Vanity Fair’s Mike Sacks is one of the world’s great comedy nerds and he’s got the published bona fides to prove it. Funny in his own right (his book of comic essays, Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason had me laughing out loud on nearly every single page) Mike’s proven himself incredibly adept at getting top humor writers to open up about what they do and how they do it. His 2009 collection, And Here’s the Kicker featured interviews with the likes of Buck Henry, Stephen Merchant, Dick Cavett, Larry Gelbart, Merrill Markoe and even Marx Brothers writer Irving Brecher (which floored me, because I am fascinated by the man who Groucho called “the wickedest wit of the West”). The book is filled with gem after gem of good advice on how to write funny and how to think funny. If you are at all interested in the craft of comedy, it’s an absolutely indispensable book.
In just a few short days, Mike’s new book of interviews, Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Todays Top Comedy Writers will arrive (June 24 to be exact) and this nearly 500 page volume features contributions from Amy Poehler, Patton Oswalt, Adam McKay and even the great Mel Brooks. The Irving Brecher equivalent for me—there had to be a Brecher this time, too, of course or the reader would be disappointed—well, he got several Brechers this go round (I’m talking about other unexpected leftfield participants, to be clear). There’s a fascinating interview with New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, for starters. He’s also got Daniel Clowes, WFMU’s Tom Scharpling and Bob & Ray’s Bob Elliott. That’s some pretty rarified company, right? But that’s what you’ll find here. [As an aside fellow comedy buffs, my beloved pal Philip Proctor of the Firesign Theatre once told me that his extremely distinct comedic delivery was more influenced by Bob & Ray than anyone else. Once you know that, it provides a fascinating lens with which to view Phil’s contribution to “the Beatles of comedy.”]
One of the interviews that was cut for space from Poking a Dead Frog was a conversation with Josh Alan Friedman, co-creator with his brother Drew (the one who draws) of the all-time, until the end of time classic Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental and on his own of the classic in a different way anthology of his Screw magazine essays on the 42nd Street milieu, Tales of Times Square. To say that I am a big, huge, unabashed fan of those books is no exaggeration. I even gave out copies of Tales of Times Square for Christmas presents back when Times Square was still a sleaze pit. I found a stack at The Strand bookstore and bought all of them. I put plastic wrappers on my own copy of the first edition and it sits in a place of pride on the bookshelves behind me as I type this. When Mike offered us the opportunity to run the Josh Alan Friedman interview on Dangerous Minds, I was only too happy to accept.
Josh Alan Friedman, right, with his brother illustrator Drew Friedman, late 1970s
Mike Sacks: When I first asked if you were willing to be interviewed, you said that you “find nothing funny about anything, anyone, anywhere, at any time.”
Josh Alan Friedman: That might have been off-the-cuff, but there’s a kernel of truth in there. Most of the time, what strikes me as funny doesn’t strike others as funny. And vice versa.
When did you publish your first cartoon with your brother Drew? What year was this?
It was in 1978, but we had been recording reel-to-reel audio sketches and doing comic strips for ourselves over the years. I would kind of write and produce, Drew did voices and illustrations. We never thought about publishing or releasing them.
Drew began to draw constantly. He would draw his teachers naked on school desks. When I went to visit him during his freshman year at Boston University, the public walls of the entire dormitory floor were densely illustrated. Maybe I imagined this, but I seem to remember finding him upside down, like Michaelangelo laboring under the chapel. He spent months doing this, and although the frat boys loved it, Drew hadn’t been to class in months. So I wanted to focus the poor boy’s talent on something, and I began writing heavily researched, detailed comix scripts.
What was that first published comic called?
“The Andy Griffith Show.” It ran in Raw Magazine. Drew illustrated the entire script very quickly. I loved how it looked. I said, “This is an amazing piece of work you’ve just done here,” and he told me he could do better. He ripped up that first version and then re-drew it—that’s the version that now exists. When I saw how startling the strip looked after the second pass, I knew we were onto something exciting.
To this day, the “Andy Griffith Show” comic strip remains slightly shocking. It features a black man wandering into Mayberry, North Carolina, and getting lynched by Sheriff Taylor and some other locals. This was not your typical misty-eyed look back at small-town life in the 1960s.
That cartoon has since been reprinted many times—and we caught a lot of flak at first. Certain people accused us of being racists.
If anything, you were mocking the nostalgia that surrounds a time and place that was anything but happy and perfect—at least for many people.
Yes, of course. I wanted to provoke the heady sensation of fear, and also get some laughs. That, to me, was—and still is—a potent combination. The so-called comic nightmare. It’s like mixing whiskey with barbiturates. It becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Over the years readers have told me that they can’t remember whether they actually read some of our cartoons or dreamed them. People have asked, “I might have been dreaming, but did you once work on a comic strip about such and such?”
You were writing about television shows and celebrities that no one else seemed to care about in the late ’70s, early ’80s.
I’ll confess that during childhood I never realized I Love Lucy was supposed to be a situation comedy. I thought it was a drama about the misadventures of this poor New York City housewife, which happened to have a surreal laugh track that made no sense. Years later, I was stunned to learn it was considered comedy.
I was always riveted by the lower depths of show business and sub-celebrities, maybe as an alternative to the dumbing down of American culture. The common man had higher standards in, say, the 1940s. And Drew’s fascination went even deeper, as he depicted fantasies of Rondo Hatton, the acromegaly-cursed actor who starred in several freak horror flicks in the ’30s and ’40s. And, of course, Tor Johnson, the giant wrestler turned actor, from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space , who practically became Drew’s alter ego.
There was something about The Three Stooges, after their stock had taken a dive in the ’70s, that became more compelling than ever—even deeper than when we were children. Three short, ugly, but really beautiful, middle-aged Jews who slept in the same bed together, refused to separate, yet beat and maimed each other senselessly without end. It almost ceased being comedy, but you couldn’t stop watching.
What fascinated you about sub-celebrities at the nadir of their careers?
If I were to speculate, I would say that worship of America’s celebrity culture was becoming a mental illness without a name. It was the sickness of celebrity. It’s only gotten worse: the false icons, the obsession with celebrity over substance. It demeans all of humanity. It’s terribly unhealthy. So why not take it a quantum step lower—to its natural resolution—and worship Ed Wood, Joe Franklin, Wayne Newton, or Joey Heatherton, a Rat Pack–era actress in the ’60s? Or serial killers posing with celebrities?
When Drew and I were doing this in the late ’70s and ’80s, there was no Internet. Information about old shows and movies and celebrities were difficult to come by back then. Now there are hundreds of websites devoted to The Three Stooges or The Andy Griffith Show or Rondo Hatton. You can now look up [the actress and model] Joey Heatherton’s name and immediately find that her first husband, the football player Lance Rentzel, was arrested in 1970 for exposing himself to a child. Or that Wayne Newton once threatened to beat the shit out of Johnny Carson for telling jokes about Wayne being effeminate.
You had to search out arcane clippings’ files in local libraries or newspaper morgues back then. For years, I kept accumulating photos and news clips on numerous subjects like Newton, Joey Heatherton or Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Do you think that if your comics had come out during the Internet era they would have become a lot more popular and widely read?
Well, the audience then was National Lampoon, High Times, Heavy Metal, Raw. I don’t know if there is an online equivalent. Our strips attracted surprising attention at the time. Kurt Vonnegut was a fan, and wrote an intro to Warts and All. Recently, I read that Frank Zappa kept both of our books on his night table. I also heard that Kurt Cobain loved the strips and wrote a song [“Floyd the Barber,” Bleach, 1989] based on our Andy Griffith strip. But pimps, hookers, con men, heroin addicts, psychiatrists, jazz musicians, communists, and demented young starlets—those were our natural audience back in the day.
You once mentioned that you suffered from suicidal depression. Do you think this affected your writing in any sense? Made it more melancholy?
Personally, for me, depression is a killer of everything. Work is the saving grace. You’re immersed in and possessed by a task that you are duty-bound to complete—and it often takes months or years. You feel this is what you were put on earth to do, and you’re doing it. At those times, life feels right. When you are prevented from performing by outside forces, you start to self-destruct.
I fight to stay at sea level, but something must give in. I’ve gotten better at managing it. When I was a teenager and depression would swoop down like brutal punishment, I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know it could be quantified or there was a name for it. I went from extrovert to introvert. As a consequence, perhaps, I started to witness and interpret the world different than others.
The dichotomy in your early life is interesting. On the one hand, you had this middle-class upbringing on Long Island, and then in Manhattan. On the other hand, you were surrounded by the uppercrust of show business and Hollywood. Your father, Bruce Jay Friedman, was a famous writer who was friends with many writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Mario Puzo, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, and Woody Allen.
Right. There were movie stars, actors and writers all throughout my childhood. Joe Heller helped get me into NYU, after which I dropped out during the first semester. In the ’60s and ’70s, my father got around everywhere. He was received like a king in New York. He was on the cover of many publications, and I believe there was still a deep cultural respect for serious writers—which is no longer the case in the U.S.A. Unlike, say, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal or Truman Capote, he refused to do TV. He felt it was demeaning for writers. By today’s balls-to-the-wall marketing standards, that would seem insane.
My father did cast a shadow over me. It was like living with a giant. To this day, when I dream about him, I am still a little boy and he is a big strong man. He still has quite a presence.
According to your father, you once lit Woody Allen’s hair on fire in the early 1970s. How and why did that come about?
We were eating at Elaine’s [restaurant, on the Upper East Side in New York]. Woody was eating next to us with a group of friends, and I lit an amaretto cookie wrapper which then floated into the air and landed on his head.
That must have endeared you to him.
He wasn’t thrilled, if I remember correctly.
Did you ever feel that your father’s presence was too strong to escape?
Yes, for a long time I felt I could never be as good as him. That’s no longer the case, though.
What did you learn from your father from a writer’s standpoint?
Absolutely everything. He always led by example. He taught me how to make every word count. He never believed that a longer book, like a novel, was better than a short story. Most Quality Lit readers seem to think a great book must be fat, but that’s not how he felt. He always took the attitude that it is much more difficult to achieve something small and perfect than long and imperfect. Like [Voltaire’s 18th century, 144-page satire] Candide. He writes stories that have a short burst of energy, with a big payoff.
His greatest skill is as a short story writer. He’s written a few hundred, and every time he does so, there’s something he needs to get off his chest. The fact that the story ends up funny is just an afterthought. Others may find these stories funny, but they are quite serious.
Looking back, do you feel that your comic-strips broke new ground? In 1989, Playboy described them this way: “Wicked realism and freakish horror typify the Friedman style, producing some of the slickest and funniest comics of our time.”
I suppose the non-sequitur style caught on with comic-strip writers and on SCTV. Some of our strips did not have endings. We didn’t feel there had to be a joke or resolution at the end. When there’s no clear ending, it leaves someone hanging uncomfortably, and is perhaps not fair to the reader.
Drew work with pointillism in those years—thousands of little pinpoints that create a whole. He spent eight hours on each panel. The strips would come out hyper-realistic. I would provide what was almost a movie script—the conception of an idea, the narration, dialogue balloons and description of each panel. Then I’d drive him like a workhorse, which he was. In the name of sanity, he finally put a stop to it. Human beings can only withstand so much labor.
What year did you start writing for Screw magazine?
In 1976. My mother threw me out of our Manhattan apartment just before Thanksgiving—the one time in my life I was ever kicked out. I was 20. Reeling with self-pity, I trekked down to Times Square. I booked into a fleabag joint called the Sherman Hotel, which was located at 47th and Eighth Avenue, and I thought, This is where I belong!
There were toenail clippings stuck in the old, seedy carpet, and there was a rotary-dial phone from the 1940s. Nothing joyous ever took place in that room. A window faced out over an air shaft, a little bit of moonlight coming through. I heard old men—probably elevator men—moaning, crying, hacking phlegm all through the night. There was nothing remotely romantic about this scene.
At the time, Screw made me laugh more than any other magazine. It was truly anarchistic—Mad magazine with a cock. It outsold Life, Playboy, Newsweek, and Time on Manhattan newsstands. Many great cartoonists and art directors broke in by way of Screw. And let me say this about Screw: it was the only magazine where I freelanced—and I freelanced for a lot—where the editors dealt straight and paid on time.
There was a section in Screw called “My Scene,” left over from the hippie days. Reader-submitted short stories, 40 bucks on acceptance. I had submitted one months before, about pressing up against a beautiful, big-assed Puerto Rican woman on the New York subway. Total bullshit. But the first night staying at this horrific hotel, I walked to a newsstand near Orange Julius and copped an issue of Screw—and there it was. I’ve published maybe 250 to 300 pieces since then, but this has remained the most exhilarating experience. I felt 10 feet tall that first time I saw my name in print. And I’ve been chasing that feeling like a heroin addict ever since.
Why did you run toward Times Square to escape? What was it about this world that you found so interesting?
I’ve always felt a magnetic pull toward bad neighborhoods—beginning with the ghetto school I attended, as the only white kid, from first through fourth grades. Whenever I visit a new city, I say “Take me to your slums.” I’ve always felt a mystical connection with Times Square. I’m probably reincarnated from a 1920s song-and-dance man or gangster.
For a 20-year-old in the 1970s, there was a tremendous sense of liberation. This was an upside-down world, the golden age of pornography—when sex was dirty. Like a carny fun house. Once I entered, I didn’t want to leave. It was like when I was a kid and my father would have to run in and fetch me out of fun houses on Coney Island. It felt more sane in there than in the outside world. Times Square was a shanty town of massage parlors and strip joints with plywood doors, with names like the Purple Onion or Topless Shoeshines, side by side with Broadway theaters. There were 1,200 prostitutes on the streets—some of them quite beautiful, though they didn’t know it. Nothing like the crack addicts that came later.
You’re almost making it sound like a fantasyland. To me, it sounds more like a scene from a Brueghel painting.
Listen, it was also a total hell hole. The gates of hell opened into Times Square. It was the dumping ground and end of the road for thousands of crusty old cadavers, flatback girls, midnight cowboys, old-time vaudevillians, brain-damaged evangelists, freaks, addicts, zombies—what’s not to love? It was intoxicating and dangerous. Something forbidden or enticing was behind every door. When I began to write for Screw, my press pass got me behind all those doors. They wouldn’t have let the Daily News in, but for Screw, the doors opened. Down the rabbit hole I went, where I learned all the secrets.
Where others saw depravity, I saw beauty. The electrical voltage and lights of Time Square felt sanctified to me. Maybe it was in my blood. My father’s Aunt Essie worked in the box-office at one of the grand Broadway theaters in the 1920s. And my grandfather on my father’s side moonlighted playing piano for silent films. So there was something ancestral about Times Square for me, almost like an elephant happening upon an elephant graveyard and sensing a connection to its past.
How many writers at this time—the late ’70s and ’80s—were also covering Times Square full time?
Nobody. Not a soul—other than the occasional reporter who would write an indignant editorial of the “we need to clean this up” mold. No one was writing about Times Square from the inside. That was baffling. Here was a city with more writers than anywhere else on Earth. Thousands chasing after the very same subjects. I would think, You mean to say this amazing terrain is all mine?
Why didn’t other writers feel the same way?
They were scared, embarrassed, or considered it beneath them. I was plagiarized often, even by stupid sex magazines like Stag and Chic. They wouldn’t even venture into Times Square to cover stories—just lifted straight from Screw. A lot of editors—even if they were from other sex magazines—felt that they could steal whatever they wanted, because I wasn’t writing “high art.”
One would think there would have been a Damon Runyon type or Joseph Mitchell wannabe who would have loved to cover this area.
Great American novelist Nelson Algren wrote a few chapters about Times Square in his very last book, The Devil’s Stocking [Arbor House, 1983]. Algren hung out at a massage parlor called Lucky Lady for a few weeks. He said in an interview before he died, in 1981, and I never forgot this, “If I were a young man, starting my writing career, I cannot imagine going to any other place than Times Square.” I was emboldened by that.
Your articles for Screw remind me of your cartooning work with Drew. There’s that same comic-nightmare element to these pieces, and yet you also manage to capture the vulnerability and sadness of the characters.
I always tried to treat my subjects respectfully. Sometimes this backfired. When someone whose whole life has been a silent scream puts their trust in you, spills their guts only to you, you’re obliged to tread carefully. I may have overstepped my bounds, but I had “wiseguy compassion,” as film critic Michael H. Price described my intent.
Maybe like Diane Arbus, I was never really a part of those worlds. I was a nightly visitor. I always got to return to my apartment with clean sheets. I would often think, “Am I slumming here? Am I just a rich kid coming down for kicks?”—like tourists did in the Five Points section of Manhattan in the early 20th century?
I decided that I was not slumming—unlike others who would come in disguise to sleaze out. I saw soap-opera stars, Philharmonic conductors, city hall and church officials. But for me it was a much more personal, nightly connection. I very much cared for the environment. I wanted to preserve something. I am not sure what needed to be preserved exactly, but it was something unique—an urban eco-system. A lot of citizens, including myself, seemed to need this world.
These real-life characters you met were hilarious and fascinating personalities. For instance, Uncle Lou Amber, featured in your 1982 Screw article “Uncle Lou’s Scrapbook.”
Uncle Lou remained my top mole on 42nd Street. He would call even after I moved to Dallas. I’d say, “Lou, I left the beat years ago.” But he didn’t hear me. He just phoned in what was going on backstage at the Triple Treat Theatre.
For years, he worked as a limousine driver for a company, but during his off hours, he would deliver strippers from various airports to their gigs—at Show World or the Melody Burlesk. He would do this for free. Hence the name, “Uncle” Lou. He’s still alive. At 75, Lou is no different than when he was 50. A true old Broadway soul.
Tell me about Pee Wee, the doorman. You wrote about him for Screw in an article titled “Pee Wee is Not a Happy Man.”
Pee Wee Marquette was the street-level greeter for Hawaii-Kai, a tropical-themed tourist restaurant in Times Square. He was a short-tempered midget, maybe around four-feet high. He’d pace back and forth in a military-type uniform, carrying a metal cane. He would say: “First I hit ‘em in their legs and when they bend down, their stomach and then their head.” He worked at Hawaii-Kai from 1960 into the early ’80s.
In the 1940s, he was the master of ceremonies at Birdland on 52nd Street, introducing Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Teddy Wilson. Most of the characters I wrote about are long gone.
How about Long Jeanne Silver, the one-legged porn star you wrote about in a Screw article titled “Season’s Greetings from Long Jeanne Silver.”
The gorgeous peg-legged stripper and second-story cat burglar? I have not heard from her in many years. Hopefully, she is married to some stockbroker, somewhere in the Mid-West. I hope she’s alive and doing well.
And Eric Edwards, the only porn star to hold the distinction of being in sex movies in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s?
Eric would collect mannequins from department stores, dress them up like a film crew, and place them around his own bed.
How deeply were you immersed in the seediness of this world?
I never dropped trou during public events. I kept a separation of church and state. I remember when [porn actress and stripper] Seka first headlined the Melody Burlesk. The line went down the stairs out to the street. Seka sat spread-eagled onstage, and men would line up to give her a lick for one dollar. I remember thinking, “This would be great if you were first on line.”
But, see, that’s the thing: How would I have written about this world if I were immersed in it? As a writer, you have to be on the sidelines, impressed and amazed. I constantly asked myself, “How can these people possibly do that”?
You say that, and yet, in the late ’70s, you got into the act yourself by performing a breaststroke in a Jacuzzi at Plato’s Retreat sex club in Manhattan. You wrote about it in your Screw article “Queen of the Gang-Bang.”
True, but that was with my long johns on.
I wouldn’t have gotten into that Jacuzzi if I happened to be wearing a full-length biohazard suit.
The management claimed they abided by health codes and used chlorine in the water. But I don’t remember sensing any chlorine, like a public pool, and was nervous after I accidentally gulped some down. I suppose I could have chased it with a shot of Olde Country, which was Plato’s Retreat brand of mouthwash.
Besides that, what was the saddest thing you ever experienced in Times Square?
I sometimes saw old men in the open-window peeps, paying 10 bucks a kiss. Every 30 seconds, they’d hand over another ten spot for the only love they’d ever receive. Kissing, of course, was something most street-prostitutes wouldn’t do for any amount.
I once saw a young man sucking on a stripper’s breast, while she gently patted his hair. It was sad, funny, and kind of pathetic. Very much like Times Square, itself.
Did you ever feel that you should have been writing for a different publication than Screw? I know your father was once quoted as saying that he would have preferred you to be writing for The New Yorker.
Yes, but he said that tongue-in-cheek—I think. People were always telling me, “You should be in The New Yorker.” I actually submitted an article idea to the New Yorker when I was 21, and—my father almost fainted—I received a personal letter from the then editor [from 1951 to 1987], William Shawn. It was an idea for an article on my favorite guitarist, Jeff Beck. I was told that Mr. Shawn had very rarely written a personal letter to anybody in his more than 30 years at the New Yorker, so I was very happy. He was passing on the Jeff Beck idea, but he invited me to send in more ideas—I never did.
Did Mr. Shawn write to you because your father was Bruce Jay Friedman?
No, this submission was plucked from the slush-pile. I kick myself now, because I should have jumped at the chance—and I never got the chance again.
Is it true that Philip Roth once paid a visit to the Screw offices?
He spent three days at our offices, because he was basing a character on Screw’s founder, Al Goldstein, for his novel, The Anatomy Lesson [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983]. Roth’s hero, Nathan Zuckerman, impersonates the Goldstein persona as an example of a conservative Jew’s worst nightmare.
And how well did Mr. Roth capture Mr. Goldstein?
I would say slightly above average.
It must have been interesting to have Al Goldstein as your boss. To say the least, he was a bit colorful.
I wrote Al’s autobiography, I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life [Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006]. I think we made the best case possible for the positive aspects of his career—that of democratizing pornography, fighting for the little man, going to jail so that others could view full-frontal nudity, and frequenting hookers.
One of my all-time favorite photo-captions is in your Goldstein book. In the photo, young Al is posing with his parents in front of a large table of food. The caption reads: “I would later wear this bar mitzvah suit for my first hooker.”
He was a lower-middle-class, stuttering, bed-wetting Jew from Brooklyn—who absolutely changed sex in America, probably for the better. In his prime, he was much funnier than Lenny Bruce, and he withstood more prosecution than any other publisher. Your grandmother can buy her dildo at the local Walgreen’s because of this man. Al went to jail for that. Jimmy Breslin wrote that Al was one of the four major defenders of the First Amendment in the last half of the 20th century. The other three were Goldstein imitator Larry Flynt, Lenny Bruce, and [publisher] Ralph Ginzburg [who went to prison for the 1962 sex periodical Eros]. Al faced down 60 years in prison during his federal obscenity trial in Kansas—and won. He paid the price more than anyone for sexual—and satiric—freedom. Whether that’s for better or worse remains to be seen.
Goldstein was arrested more than any other publisher in American history. He would have been a martyr, like Lenny Bruce, if he was assassinated or died in jail as a sexual freedom and First Amendment fighter. He assumed something like that would happen. But it didn’t. Instead, he self-destructed, lost his money, his marbles and destroyed his friendships. Nevertheless, at one time, he was the litmus test for freedom of speech like nobody before him. I’m not so sure he strengthened the First Amendment, but he proved it meant business.
He never did make it easy on himself, though. He once ran a centerfold in Screw of Nixon’s two “daughters”—in reality, porn stars—performing oral sex on each other. And he ran a story in the early ’70s that asked: “Is J. Edgar Hoover a Fag?” This was when Hoover was still alive, mind you.
Al loved to get arrested. He loved the attention, and he was fearless. He spat at authority that needed to be spat at. But he paid the price.
People forget how popular Screw was for awhile. The magazine’s circulation, at its peak in the early ’70s, edged upwards of 100,000 copies a week.
Quite a few celebrities sat down for a Screw interview: Sammy Davis, Jr., Timothy Leary, Joe Namath, Jack Nicholson. The Internet ruined Screw and a lot of other sex publications. Al never saw it coming. To this day, he doesn’t know how to turn on a computer.
But it was the best fucking job in the world. For starters, you’re 22-years-old with access to demented young starlets around the clock. They haven’t yet invented AIDS, and it’s the final years of the great sexual revolution. I quit smoking there, made all my contacts in the underworld of Times Square, and met my wife at a residence for young Southern women attending college in New York, run by the Salvation Army. I learned how to write under deadline, and my pieces got reprinted throughout the men’s magazine market. So for me, at least, it was a great job. It’s still paying dividends.
Any truth to the rumors that you left New York because the Mob was after you?
I received a few nerve-racking threats from low-level Mob guys when I edited the “Naked City” section of Screw, the listings that rated two hundred sex establishments in New York. Likewise, there was grumbling from a couple of mob guys who thought I had revealed too much about their business in Tales of Times Square. But unlike in Russia or Latin America, the old criminal underworld in New York had “respect” for writers. They figured if they broke a writer’s legs, dozens of reporters and newspapers, including Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, would jump to the writer’s defense. Also, I knew that a real threat never came with advance warning.
I moved to Dallas with my wife in 1987—she’s originally from Texas.
Do you ever re-read your own work?
I’ll admit that I love re-reading my books. I’m proud of every moment. I’ve had friends say they wish they could have written something more along the lines of what I did. They are not proud of their work. I hope that doesn’t sound conceited.
So now, after years of being a Daddy-o, I’m just plain daddy, with a young daughter. I have a gorgeous wife of 30 years. We hit New York every other month, and I feel like Nick and Nora Charles, of the Thin Man series. My wife directs high-fashion photo shoots, while I have Uncle Lou, retired cops, and assorted lowlifes visiting our fancy hotel room.
My daughter sits on my shoulders when we visit Toys ‘R’ Us, the Hello Kitty Store, and The Lion King in Times Square. We stand outside and peek in. She doesn’t mourn the loss of Show World or the Melody Burlesk. But what I see in the windows’ reflection is far more shocking.
Friedman with Tiny Tim at the Screw offices, 1984