Like a lot of other people, I watched as the last years of Jack Friedman’s life cascaded out over the Internet, rendered in dialogue-driven vignettes written by Jack’s son (and my good friend) Barry Friedman, the Tulsa-based stand-up comedian and author. Like most stage comics, Barry is used to telling stories from his own experiences to get laughs, and this narrative allowed him to do just that – some of the postings could’ve worked very well in a comedy routine (and have, now that I think about it). However, while his little observations of his dad and their life together could be very funny indeed, there was much more to it than that. Anyone who encountered Jack and Barry online quickly realized that Barry not only possessed a comedian’s eye for the absurd, but also a good deal of heart.
Now, Barry has edited and tweaked and collected the first third or so of these pieces into Jack Sh*t: Voluptuous Bagels and Other Concerns of Jack Friedman, which has just been published by Babylon Books. The beginning volume of a proposed trilogy, it sprang from the internet posts, which he began doing some 15 years ago, after the senior Friedman, following the death of his wife – Barry’s mother – moved from New York to Las Vegas.
“When he got to Vegas, I’d write every day when I was visiting him,” recalls Barry. “I was keeping a diary, so to speak, on Facebook and then Substack, just to chronicle his life for me and to entertain people. I thought there was some funny stuff there, that the dynamic was interesting, and I noticed that people were following along. So I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a story here.’
“The more I wrote,” he adds, “the more I realized that what I was writing about were the last years of his life, and trying to do it without an overabundance of melancholy or memory or a longing for something else. It was just contemporaneous. It was the life of an old, overly active, healthy man with his son, who had plenty of time to spend with him.”
The term “overly active” may sound a little unusual, but it fits the situation – and Jack Friedman – perfectly. As Barry notes, “He was 90. He thought he looked 60. And he acted like he was 40.”
After several years in Las Vegas, Jack moved to an apartment in Tulsa, and then to a retirement community, where he spent the last four-plus years of his life. All along the way, Barry was there to chronicle each step of his dad’s journey. In the process, Jack Friedman’s internet stardom continued to grow – one fan pronounced him “America’s Comedy Dad” – although the man himself never seemed to actually grasp his celebrity status.
Or maybe he did.
“One time, when someone had mentioned something to him in my presence about Facebook, he asked me, ‘Are you getting rich off my fame?’” says Barry with a laugh. “I told him there weren’t enough hours in the day to tell him what was wrong with that sentence.”
In addition to his blogs and other internet writing, Barry did commentary about Jack on Public Radio Tulsa. The two were even featured in a Tulsa World profile.
“Yeah, but he didn’t read it,” Barry notes with another laugh. “Well, he read the first page, looked at the picture, and then he didn’t read the jump.
“People would come up and ask him about that piece, and about other stories, and the radio essays, and the blog and Facebook stuff, and they’d tell me, ‘Love what you wrote. Great piece. Your father’s hilarious.’
“And he’d ask me ‘What did you say?’ – or, ‘What did I say?’
“He had no clue about any of it,’ says Barry. “You know, when he died, I figured I’d go into one of his closets, and there would be clippings of everything I’d ever written, with parts circled. No. He never even read one of my books.”
The closest he came, according to Barry, was in Las Vegas.
“I was in his apartment, and he’s in the living room, with [Barry’s first book] Road Comic in his hands. And he says, ‘You can write. I’m going to tell you something: I know all the words you know. You know what the difference is between us?’
“I thought, ‘This should be good.’
“He goes, ‘You know what order to put ‘em in.’”
Although Jack didn’t read Barry’s writing, he did go to some of his son’s stand-up performances in Vegas and the Bahamas. It was during those times that Barry began to realize that his dad was “very competitive about jokes and stuff.
“Sometimes somebody would tell me in front of him how funny they thought I was, and he’d say something like, ‘Well, some of that is mine,’” recalls Barry. “One time we’re in Vegas, and a showgirl walks by. I mean, she’s got the jeans on, the boots, her hair’s piled up, her makeup’s all over the place. I knew her, and after she’d hugged me and walked off, my father looked at her and said, ‘Ach, to be sixty again.’
“So I said to him, ‘That’s very funny. Is that yours, or did you hear it somewhere? Because if it’s yours, I want to use it onstage.’
“He got very offended. He said, ‘That’s my bit.’
“I said, ‘Dad, look. You’re an accountant. You don’t have bits.’ It was like I was stealing his act.”
Those of us who have followed Jack Friedman and his son over the internet for well over a decade know that, thanks to Barry, his dad did turn out to have “bits” after all, little observations that may have grown more and more off-kilter as his life wound down, but that were nonetheless consistently entertaining and sometimes more than that. While there are some profoundly touching moments in Barry Friedman’s chronicles of his father’s later life, with its inevitable conclusion, Jack Sh*t is anything but a lachrymose end-of-life tome.
“One of the insights the director at LIFE Senior Services, Eileen Bradshaw, gave me was that she thought the blogs were popular because there wasn’t very much of, ‘Here’s how my dad used to be; look at him now,’” says Barry. “She said, ‘It’s very much about “here he is now; this is the life we have, and this is the only life we know.” I think people like that, because they go through that with their parents all the time.’
Adds Barry, “You know, we all have parents, or had parents. We all have stories. There’s nothing particularly unique about this project. So the fact that people cared about my father and me and that relationship was heartening. They knew specific things, specific moments, about us. I mean, we love our parents, and we’re ambivalent about our parents. People who read this story – maybe they get the connection. Maybe they get the relationship.”
He adds that some have written or told him, after following the saga of Jack and Barry Friedman, that “your father really loved you.”
“I guess he did,” Barry muses. “I know he did. But the story is really about getting through the last 10 or 15 years with him. It was wonderful, to be a witness to that, to be able to see that. Of all the emotions I have about those years, regret is not one of them – which is really uncomfortable for me, not to feel bad about something.” He laughs. “But I certainly wrung as much life out of this relationship as I could. And so did he.”