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Documentary Director Dean Ward.

Documentary director Dean Ward. His new film, "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter: a Salute to the Friars" is about the Friars club, the place where show business entertainers meet and then roast each other. Such comic luminaries as George Burns, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, as well as entertainers Will Rogers, George M. Cohan, and Irving Berlin were members. Then we meet two current members of the Friars. The documentary premieres on Cinemax tomorrow, Tuesday, October 26th. Also Comedy Central features the Friars' Club roast of comic Jerry Stiller, Wednesday, October 27th.




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on October 25, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 25, 1999: Interview with Dean Ward; Interview with Freddie Roman and Jeffrey Ross; Review of the album "Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956)."


Date: OCTOBER 25, 1999>
Time: 12:00>
Tran: 102501np.217>
Head: "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter: A Salute To The Friars">
Sect: Entertainment>
Time: 12:06>

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Will Rogers, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra are some of the former members of the Friars Club. It's a private club for people in show business that's most famous for its testimonial roasts.

The most recent Friars Club roast skewers Jerry Stiller, and it airs this Wednesday on Comedy Central.

A new documentary film about the Friars will premier tomorrow on Cinemax.

In a few minutes, we'll meet comic Freddy Roman, dean of the New York Friars, and comic Jeffrey Ross, known for his hilarious insults at the Friars roasts.

First, let's hear a conversation Terry had recently with Dean Ward, the director of the new documentary about the Friars, "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter."


TERRY GROSS, HOST: When you decided to go ahead with the movie, whose permission did you have to get to be a fly on the wall at a Friars Club?

DEAN WARD, DIRECTOR, LET ME IN, I HEAR LAUGHTER": I was living -- I had gone to school in New York, but I had moved to Los Angeles, and I went into the Los Angeles Friars Club, and I told them, you know, I've always been fascinated by the Friars Club, I'd love to make a documentary. And somebody there quickly toured me around the building, and I just couldn't believe that that they were -- you know that I had access and that they were showing me around.

And that very same day, they introduced me to Milton Berle, took me over to his table, and I sat with him for about an hour and a half, and I was just in heaven. And it was from that point on that they -- you know, they welcomed the idea that I wanted to do it. And I think they liked the fact that I was young. I was -- I'm 29 now, I was 25 at the time.

And I had, you know, I had really done my homework, because I had just grown up reading everything I could get my hands on about the Friars Club and about the individual members.

So they seemed to really respond to the fact that I was young and very interested in their history.

GROSS: Maybe it was part of the fact that you were young, because so many members of the Friars Club are really old.

WARD: Right, the joke at that time, and it's starting to change now, but the joke at that time was that the average age of the club -- the average age at the club is deceased, which was a joke that Milton Berle used to say at a lot of the roasts.

And -- but now things are changing quite a bit. Jeffrey Ross, who's always a big hit at the roasts here in New York, and sometimes from California, he comes out for them, and people like Janeane Garofalo started to join, and it's really becoming a hip thing for, I think, younger comedians, who really want to feel a connection to the Milton Berles and the Buddy Hacketts, and, you know, sort of learn what they can from those people who have such an incredible legacy. You know, they're all swarming to the Friars Club now.

GROSS: So what's some of the best memorabilia you were able to find, and footage that you were able to find of old Friars Club meetings and roasts?

WARD: One of the greatest things that I was able to -- that I'm proud I was able to do is use a lot of audiotapes and photographs to sort of recreate roasts where there weren't cameras present, because in the very early days, especially for performers like Jack Benny and George Burns, who, in their regular careers on television, worked very clean, they didn't want cameras anywhere near the roasts, because sometimes the material could get dirty, especially if it was the afternoon stag roasts, back in the early days where it was men only.

And so through different comedy collectors and historians, I was able to find these audio recordings that I guess at the time what would happen is, a member of the club would, I guess, essentially sneak a tape recorder in so that they could show their friends afterwards and sort of brag about, you know, what they heard.

And a lot of these tapes have been preserved and passed along to different comedy collectors, and I got my hands on some of those, like a 1955 roast for Humphrey Bogart, where Lauren Bacall, because she was a woman and it was a stag roast, couldn't be there present at that time, but actually taped a recording -- a recorded greeting that they played at the roast, which was hysterical, where she, you know, got a little blue, and it was the hit of the roast.

And, you know, finding things like that that the public, you know, might not be aware of or certainly, you know, most people haven't heard was pretty exciting.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that Lauren Bacall tape?


LAUREN BACALL: This is Lauren Bacall. Yes, Mrs. Bogart, the uninvited guest. You rat bastards!

I said, "Bogie, why can't I go?"

He said, "Baby, it's gonna be a little rough. You know how men act at a stag. That's why women aren't allowed. See?"

Well, I was furious. In fact, I was goddamn mad. "What the hell can the Friars say that you haven't called me?"


GROSS: That's Lauren Bacall from a roast of her then-husband, Humphrey Bogart, part of the audiotape that's used in the new documentary, "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter: A Salute to the Friars Club."

And my guest is the filmmaker, Dean Ward.

What year was the Friars Club founded, and what was the official reason for its founding?

WARD: My understanding, it was founded in 1904, and it was actually founded by a group of press agents originally, because there was a scandal going on in the theater community where people were claiming to be press agents in order to get free tickets to Broadway shows. So the press agents formed a union, sort of, called the Press Agents Association, to put a stop to what they called pass-grafters, which were people who were scamming these free tickets.

And gradually these press agents invited their clients, who were all entertainers, to be in the club, and in a matter of a few years, it became known as the Friars Club, and George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin and Will Rogers and people like that were sort of the early celebrity members.

GROSS: Do you know why it was called the Friars Club?

WARD: I don't, and it's one of those things where it's -- people have tried to figure out why it's called the Friars Club, and they almost can't any more because there's so many mythological stories circulating around why it is.

The only thing I can think of that makes any sense is, they called the clubhouse the Monastery. And I think they just -- it seemed like a nice way for them to label the kind of fraternity that they wanted it to be, and the sort of private institution that they wanted it to be, the entertainers.

So I'm not sure, technically, where they came up with Friars, but there's all kinds of funny stories in a book by Joey Adams that tries to explain, but nobody ever really gets to the bottom of it.

GROSS: What's some of the favorite lore that you dug up about the Friars Club?

WARD: One of the great stories, which is a segment in the documentary, is about a radio comedian named Harry Einstein, who went by the name of Parky Akarkus (ph). And he -- the interesting thing about it is he had a son named Albert Einstein, who is now known as Albert Brooks. But -- so Harry Einstein, which was Albert Brooks's dad, it was 1958, and he was asked to come to the Friars Club to perform at a roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and this was at the Friars Club in California.

And he had had some health problems, but, you know, Lucille Ball and he were close, and she had asked him to come. And he got up at the roast, and everybody says he was just the absolute hit of the roast. And in just one of those, you know, classic show business stories, after literally destroying the audience and being as funny as everybody had ever been at a Friars Club roast, he sat down after several standing ovations next to Milton Berle, he sat down, and slumped over and passed away on the dais.

And Albert Brooks tells the story that it's just a -- you know, to him, this great thing to be comedian, to go out that way.

But then the ironic thing that has made the story so famous over the years is, well, there were several heart doctors in the audience, and they were trying to resuscitate him backstage. And while this was all going on, they were trying to, you know ease the audience's concerns. And Milton Berle turned to a singer named Tony Martin and said, "Tony, get up and sing a song, do something to distract the audience."

And without thinking, Tony Martin got up and sang his hit song at the time, which was called, "There's No Tomorrow," which couldn't have been more inappropriate. And so that story is one that's often told, and Milton Berle, particularly, likes to tell it every time you ask him what his favorite Friars Club story is.

GROSS: Now, you said you started to make this movie because you've always been interested in pop culture from the 1930s and other decades of the past. I'm wondering how you got interested in that in the first place.

WARD: I don't really know, except that I worked at a synagogue when I was growing up in a town called Brookline, outside of Boston. And the superintendent at the building used to always listen to a radio station that played a lot of Frank Sinatra. And for some reason, it just -- it resonated with me, and I became a junkie. And by the time I was 18 years old, I had seen Frank Sinatra in concert five or six times, not being dragged there by my parents, totally by choice. I would go and get my own tickets and everything.

And just loved old movies, and through old movies, read as much as I could about the stars and the directors of old movies. And that's what led me to my fascination with the Friars Club, because in every biography of any star you can name, there's always a Friars Club story, at least one or two pages about when they were roasted or when they were honored.

And it's always the most irreverent one or two pages in that -- in the book, because it's -- you know, when their friends got together and said things about them that they wouldn't otherwise say.

So to me, it just seemed like the most fascinating, you know, place in the world. And so I always wanted to go there, because I thought, you know, for somebody like me who liked old-time show business, it would just be, like, the most amazing sort of interactive show business theme park, you know, if you wanted to sit down -- if you wanted to go and sort of be a birth of television ride, you would go up and pull up a chair next to Milton Berle. Or if you wanted to go on the Frank Sinatra ride, you would grab Alan King and say, Hey, what was it like to work with Frank Sinatra.

And you had all these people at your disposal that could, you know, sort of transport you back to those days and, you know, make you feel more a part of it than you would just reading about it.

GROSS: So did you start speaking show-biz speak while hanging out with the people from the Friars Club and making your movie?

WARD: I learned a lot of Yiddish. I learned a lot of Yiddish expressions, which, being Irish growing up, I didn't know until recently. Trying to think what else. But -- no, not really. I think I didn't really learn any new lingo show business-wise.

GROSS: Should I test your Yiddish and get you to tell a joke with a Yiddish punch line?

WARD: My favorite Yiddish story relating to this is, I knew I was going to have fun when I showed up at Buddy Hackett's house in Beverly Hills to do the interview. And I'd only talked to him on the phone, and I don't think he knew I was quite so young. And he was probably expecting somebody older, because of the subject matter of the documentary and everything.

And he opened up his door, and I was standing there with my cameraman. And he said, "Wow, you're a young schmuck." And so I knew I was going to have a good time doing this.

GROSS: (laughs) What a way to start!

WARD: Yes.

GROSS: Well, I enjoyed the film, and I want to thank you very much for talking with us about it.

WARD: Oh, terrific. Well, thank you, thank you for helping spread the word.


BOGAEV: Dean Ward, director of the new documentary about the Friars Club, "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter." It premiers tomorrow on Cinemax.

Coming up, we'll meet comic Freddy Roman, dean of the New York Friars, and one of the younger Friars, comic Jeffrey Ross.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia, PA; Terry Gross>
Guest: Dean Ward>
High: Documentary director Dean Ward discusses his new film, "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter: A Salute to the Friars," about the Friars Club, the place where show business entertainers meet and then roast each other. The documentary premieres on Cinemax tomorrow, Tuesday, October 26th.>
Spec: Entertainment; Radio And Television; Friars Club>

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.>
End-Story: "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter: A Salute To The Friars">

Date: OCTOBER 25, 1999>
Time: 12:00>
Tran: 102502NP.217>
Head: Interviewing the Friars>
Sect: Entertainment>
Time: 12:17>

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

BOGAEV: Our guests are two of the comics featured in the new documentary about the Friars Club, "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter."

Freddy Roman is the dean of the New York Friars. For much of his career, he played clubs in the Borscht Belt, the resort hotels of the Catskill Mountains in New York. He was one of the stars of the Broadway show "Catskills on Broadway."

Comic Jeffrey Ross is one of the younger members of the Friars Club. He's become famous within the club for his hilarious insults at the testimonial roasts. He's performed in clubs around the country, on the Letterman show, and on Comedy Central.

Terry spoke with them both recently about their history with the club.


GROSS: Freddy Roman, why did you want to join the Friars Club, and what year did you join?

FREDDY ROMAN, FRIARS CLUB: I joined in 1969. I was a relatively -- well, no, I was a definitely unknown comedian at that time. My prior show business career to 1969 consisted of seven years up in the Catskill Mountains playing all the wonderful resorts up there. And a couple in the Poconos.

And then having heard about the Friars Club all of my adult life, it just seemed like that's where I wanted to be, to be with all the comedy legends of our business. And maybe something would rub off on me from joining. And just the general all-in-all camaraderie of the club, which is fabulous.

I mean, to walk in for lunch, any given day today, and hang out with the comedians that come in during the day or in the evening at 5:00, and just the show business connection to it all, was the reason I joined, and it turned out to be a marvelous 30 years for me now. I'm a 30-year member, and I've loved every day of it.

GROSS: Jeff Ross, what year did you join, and why did you want to join?

JEFFREY ROSS, FRIARS CLUB: You know, this weekend I hung up my certificate, which I had framed years ago, but I never hung it up in my apartment. And it says that I become a member on September 14, 1995. Signed by Freddy Roman and Frank Sinatra.

GROSS: Well, that's nice.

ROSS: Who was the abbott at the time.

GROSS: And why did you want to join?

ROSS: I wanted to join -- you know, I didn't want to join. I didn't think it was possible. I went in, I was invited to card game in the George Burns Card Room to play poker with some buddies who were comics and members. And we ordered up dinner up to the card room and the whole place. And I think Alan King was there that afternoon when I walked through, and I was starstruck, and the whole vibe, the tradition, just kind of blew me away.

I didn't think it was something I could ever be a part of. And gosh, now I am.

ROMAN: And Terry, the interesting part of Jeff's five-year membership, he has done more -- we started a program to introduce young comedians to the Friars, and he has brought us a list of people to join this club, all of the younger comedy club kids that really never thought about the Friars. They thought it was an elephants' graveyard originally.

And singlehandedly, he really brought us a ton of young people, who were all using the club, making use of the club, using it to their advantage, because a lot of things fall off in your own professional career just from joining the friars.

GROSS: Jeff, I think this is an open door for you to tell some good jokes about how the members of the Friars are.

ROSS: Well, one of the first jokes I ever heard about the Friars Club was how hip it's getting now. You know, we were roasting Drew Carey last year, and it's a hip, cool, young vibe to it. But when I first joined -- I mean, you walk in the club, there's no kids in the place, but there was still a diaper-changing station in the men's room.

The secret handshake was like this. And then I held out my hand like a shaky old handshake was our secret handshake.

ROMAN: Actually, the demographics of the club have changed dramatically over the last decade. In 1989, the average age of the membership was well into the 60s. And now we're in the late '40s, '48, '49. So to drop 14 years in 10 years is an incredible difference.

GROSS: That's because Jeff Ross and Janeane Garofalo are bringing the average down.

ROMAN: Without a question, and they brought us a lot of younger people also, and they're -- it's really fabulous now. We actually have people that can chew their food.

ROSS: Jimmy Kimmel (ph) had a great line at the upcoming Jerry Stiller roast. He said, "Jeff, this is great. In 20 years, this will all be yours."


ROSS: And I told him afterwards, I think it might happen in five. Some of these guys don't look too healthy.

But it's all a joke, you know, it's really become an energetic place.

GROSS: Let's talk about the roast, which is one of the things the Friars Club is most famous for. Now, Freddy Roman, you've actually been roasted.

ROMAN: I sure was.

GROSS: Jeffrey, were you at Freddy Roman's roast?

ROSS: You know, I -- unfortunately, I think I was shooting some -- a part in something. But I got a lot...

ROMAN: I was so disappointed he wasn't there, but he...

ROSS: It's the only one I missed in a long time, but I heard all the jokes.

ROMAN: We had a wonderful, wonderful roast. The roastmaster, or roastmistress at my roast was Joy Behar, who currently stars on "The View" with Barbara Walters every morning. And she was absolutely brilliant doing it. She did a great job.

And that's one of the great changes in comedy in the last 15 years. There are tons of funny women now. In the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, even up to the beginning of the '80s, you had three women making a living at standup comedy, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and Totie Fields. And now you literally have thousands, and they're wonderful.

ROSS: You left out Paul Lynde.

ROMAN: Paul Lynde, I apologize.

GROSS: (laughs)

ROSS: I wrote some good jokes about you that I didn't get to do, Fred.

ROMAN: Yes, do them now.

ROSS: I was going to say, Freddy Roman's been doing comedy so long, his punch lines are in Latin.


ROSS: This is a guy who did the Ed Sullivan show pilot.


ROMAN: I love it.

ROSS: Oh, gosh, I wish I was there.

ROMAN: Yes, you -- (laughs)

GROSS: So Freddy Roman, what does it feel like to be sitting on a dais, everybody staring at you, as all of your show business friends are telling -- you've got -- you know, saying very funny, kind of insulting things about you?

ROMAN: You know, having been on the other side of it for -- I had done approximately 20 roasts myself, and having been on that side of it, and then to sit there -- you sort of know what to expect, but yet when it hits you -- and you sit there laughing because it is funny, and yet you're saying to yourself, Jeez, I hope he didn't mean that.

GROSS: Right.

ROMAN: But no, all in all it was a great evening for me, it was a love fest. They -- you know, they did roast me, but they roasted me with a great feeling, and it was fun, I loved every second of it.

GROSS: Jeff Ross, what are some of the roasts you've participated in?

ROSS: I have done -- my first one was Steven Seagal, with Milton Berle as the roastmaster.

GROSS: Oh, wow, what a combo! (laughs)

ROMAN: And let me just interject before Jeff goes on, only with this one story. Milton Berle, who really was the king of the roasts for 100 years, he's the best roastmaster there ever was, but he also had little habits, like, he didn't like anyone else to be funnier than him. And so when Jeffrey got up, Milton interrupted him in the middle, which usually, for a young comedian who's nervous enough about doing his own things, could destroy the young comedian and get him flustered and all loused up -- well, Jeff Ross handled it like he had been doing it for 30 years.

He put Milton in his place so beautifully that Milton just sat down and shut up, and that's the first time I ever saw Berle end up that way.

ROSS: That's in the documentary, that whole...

ROMAN: Is it?

ROSS: Buddy Hackett and I tell that story intercut. Milton kept poking me in the ribs, which only I knew. You know, nobody can see that.

ROMAN: We couldn't see it.

ROSS: No, but it's driving me nuts, you know, the guy is poking me in the ribs from right next to me. And finally I just laid into him. I said, you know, something about how old -- I said, "Milton," you know, "Milton Berle's been doing comedy so long he lost to Mark Twain on `Star Search.'" And when he...

ROMAN: Then you said something about him with an antique shop or something.

ROSS: Oh, yes, you're right, I forgot about that. I said, "Uncle Miltie, we've actually met before. I saw you once downtown in an antique shop. Eight hundred bucks."

ROMAN: Which got one of the big screams of the entire afternoon.

ROSS: So Buddy Hackett stood up off mike in that voice, and he said, "Hey, Milton, let the kid work. Remember when you used to?" And then, you know, the place just exploded, and it's great, Buddy tells the story in the documentary in just such a funny way.

When I was improvising with Buddy Hackett and Milton Berle in front of 1,300 people, I mean, I knew I was suddenly in the World Series of comedy there, holding my own, it was great.

ROMAN: And you won the MVP award that day too.

ROSS: Rookie of the year.


BOGAEV: Freddy Roman and Jeffrey Ross speaking with Terry Gross.

They're featured in a new documentary about the New York Friars Club called, "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter." It airs tomorrow night on Cinemax.

We'll hear more from Freddy Roman and Jeffrey Ross in the second half of our show.

I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.


BOGAEV: Coming up, music from L.A.'s Central Avenue, when it was the nightlife strip for black jazz musicians. Kevin Whitehead reviews the new boxed set, "Central Avenue Sounds." We're listening to it now.

And we continue our interview about the Friars Club with Freddy Roman and comic Jeffrey Ross, two current members.


BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Let's go back to Terry's interview with Freddy Roman and Jeffrey Ross. Freddy Roman is the dean of the New York Friars. He was a regular on the Borscht Belt circuit, the resort hotels of the Catskill Mountains in New York. Comic Jeffrey Ross is a newer member of the Friars Club, and he's already distinguished himself as one of the club's most skillful roasters.

A new documentary about the New York Friars Club airs tomorrow on Cinemax. It's called, "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter."

Terry asked Jeffrey Ross about some of the roasts he participated in.


ROSS: I roasted Danny Aiello, I've roasted Kelsey Grammer, I roasted Mickey Rooney, Hugh Hefner, Jerry Springer, Drew Carey, and probably a couple others. Danny Aiello was great, because he always comes to the roasts, and he sat next to me at the Jerry Stiller roast. And it really helps me. You know, he's a great laugher, he cries, he wipes his eyes, he slams the table. And I told him that it just wouldn't be the same doing a roast unless he was there. He's just great. He cried at the end of his roast.

GROSS: Was he...

ROMAN: He was overcome with the emotion of it, that we saw fit to put him down as a roastee in the same breath with some of the greatest stars in all of show business.

ROSS: Know what? I was thinking about this lately. It's -- these are great comedians who are sitting down in their houses writing jokes about you. You can get Milton Berle or, you know, like Jason Alexander to write about Jerry Stiller, to sit and think about this, to work and use their comedic minds to roast somebody -- that's a great honor. And I think Danny, his background, you know, he was a doorman at the Improv when he was a young man starting out in show business. Danny Aiello understands how -- the art of comedy, and I think he was really moved by the effort that people made.

GROSS: So what are some of the things you had to say about Danny Aiello?

ROSS: What can you really say about Danny Aiello that hasn't already been said by some guy in the Witness Protection Program, (inaudible) fingers? I made like somebody passed me a note halfway through the roast, and I said, "All kidding aside, Danny Aiello is my favorite actor, or else."


ROMAN: I had to introduce him the other night at the Jerry Stiller roast for a bow, and I said, "Danny Aiello is an amazing man. When he made -- and he was nominated for the Academy Award for `Do the Right Thing,' the black people loved him. And then he did `The Last Don,' and all the Italian people loved him. And then he made `Della Ventura,' and he's been in the witness program ever since, hiding from the blacks and the Italians."

ROSS: He showed -- I said, "Poor Danny, his acting was so over the top, they should have hired Jim Carrey and called it `Ace Della Ventura.'"


ROSS: Oh, gosh, I hope he doesn't hear this.

GROSS: The Friars Club has been open to women since 1988, but before that it was exclusively a men's club. Freddy Roman, you were a member of the Friars during the all-male period, and there for the transition.

ROMAN: And I was on the board, right.

GROSS: You were on the board during the transition?

ROMAN: I was on the board of governors during the transition period, right.

GROSS: So from your point of view, what was it that made the Friars Club decide that it was time to open up its doors to women?

ROMAN: Well, as we talked about on the board, we said, you know, originally we had one woman apply, this activist lawyer from California named Gloria Allred. And she made it a personal thing that she wanted to join, and we started discussing it at the board meetings.

And I just felt, for one, that it was certainly -- it's time. We were, you know, approaching the '90s, and the world had changed. And I saw no reason not to have women in the club. And spearheaded the campaign to admit women, and very proudly, we now have fully 14 percent of our membership are women, all allied to show business as performers, producers, directors, writers, musicians.

We have them -- and our list of lady Friars is fabulous, and they're very active in the club. They've added a whole new dimension. They run events for -- It's just such a pleasure having -- I look forward to the day when we're 50-50 membership, women and men. They've done a brilliant job helping this club.

GROSS: What were some of the fears that some of the more resistant men in the Friars Club had to the idea of letting in women?

ROMAN: Well, because, you know, it's just a change, they're afraid of change. You're talking about members that may have been in their '60s, '70s, '80s, that had been there for a long time, and it was always the way they wanted it. And now they were scared to death that it would change, that maybe they'd have to shave more often or what, I don't know.

But the couple or three guys that voiced any dissent went along with it, naturally, because they had to. And one in particular who comes to my mind, he's now 88 years old, his name is Bernie Camber (ph). He's having more fun kibitzing with the women than he does with the men any more.

ROSS: Milton Berle recently told me about the first female guest of honor at one of these roasts. He walked out and he said, "You know, we have a woman as our guest of honor this year, and I'm not going to use any four-letter words. I'm going to clean it up. I know it's against tradition, but yet it's still an honor to serve as roastmaster as we honor Lucille Testicle."

GROSS: (laughs)

ROMAN: Well, if Berle took credit for that, that's another line in the series of Milton Berle lines, that is an abject lie.

ROSS: Really?

ROMAN: Because I was there the day they did the Lucille Ball roast, and it was Johnny Carson who was the roastmaster, and it was Johnny Carson that -- everything you just said, word for word, Carson did.

ROSS: Wow.

ROMAN: Berle just forgets, and he takes credit for it. But it was definitely Carson that did that. And he was a brilliant roastmaster when he did it.

ROSS: (inaudible)...

GROSS: Now we're going to have to give Uncle Miltie equal time to defend himself.

ROMAN: You can, but you won't be able to understand him.

ROSS: You better act quick, he's 92.

GROSS: (laughs)


BOGAEV: Comics Freddy Roman and Jeffrey Ross are members of the New York Friars Club.

We'll hear more of Terry's interview with them after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.



GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are two comics who are members of the Friars Club, and they're both featured in the new documentary "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter," which is about to premier on Cinemax.

And Jeff Ross has been a member since 1995, and Freddy Roman has been a member since 1969. He's dean of the New York Friars, and also refers to that as president of the Friars.

Now, Freddy Roman, you've spent years working the hotels and country clubs in the Catskill Mountains, and then you appeared on Broadway in "Catskills on Broadway." And...

ROMAN: That was my baby, my crowning achievement, right.

GROSS: So what are some of the ways you saw the Catskills change in the years that you performed there?

ROMAN: Well, when I started up there, there were over 200 places to work in. And so the smaller places took chances on new comedians, because they didn't have budgets to book the big names. And it was a wonderful place to work at your craft. Because I would do six, seven, eight shows a week. And yes, I was getting $25 or $30 a show, but still, it was $200 a week in those days. I could pay my rent, support my two children.

And every year it got a little bigger and a little better, and eventually I was making a wonderful living up there. And then what happened is, the advent of the jet plane. Suddenly people could be in Florida in two hours, Puerto Rico in three hours, Las Vegas in four hours. And people started to go other places, other than the heavily predominant Jewish crowd that used to come to the Catksills, because it was an hour and half away from New York by car. They suddenly found out they could fly to the Caribbean, they could fly anywhere they want.

And the hotels started to suffer a little bit in that respect. So the amount of hotels declined quite quickly, until there was only these seven or eight big ones left. And that's what really -- that was the rise and fall of the Catskills.

GROSS: Jeff Ross, did you ever either play the Catskills or vacation in the Catskills?

ROSS: Both.

GROSS: Did you?

ROSS: Yes. Yes, sure. My parents took me up to Grossingers when I was a kid. I remember seeing a comedian, I don't know who it was, Freddy, maybe you can help me. I remember the one joke. The guy was wearing a tuxedo, and he did a song. He sang a parody of, like, the Helen Reddy song. He said, (singing) I am woman as you know, because I sit down when I go.

ROMAN: Mousy Lawrence.

ROSS: That was Mousy?

ROMAN: That was in Mow's (ph) act, yes. Mousy Lawrence was one of the my co-stars in "Catskills on Broadway."

GROSS: Right.


ROSS: For years, I thought that's what a comedian was, was a guy in a tuxedo in the Catskills.

ROMAN: Abso -- for years, that's what it was, that was it. You had to wear a tuxedo.

ROSS: And I've since done them, you know. I kind of did my research. It's like paying our dues. I played a lot of the hotels. I remember opening for John Stewart on singles weekend at one of the...

ROMAN: At the Concorde.

ROSS: At the Concorde. And, you know, 30 people walked out on me, and they told me I was a big hit. That's a tough job.


ROMAN: One of the great things about...

ROSS: And then John Stewart didn't bring a sport jacket. We didn't know. And he felt so self-conscious. When I walked offstage, the band was playing him on, I took my jacket off and he put it on and walked out with the same jacket on.

ROMAN: Oh, that's funny.

One of the great things about the Concorde Hotel, which was the largest resort in the Catskills, their nightclub sat 3,500 people. And one of the great things was, those people, if they didn't care for you, they walked out. They just didn't sit there.

So there were eight doors leaving the Concorde nightclub. And the next day, you would always ask the maitre d', How was the show? And he'd say, Six doors. Six doors meant three-quarters of the audience left.

But then every once in a while he would say, Nobody left. And those were the tribute nights. My first time ever there on a Saturday night, I was opening for Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme (ph), and I did a stroke of genius, because they wanted to start the show while only half the people were in the nightclub. And if you're the opening act, it's murder. With hundreds of people walking in, nobody can pay attention to you.

So I ripped the button off my tuxedo, and I had them get somebody from wardrobe to come and have to sew it on. And I killed an additional 12 minutes. So everybody was seated when I went on. And I killed the audience, and it made me a huge hit up there for the rest of my life.

So that little trick actually worked for me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are comic Jeffrey Ross and Freddy Roman. Freddy Roman is the dean of the New York Friars Club. Jeff Ross is one of the younger members of the club and has participated in many of the roasts. And they're both featured in the new documentary about the Friars Club, "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter," which will be making its debut on Cinemax on October 26.

I know Henny Youngman was a long-time member of the Friars Club and hung out there a lot. When -- what did the Friars Club do when he passed not that long ago?

ROMAN: Well, we -- naturally all of us were at the funeral. It was a huge turnout for his funeral. And we then did a memorial service for him at the club, where his family was there, and all the comics got up and told anecdotes about Henny. And he was one of the great -- I mean, he sat at the front table to the dining room. He died at 91 or 92.

And every day people would walk by, Henny, how are you? And if someone had guests that weren't members of the Friars, it didn't matter, he would tell them -- anyone that stopped at his table, he would tell them three jokes. He had little gimmicks. He had a -- that he would give them. He was an adorable, adorable man.

Now, he did about 25 of our roasts, and is in the history books as the only comedian in show business at a roast that never said one word about the guest of honor. They would introduce him, Henny Youngman, king of the one-liners, because he can't remember two. Here he is, Henny Youngman.

And Henny Youngman would come out, and he'd look at the guest of honor, and he'd say, So I went to the doctor, and I said, Doctor, I can't hold my water, what should I do? And the doctor said, Get off my carpet.


ROMAN: And he would do one joke after another. And finally after 20 rapid-fire jokes about doctors, psychiatrists, he would turn to Milton Berle and say, I could talk about Milton Berle all day. Well, he never said a word about him. And he would sit down, and the people loved it, and they knew that's what he was going to do.

GROSS: That's great.

ROSS: When I first became a Friar, I'd walk in the dining room, and Henny would always be at that first table. And it occurred to me, he walked in like royalty. I mean, he was royalty. And he still is. His Leroy Niemann (ph) portrait still hangs above his table. And I always admire it when I walk in and walk out. And...

ROMAN: By the way, anyone that commissions Leroy Niemann to do a portrait, it's a fortune of money. Leroy volunteered to do one of Henny, because he loved him so much. And that portrait hangs at the club. It's a brilliant, brilliant portrait of Henny.

ROSS: It's beautiful. It has all Henny's one-liners etched along the...

ROMAN: The borders.

ROSS: Yes, it's beautiful. And it occurred to me that Henny is in his 90s now. He walks into the club and gets the respect as if he opened at the Copa the night before. People clap when they see him. And I said, This is really what being a Friar must mean. I mean, you know, I'm a young guy, I'm in my 30s now, and, you know, comedy clubs come and go and club owners come and go, and we travel, and I live by myself. It can be a very lonely job.

And Henny must have lived through all the things that I'm living through 100 times. And that's -- he goes there, and it's like "Cheers," everybody knows his name. He walks in the place and he's embraced, he's still a star in his 90s. And I -- it's...

ROMAN: George Burns, George Burns, who was active until he was 98. It was only the last year and a half before he hit 100 that he didn't really work. But George Burns would come to the club and 40 people would be around the table just listening to his anecdotes about vaudeville.

I'll never forget, George Burns was 94, and they booked him at the Concorde Hotel. And 3,500 people gave him a standing ovation. And the next day I was there, and I had lunch with him. And we were sitting at the lunch table, and an elderly man about 80 walked over to him in a tennis outfit. And he said, George, I'm 80, George, and I play two sets of tennis every day.

And Burns looked up at him and said, When I was 80, I had the clap.

GROSS: (laughs)

ROMAN: I mean -- and those are wonderful, treasured memories that you hang around the club, that you hear all the time. I mean, to this day, Alan King comes to the bar at 5:00 and holds court and does these wonderful show business stories about his wonderful career.

And so it's still a great place, young comedian, middle-aged comedian. It's fun to be there.

GROSS: Are Friars Club funerals funny/ Do people treat funerals like they do roasts, or...

ROMAN: Sometimes. As a matter of fact, do you remember Myron Cohen, the great story teller?

GROSS: Absolutely, yes.

ROMAN: He -- who -- you know, he'd walk out...

GROSS: He did a lot of Yiddish humor.

ROMAN: Yes. And Yiddish dialect in particular. And I was honored that when he did pass away, his brother Jack called me and asked me to do the eulogy at his funeral. And Alan King got up, Henny Youngman got up. And we decided between us we'd all do one or two of Myron's stories. And that's what we did that day at the funeral, we talked about Myron in terms of the love that he showed to everyone else.

We did one or two of his jokes. And then at the end I said, It's very hard to be sad at the funeral of a man that lived 87 years, never had anyone say a bad word about him, and left a legacy of laughter to millions. My God, what an epitaph that is.

ROSS: At the Jerry Stiller roast, I said about Stiller and Meara, the great comedy team, I said, "The only time I ever saw them perform live was at Henny Youngman's funeral. And Henny was funnier."


ROSS: But that was a great show. Alan King was on that. You know, I said "show" by accident, but -- it was a funeral, but it was great tribute, great comedic tribute.


BOGAEV: Friars Club members Freddy Roman and Jeffrey Ross. They're featured in a new documentary about the Friars Club called "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter." It airs tomorrow on Cinemax.

The Friars Club roast of Jerry Stiller airs Wednesday night on Comedy Central.

Here's a familiar song, done Catskills style from the CD "Don Byron (ph) Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (ph)."


BOGAEV: "C'est Si Bon" from "Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz."

Coming up, music from L.A.'s Central Avenue.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia, PA; Terry Gross>
Guest: Freddy Roman; Jeffrey Ross>
High: Dean of the New York Friars' Club Freddy Roman and comic Jeffrey Ross are both featured in Tuesday's Cinemax documentary, and they discuss their careers and the club.>
Spec: Entertainment; Radio And Television; Friars Club>

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.>
End-Story: Interviewing the Friars>

Date: OCTOBER 25, 1999>
Time: 12:00>
Tran: 102503NP.217>
Head: "Central Avenue Sounds": A Review>
Sect: Entertainment>
Time: 12:50>

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

BOGAEV: Like some jazz fans in Los Angeles, critic Kevin Whitehead feels that the city has never gotten its due as a thriving capital of jazz music. But, he says, a truer picture is now emerging, thanks to various books, reissued albums, and CD anthologies devoted to jazz out West.

Kevin says that one advantage of jazz looking backward these days, if you stare at something long enough, it may come into focus.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, JAZZ CRITIC: Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders, 1930, with future Duke Ellington star Lawrence Brown (ph) on trombone and future vibraphonist Lionel Hampton on drums.

Jazz hit L.A. early. Musicians from New Orleans were coming through by 1908. Then a stream of immigrants from Texas made black Los Angeles the furthest and final extension of the blues belt. Those influences, combined with the city's newfound role as entertainment capital, helped give its music a bluesy but genial urgency.


WHITEHEAD: T-Bone Walker, with Les Hite's (ph) orchestra. This music is from the box "Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles, 1921-1956." That was the heyday of Central Avenue as black L.A.'s nightlife strip. The box is from Rhino, and was inspired by the oral history book, also called "Central Avenue Sounds," which is just out in paperback and is required reading for any serious student of jazz in Los Angeles.

This is the second four-CD set of California jazz in under a year, but only one track here is also on last winter's "West Coast Jazz" box. That set posited a multicultural model of California jazz. "Central Avenue Sounds" focuses on the black L.A. scene, locals and key visitors like Charlie Parker alike, but it's stylistically broad.

The's plenty of music from both sides of the wavy line separating jazz from rhythm and blues. The selection underscores the point that jazz then, unlike jazz now, was closely tied up with popular music and its evolution

By 1953, when tenor saxophone honker Big Jay McNeely (ph) recorded his "3-D Blues," he'd been making proto rock and roll records like this for years. His brother, Bobby McNeely, is on baritone sax.


WHITEHEAD: There's lots more music in the Central Avenue box than we can hint at, Ellington leading a choir in a medley of tunes from his L.A. show "Jump for Joy," some early beebop, a couple of rare but minor Charles Mingus performances, several tracks each by tenor saxophonist Ward L. Gray (ph) and Dexter Gordon (ph), and singers Nelly Lutcher (ph), Nat Cole, and Jimmy Witherspoon. There are also three pieces by drummer Roy Porter's 1949 big band featuring the very young Eric Dolphy (ph) on alto sax.

On "Gas and the Wig (ph)," Dolphy is already developing the nervous attack he'd perfect later, and he sounds like he might have heard Big Jay McNeely himself.


WHITEHEAD: The music in this new survey of African-American jazz from L.A. is impossible to generalize about, and that's partly the point. In most any thriving jazz scene, like this one, diverse styles challenge and feed each other, and someone is always testing the limits of received wisdom.

If that leads to leakage between jazz and other styles, that's nothing to worry about. Jazz's influence on other music is usually for the good.

BOGAEV: Kevin Whitehead reviewed the four-CD boxed set "Central Avenue Sounds" on Rhino.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Bob Purdick is our engineer. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.


Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia, PA; Terry Gross>
Guest: Kevin Whitehead>
High: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the four-CD box set "Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles (1921-1956).">
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Rhino Records>

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.>
End-Story: "Central Avenue Sounds": A Review>
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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