Bruce Jay Friedman: Oscar-nominated writer and trailblazer of American black humour

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Bruce Jay Friedman was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter who was best known for his comic novels and plays that veered from broad humour to uncomfortable encounters with the absurd. He died on 3 June at his home in Brooklyn. He was 90.

His wife, Patricia O’Donohue, said she did not know the precise cause of death, but Friedman had been hospitalised last month with an infection not related to coronavirus.

Friedman had his major success in 1964 with A Mother’s Kisses, a coming-of-age novel about an underachieving Jewish teenager and his overbearing mother. The broad humour and underlying theme of unworthiness – cornerstones of that book – became hallmarks of Friedman’s style, whether he was writing for the page or the stage.

In the loosely autobiographical novel, the central character is rejected by Columbia University: “He saw himself letting a year go by, then reapplying only to find himself regarded as a suspicious leftover fellow, his application tossed onto a pile labelled ‘repeaters.’ ... Year after year would slip away, until finally, at 37, he would enter night school along with a squad of newly naturalised Czechs, sponsored by labour unions.”

Instead of that dismal fate, his mother arranges for her son to attend a land-grant college in Kansas – and accompanies her son to school. The comic awkwardness in A Mother’s Kisses prompted Saturday Review critic Daniel Stern to pronounced Friedman “a wild poet of the secret life, one of the funniest of writers but with a dark echo to the laughter that gets painfully close to the bone”.

Even then, Friedman’s mother told her son he’d be better off with a steady job – as, say, a Broadway press agent.

During the 1960s, Friedman became of the country’s best-known writers and was often seen in the same literary light as his contemporary Philip Roth, who also published satirical explorations of Jewish life. In 1965, Friedman edited an anthology called Black Humour, which contained edgy, sardonic writing by Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon, among others.

“I don’t really know if I invented” the term, Friedman told Newsday in 1995, “or if a publisher came to me and said, ‘How about doing an anthology and calling it ‘black humour? ... The next thing I know, black humor is being taught in college courses and becomes imprinted in the language.”

He wrote a play, Scuba Duba, about a man fearing that his vacationing wife is having an affair with a black man, that became an off-Broadway hit in 1967 and touched on sensitive racial questions. He contributed to the 1969 hit musical Oh! Calcutta!, which was among the first plays to feature full nudity. He had another off-Broadway play in 1970, Steambath, in which God is a Puerto Rican man handing out favours and punishment, along with the towels, at a public bath.

During the 1970s, Friedman also contributed to Esquire, including a popular series of essays from the perspective of “The Lonely Guy”, which were collected in 1978 as The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life. (It was adapted into a 1984 film, The Lonely Guy, with Steve Martin.)

An earlier story of Friedman’s, A Change of Plan, about a man who falls in love with another woman while on his honeymoon, was adapted by Neil Simon for a 1972 movie, The Heartbreak Kid.

Beginning in 1974, Friedman published About Harry Towns, the first of two novels about a screenwriter who spends most of his time snorting cocaine and striking out with women. He drew on his own experiences with Hollywood, although Friedman turned out to be more successful than his alter ego.

His screenwriting credits included the hit 1980 comedy Stir Crazy, featuring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, Doctor Detroit (1983) with Dan Aykroyd, and Splash (1984), starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, for which Friedman and other writers received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

Unlike some novelists who shunned Hollywood as a shallow and corrupting place, Friedman had no qualms about the work, or the paycheck that came with it. He later described his philosophy towards screenwriting as, “Take the money, scribble a bit, and enjoy the room service.”

Bruce Jay Friedman was born 26 April 1930, in the Bronx. His father worked in the garment industry, and his mother was a homemaker who once sold tickets at a Broadway theatre.

Friedman’s first goal was to study medicine at Columbia University, but when he was rejected, he went to the University of Missouri – accompanied at first by his mother. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1951, then served two years in the Air Force.

Back in New York, he joined a company that produced low-budget magazines for men, including Male, Man’s World and True Action.

“We always wrote about battles,” he told The Washington Post in 1977, “thousands of battles, Bombs Over Stuttgart, Bombs Over Dresden. When we ran out of real battles, we made them up. We’d get all kinds of mail saying we’d gotten the designation of some armour outfit wrong, but no one ever said, ‘Hey, there’s no such battle.’”

During his 12 years at the publishing business, he hired Mario Puzo as a writer. They became close friends, even though Friedman suggested that Puzo’s title for a forthcoming novel “sounds too domestic”: The Godfather.

Friedman published more than a dozen books and had eight plays produced. In 2011, he published a memoir, Lucky Bruce, in which he described a social life that revolved around the Hamptons and regular trips to Elaine’s in Manhattan. Kurt Vonnegut Jr, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, once asked him, “Can you teach me how to hang out?”

Once, when Friedman was attending a party at writer Norman Mailer’s house, the two got in an argument. Mailer head-butted Friedman as Mailer’s wife shouted encouragement: “Kill the bastard, Norman.”

Friedman won the fistfight, but Mailer bit him in the neck. Friedman had to go to a hospital for a tetanus shot.

His first marriage, to Ginger Howard, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 37 years, O’Donohue, of Brooklyn; three sons from his first marriage, Josh Alan Friedman, Drew Friedman and Kipp Friedman; a daughter from his second marriage, Molly Stout; and three grandchildren.

In his memoir, Friedman described his early years as a writer, contributing to the New Yorker, Playboy and other magazines. His debut novel, Stern, a comic look at the doubts, fears and failings of a young Jewish man, was published in 1962, several years before Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. The book was a literary success, if not a bestseller.

“I suspect the reason Friedman’s fresh novel produced such happy hysteria,” writer Dan Wakefield wrote in The Washington Post in 1989, “was that no one before had been quite so willing to deal humorously with the most embarrassing fears and fantasies of the American male, from sexual to financial ... no one had yet made marvellous jokes out of such material until Friedman came along and exposed the other side of macho as jello.”

Friedman wrote the novel while commuting to and from his job as editor of the men’s magazines.

“I recall writing the book in a heat,” he wrote in Lucky Bruce, “as if I was being chased down an alley.”

Only 6,000 copies were sold, but Friedman’s editor said they were “the right copies”, read by influential people.

“Would it have been so awful,” Friedman mused, “to sell a few hundred thousand of the ‘wrong’ copies?”

Bruce Jay Friedman, novelist and playwright, born 26 April 1930, died 3 June 2020

© The Washington Post

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