Off-Ramp correspondent Hank Rosenfeld sent us this missive from the Westside.
JULES FEIFFER GOES TO TEMPLE
by Hank Rosenfeld
Jules Feiffer and Carl Reiner together on stage fly back and forth like a couple of 80-something masters at Pong. This is them last night before a packed sanctuary at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills on the occasion of Feiffer’s memoir, Backing into Forward.
"All writers are liars!" says Carl Reiner who has written four memoirs so far.
"I'm a cartoonist," Jules Feiffer claims, even with all his movies, plays and books. "Some stories can’t be told in that form,” he goes on. Feiffer learned by doing. After he wrote "Carnal Knowledge" as a play, director Mike Nichols said it was a movie. Feiffer says, “It was like a tutorial,” learning these new forms in which to tell his stories. Still he had to ask Nichols, "How can we do a movie with this language?"
"We can do anything we want," Nichols told him. This was because Nichols had just come from directing, "The Graduate."
Feiffer was born in 1929, Reiner in 1924. "I'm much older than you,"
“I was your typical misunderstood Jewish kid growing up in the Bronx who goes on to become famous,” Feiffer tells us. In his book he writes of a mother who constantly told him he'd fail, but he thought he was really Little Lord Fauntleroy; he just happened to be kidnapped by Jews from another planet.
Newspaper comic strips "controlled" his attention. He fell for Milton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates" and Will Eisner's "The Spirit." Eisner brought him on as an apprentice after the Second World War, but to get paid Feiffer did one lousy design job after the other, getting fired to collect unemployment over and over again.
"This guy was a failure at being a failure!" Reiner announces.
But when Feiffer read “Waiting for Godot," he thought, “This is a comic book!” He likened the voices of Vladimir and Estragon to Popeye. It was a breakthrough for him. And when he saw Nichols & May perform on "Omnibus" he knew his little weekly Village Voice strip was worth continuing. "They were saying everything my characters talked about!"
The "George Plimpton people” kept telling him, “I love that column you do.” Or they called his Voice strip an “essay."
“You couldn’t get intellectuals to admit they liked cartoons."
That is, until he wrote Little Murders, which became an off-Broadway hit.
"The intellectuals called it a cartoon."
His favorite strips now? He says nothing good came along until Calvin & Hobbes. But he praises Gary Trudeau and Al Capp (his earlier, leftier days) and loves graphic novels like “Stitches” and anything by Chris Ware. He has always loved Pat Oliphant, Tony Auth, Tim Toles and especially his friend Paul Conrad, formerly of the LA Times.
About religion he says: “I was a middle-level Jew." Non-Jews made him feel Jewish and Jews made him feel anti-Semitic. I totally get that.
About humor he says: “You’re always a student of it. I’m still learning.” I totally get that, too.
Reiner insists Feiffer tell "the dog story." As a child, Jules had a dog named Rex who sat with him by the family's Philco radio. The boy and puppy listened to favorite radio programs like "The Jack Benny Show." But after six weeks, he came home from school one day and Rex was gone. His tyrannical mother had given the dog away because she said someday soon Jules wouldn't know how to be responsible for it.
This suddenly sad, "awww" moment is taken care of by Reiner, who was just using it for a set-up. He tells a joke about a man visiting the rabbi, saying he had come from the old country but still was, "keeping vit the Yiddishkeit.”
The rabbi says, “So you pray after dinner?”
No, you see I’m so busy with the business so I don’t really.
“You keep a kosher home?”
Well I have so little time with work.
“You do the prayers on the Sabbath at least?”
Well no, not really.
“So how can you say you keep your Yiddishkeit?”
"Well," the man says: “We’re still afraid of dogs...”
Hank Rosenfeld wrote ”The Wicked Wit of the West” with late screenwriter Irving Brecher, about Brecher’s career working with Groucho, Garland, Gleason, Burns, Berle, Benny, and many more. He'll be signing copies at the LA Times Festival of Books at Zone F, Booth 611 (near the food court!).
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