The way these old guys work out is hilarious,” said Mr. Pearlstein. “They come in their New Balance shoes and their Fila track suits and it’s-‘Hey, how are you?'” “They throw the medicine ball,” said Mr. Ross. “They run with the thing with the big belt around it. The Little Rascals workout.” “They don’t work out,” said Mr. Pearlstein. “They just walk around and insult each other: ‘Bigger muscles aren’t going to make you funny, O.K.?” Their overdeveloped sense of 90’s irony won’t let the new kids forget that the Friars Club is a place that stocks Barbicide in the bathrooms. But at the same time, those combs in the blue liquid have covered the bald spots of comedy’s legends. “When I was a kid, before I knew anything about show business, I knew two things- William Morris and Friars Club,” said Michael Ian Black, 26, a co-star of Comedy Central’s Viva Variety . “Now I’m with both of them.” And speaking of institutions, Catskills aristocrat Freddie Roman strode into the dining room. The junior Friars let out a whoop. Mr. Roman looked over the assortment of black T-shirts, blazers and sideburns, then stopped at the table. The new members waited for the insult. “This looks like the cast of the Montreal Laugh Festival,” said Mr. Roman, referring to the annual convention of unproven stand-ups. “That’s the best you came up with?” said Mr. Pearlstein. Mr. Roman, who serves as dean of the club, chuckled and ambled off to an artery-clogging meal. All the youngsters know from Mr. Roman. The comic helped kick off the fresh blood drive-along with current Friar leader, Abbott Alan King. “A few years ago, we were lulled into this period,” said Mr. King on speakerphone. “We looked around, and all of a sudden the club wasn’t growing.” Their emergency tactics were simple. Relax the dress code (jacket and ties aren’t required in the dining room until 6 P.M.). Slash the annual dues-under-30 members pay $500 instead of $2,000. Give performers free tables at the roasts, hold recruitment cocktail hours, organize meet-your-elders lunches, sponsor showcases for young comics. Join up, they said. To get in, you need two sponsors and, preferably, an entertainment background. Also, you must never have angered anyone in the club. Before the club admits new members, they pass around a list of candidates. If one Friar crosses the name off the list, the candidate is done for. As the recruitment drive got going in earnest, the Friars got lucky. The show-biz landscape shifted in two key ways. First, the grungy, anti-establishment vibe faded out, replaced by a vogue for the Rat Pack. “Five years ago, comics were dressing like Nirvana,” Mr. Ross said. “Now, they’re wearing suits, embracing an old style of show business.” Second, the comedy clubs of the 80’s all but keeled over and died, leaving funny folks with no place to hang out. As a result, the Friars are easing their way back into pop culture-a Seinfeld (sure, Jerry’s a Friar) reference here, a Simpsons reference there (Krusty the Clown says he belongs), not to mention an upcoming Cinemax documentary on the history of the 94-year-old club (George M. Cohan, Will Rogers, Irving Berlin were all early members). “When Milton Berle walks in here, it’s like he opened at the Copa last night,” said Mr. Ross, over his matzoh brei with corned beef and onions. “They’re like royalty. All the comedy clubs, the institutions, come and go. The Friars Club is 90-something years old; it’s not going anywhere. At the networks, every year, new guy in charge. But this will be here at this address as long as I’m alive.” “Every old timer I meet in the steam room has a great story,” said Mr. Pearlstein. “This one guy named Jack, he goes, ‘Syndicated T.V.? That was me and my partner. We did that.’ Some old guy in a towel.” Just as the Observer photographer was leaving the table after getting shots of everyone at lunch, Mr. Lennon did some goodbye. “Thanks for killing Diana!” he said. The talk at one point turned to another villain-the guy who crashed Bob Dylan’s performance at the Grammy Awards show the night before the lunch. The people at the table knew Michael Portnoy, who scrawled “Soy Bomb” on his bare chest. They’ve seen him from time to time in the alternative comedy clubs like Fez on the Lower East Side, but they don’t like him. He once tried to heckle Mr. Ross’ act: “I ignored him,” Mr. Ross said. “It was very frustrating for him.” Mr. Portnoy’s performance art shtick-“stick-your-balls-in-a-cup-of-water” material, as the table derisively called it-leaves them cold. But neither are these young Friars into the setup-punch line-rim shot of their Borscht Belt heroes. Consider Stella, an ongoing East Village comedy revue co-hosted at Fez by Michael Ian Black. Heavy with knowing meta-comedy sketches (a typical one has a white guy doing Def Comedy Jam ), it’s got more in common with Monty Python absurdism than vaudeville. It wouldn’t be Uncle Miltie’s cup of Scotch. “These guys don’t get down below 42nd Street,” said Mr. Black. But there’s no generation gap that can’t be bridged by a good insult, the Friars’ coin of respect. “If you can make these old-timers laugh, it’s such a huge boost in confidence,” said Viva Variety producer and performer Ben Garant, 27. “Damn, it feels good.” And if the old-timers are willing, the newcomers get to schmooze all they want, despite that recent Friars Club memo warning members not to approach the celebrity members but to let them do the approaching. In one of his chats, Buddy Hackett told them to keep the room cold-just like he claims to have advised David Letterman all those years ago. And Milton Berle recently told the recruits about his annual crate of Cuban cigars, a gift from Fidel Castro. The legend also gave a tip to Mr. Ross: “After one of my shows, Milton Berle told me to slow down,” he recounted. “But when a 90-year-old guy tells you to slow down …” Meanwhile, Ms. Essman said she gets to rub more than elbows with the show-biz giants in the club made of 90 percent men (women admitted since 1988!). “I get pawed a lot,” she said. “It makes them so happy that I can’t deny it. And you know they can’t follow through.” Just a couple months before he died, Henny Youngman razzed Ms. Essman while she performed at a Friars benefit. “He was in his wheelchair, zinging me one-liners. Mostly sex stuff about meeting me in a motel.” Of course, the bluest of blue material is reserved for those infamous Friars Club roasts. (The latest victim was Danny Aiello). “That’s a fun thing, seeing Milton Berle say pussy and fuck and cunt,” said Mr. Gold. “These are icons of the golden age of television, when they couldn’t say ‘pregnant’.” “Yeah,” added Mr. Ross. “At the Travolta one, Barbara Walters said ‘dildo rash.'” They all laughed. It’s not so bad, being a Friar.