In his 2011 autobiography, “Lucky Bruce,” here’s Bruce Jay Friedman recalling an off-camera moment when they filmed his screenplay, “Stir Crazy,” starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
“Ever get high?” Pryor asks Friedman.
“There was one time,” Friedman answers. “It was in the spring of ’57.”
Then, Friedman writes, “I gave Pryor three reasons why there were very few Jewish junkies: Jews need eight hours of sleep. We must have fresh orange juice in the morning. We have to read the entire New York Times. Ergo. No Jewish junkies.”
That’s Friedman’s comic, neurotic, self-deprecating style in a nutshell.
He died this week, at 90. He was part of a generation of writers and comedians who helped create the post-war voice of wry, ironic Jewish comedy — Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Jules Feiffer, Herb Gardner, Nichols and May — working the edges of American culture and sometimes reaching into its shadowy corners.
A native New Yorker, Friedman wrote a classic magazine piece that summed up his hometown in a single phrase: “New York — A Town Without Foreplay.”
In the New York Times, Friedman’s obituary said he “made dark but giggle-inducing sport of the deep, if not pathological, insecurities of his white, male, middle class and often Jewish protagonists.”
Well, that’s a start.
He also had the smart-ass nonchalance of a kid up from the stickball streets of the Bronx. When he sold his first story to The New Yorker, he received a letter “in the magazine’s signature style, saying, ‘All of us here are delighted with your story and we would like to publish it in the magazine.”
Friedman wrote a letter back, declaring, “All of us here in the Bronx are delighted that all of you there at The New Yorker are pleased with my story.”
He went on to write novels such as “Stern,” about the hidden tribal anxieties of life in the suburbs, and “A Mother’s Kisses,” about a Jewish kid from the Bronx whose mother gets him into an agricultural college in Kansas and follows him out there — and decides not to leave.
He wrote “The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life,” a deadpan comic treatise on coping with the isolation and loneliness that can clutch at men and women.
He also wrote a short story called “A Change of Plan,” which became a hit 1972 movie called “The Heartbreak Kid,” with Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd. A guy on his honeymoon falls in love with another woman. (It was remade in 2007 with Ben Stiller and Malin Akerman.)
It mirrored Friedman’s own experience, sort of. In “Lucky Bruce,” he wrote about his first wedding, at 21, “sensing that something had gone terribly wrong. There hadn’t been a single person I could talk to about my confusion. I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I was nauseous and vomiting about the coming nuptials. Nor was I willing to hurt Ginger’s feelings.
“Before the ceremony, I recall charging down the halls of the Grand Concourse Hotel in a rented tuxedo, in a last-minute search for some wise individual to advise me. I was finally reduced to asking the salad man if he felt I was making a mistake.”
Writers of fiction often draw on their own lives for material. F. Scott Fitzgerald, asked which of his characters was based on him, famously answered, “All of them.”
Bruce Jay Friedman’s fans had the sense that he was drawing heavily from his own life, including the most intimate, uncomfortable, insecure moments that darken every human life, and giving us reminders that we’ve all been through it, and it’s possible to laugh at the worst of it.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).