Where the Jokers Are Still Wild


They say the average age of the Friars Club is deceased, but a surprising number of new members are not yet collecting Social Security, let alone pushing up daisies. For the third year running, the annual Roast has shined a spotlight on a Friars Club in transition. Once a smoky lunchtime festival of bad taste held behind locked doors, the Roast is now a glitzy, black tie, made-for-television event that fills the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton. With ticket prices starting at $250, nearly 2,000 guests gathered Oct. 6 to observe the Friars’ loving mockery of actor/director Rob Reiner.

Old pros such as Alan King and Freddie Roman and fresh faces such as Judy Gold and Adam Ferrara buffeted a jocular, wincing Reiner with fat jokes, bald jokes, scatological jokes, and of course, brit jokes. "Rob’s a control freak," one comic cracked. "At his son’s bris he said ‘cut!’"

"Roast is the perfect word for you, because you’re a brisket in a suit," Billy Crystal snickered.

"Where are the celebrities?" Crystal asked, marveling at the eclectic crew of dozens of faded stars such as Tyne Daly, Dr. Ruth, Vanilla Ice, Michael Spinks, Bernie Brillstein, and Abe Vigoda strewn across the dais. "Where’s your Spielberg? Where’s your Hanks? Where’s poppa?"

Taking a few moments to get comfortable in front of the insult-thirsty crowd, thirtysomething Jeffrey Ross scanned the dais, on the hunt for fresh meat. "This isn’t a who’s who, it’s a who’s left!" he sputtered. The entertainment committee "left no tombstone unturned" to assemble this dais for what he later called "the World Series of comedy."

Despite heavy representation from the Viagra set, for the first time in years "the future does not look bleak," says Friar Elon Gold, 30.

Ten years ago, "the place was stagnant," says maitre d’ Frank Capitelli, who has worked at the club for 40 years. The younger comedians have "added a wonderful new vibrancy to the club," says Dean Freddie Roman. "This is going to continue to be a wonderfully funny Friars Club." The entertainment world has changed, but the Friars Club, famously, has not. Founded by disgruntled press agents in 1904, the fraternity became what Freddie Roman deemed "the greatest entertainment club in the history of the world" when George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin joined a few years later. Since then, its survived the transition from vaudeville to Hollywood to television and cable with its vibrant, if crude, tradition of Jewish humor intact. To remain this way, the club, located in a five-story townhouse on East 55th Street, realized it had to replace members lost in its 5 percent annual attrition with comedians who barely remember a world without MTV. Executive director Jean-Pierre Trebot explained that the club "changed its membership structure," granting price breaks to make it more attractive for those under 40. The younger comics perceived the club as "the ivory tower" and "didn’t think they can join" a place that Frank Sinatra once called home.

But by fostering a more casual atmosphere by relaxing rules such as jackets not required in the dining room until dinner, and hosting reasonably priced events such as cocktail parties, jazz nights and comedy workshops, the plan appears to be working. Five years ago, there were fewer than 30 Friars under 30, now there are 110, Trebot says. Add the 130 Friars between 31 and 40, and nearly 20 percent of the club is under 40 (total membership is at 1,290). Gold, Ross and others began telling their friends and throwing parties at the club. "Now it’s a hip thing to be a Friar," Gold says.

For a generation of comedians mostly raised in the suburbs, the club’s old school flavor, such as the barbershop, regular poker games, cashless transactions and shvitz, keeps them coming back, mirroring the nostalgic 1990s revival of the lounge culture of yesteryear, of martinis and swing music and the Rat Pack.

The younger comedians are "two generations away from Milton Berle," says Friar Dean Ward, 31, director of the recent documentary about the club "Let Me In, I Hear Laughter." To the comics of the 1960s and ’70s, Berle was their "lame father," but to the current crop, Berle and his cronies are "now their cool grandparents who tell dirty jokes and curse."

"I consider it an oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle," says Channel 11 newscaster Marvin Scott, a Friar for 21 years. "I’ve never characterized it as a Jewish club," says Scott. "I consider it a fraternal club. There’s a lot of Jewish spirit here, but it’s not exclusive," he continued, pointing to photographs of Cary Grant, Dean Martin and Elizabeth Taylor on the wall of the wood-paneled dining room.

"We get caught up in so much nonsense in this business, it can be hard to find inspiration in our downtrodden lives," quips recent inductee Debbie Perlman, a stand-up comedian in her 30s. Show business can be tough, and the Friars, though very much a boys club with only 12 percent female membership, is a welcome haven for those sick of competitive industry schmoozing at comedy clubs and talent agencies. "Nothing is like it in the whole world of show business," remarked comedian Scott Blakeman, 45, a Friar for nine years. "Every time I come here I feel great."

Everyone points to Ross as instrumental in bridging the gap between old and young. "If the Friars have a future, he is it," the New York Observer wrote in 1998. Ross brokered the deal to broadcast the once-secretive Roast on Comedy Central. The highly edited 44-minute version is the cable network’s top-rated special. Ross is unusually obsessed with the club’s rich tradition. "He’s a throwback to two generations," Roman says of Ross, who last year moderated "Borscht Belt Confidential," a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y with Freddie Roman, Mal Z. Lawrence, Stewie Stone, Adrienne Tolsch and Dick Capri. "He loves the history of the club."

Catskills humor is "like Latin," Ross says. "You don’t hear it anymore."

"And you can rest assured that when Alan King or Buddy Hackett walk into the dining room, they go into tummler mode."

Indeed, the Jewishness of the Friars Club is part of its appeal. The club, where Passover seders and Yom Kippur break fasts attract more than 300 people, is "synonymous with Jews," says Gold. One of the few Modern Orthodox Jews on the comedy circuit, Gold likes to refer to himself as "the Joe Lieberman of comedy." He doesn’t feel strange at a place where by Friday afternoon, the all male waitstaff begins placing plastic bibs and nutcrackers on each place setting in anticipation of the weekly Friday night lobster dinner. There are no hard figures on how many Friars call themselves Jewish, but Trebot puts the figure at 80 percent.

"People are always kibbitzing," Ross described the lunchtime scene at the Friars Club where the banquettes, lined with telephone jacks, exude the aura of power lunches from before the cordless and cellular revolution.

Affectionately dubbed "The Monastery," rooms have been named after showbiz giants such as George Burns and Milton Berle.

"It’s like a temple for comedians," Ross says. Many of the Friars are decades past their prime, but for Cy Coleman, Jim Dale, and countless others, their fame is fossilized within its walls. Ross looks forward to enjoying that warm popularity when he’s old.

So has anything changed now that a younger crowd has begun to toss wisecracks and sling barbs? "There’s fewer 911 calls from the gym," riffs Ross, the tummler for the Internet generation.

Friars old (Freddie Roman) and young (Judy Gold) trade barbs and anecdotes in the "Funny People" series at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., Manhattan. (212) 996-1100. Tuesday, Oct. 31, 8 p.m. $20.The Rob Reiner RO@$T will be broadcast on Comedy Central on Wednesday, Nov. 1, at 10 p.m.