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Bruce Jay Friedman, A Story Teller: Humanizing Humility

Bruce Jay Friedman
Bruce Jay Friedman photographed by Andrea Alberts. Berg Collection.

Bruce Jay Friedman, a journalist, novelist, playwright and screen-writer whose work emerged on the New York City scene in the 1960s, mastered the dynamics between fiction and non-fiction, the narrative, and writing for the stage, all to tell a very particular kind of story.

What is it about stories that have such an impact on our lives and what is it about the writers that paint these images with words for us to love or hate, and sometimes, both at the same time? Maybe it is to escape our own lives so that we can be the characters that we really want to be. Perhaps it is so that we may believe that our dreams can come true. Friedman says, “Writing for me is mostly about controlling the uncontrollable. Life sometimes is funny, sometimes it isn’t. You can’t control what goes on in life, but you can on the page.” As the author of novels Stern and About Harry Towns, plays like Scuba Duba and Steambath to the screenplays of Splash, Dr. Detroit, Stir Crazy and The Heartbreak Kid, we find humor riddled throughout Friedman’s writing.

The term Black Humor was coined in the 1960s by critics who regarded BJF as a founder, along with Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Heller, James Purdy and Terry Southern, and others. Although Friedman admits that he was never fond of the term, it is true that he helped pioneer this darker comic tone that was grimmer than conventional satire.

Black Humor cover

In a political and social climate destined for change, a decade that was captured by a new kind of music, drugs and war, writers had to explore this new territory and try to make sense of what was happening. Friedman described living during the time as feeling as if there was a fading line between fantasy and reality: “...if you are alive today, and stick your head out of doors now and then, you know that there is a nervousness, a tempo, a near-hysterical new beat in the air, a punishing isolation and loneliness of a strange, frenzied new kind.” Black Humor is a comedy of the bizarre, “It shrugs off any hope of personal redemption, its sole purpose is the exposure of absurdity. In retrospect a more accurate term might have been tense comedy.” Friedman explains, “On the surface there’s a lot to laugh at, but the agony flows beneath.” Maybe in order to realize truth in our lives we need to face the absurdity, the melancholy or heartbreak told through stories that show us our humanity and in the fictional characters we can then silently see ourselves. It is through story telling that writers find their way to navigate observations of the world and bring bits of their own life to light.
Bruce Jay Friedman does not fall short of being a character in his own novelistic life, carousing around NYC and Hollywood during the sixties and seventies with writers, producers and actors, and has many stories of his own that might have contributed to his writing. In 1960 he hired Mario Puzo as a writer for Swank magazine while Puzo was writing The Godfather. When he came to Friedman one day with this title BJF told him that he should really rethink the title of his book. I wonder if Friedman ever laughs about that.

Lucky Bruce

Of course, there was the infamous fight with Norman Mailer. As Friedman tells it, he had been invited to a party at Mailer’s apartment in Brooklyn Heights, and Mailer was standing by the door like a guard with a testing stare, when Friedman tried to leave. Friedman playfully tousled his hair, at which point Mailer head butted him while a woman yelled, “Let them fight. Kill the bastard, Norman!” The next scene was Friedman and Mailer standing in the street, circled by party guests. Mailer taunted Friedman with the jibe, “Scuba Duba sucks,” and the fight was on. Friedman hit Mailer several times in the belly and Mailer stumbled to the ground. As the two embraced in the center of the ring for a sportsman-like exchange, Friedman felt a brief yet burning pain near his neck. Later that night Friedman discovered that Mailer had bit him, leaving a set of marinara-stained teeth marks on his shoulder.

Equally engrossing is the story of how Natalie Wood became Bruce Jay’s secretary. The arrangements and introduction was made by a Hollywood producer while Friedman was out in California writing screenplays. Friedman said that he picked her up every morning in Malibu and they drove to the Beverly Hills Hotel; he admitted that it took great efforts for him to keep his eyes on the road so that he wouldn’t wreck the car.

In later years Friedman had become good friends with Terry Southern. Another true drama of the absurd taken from BJF’s own life was the story of the Black Room. Friedman had leased an apartment in Manhattan, and in it was a room painted completely black, with sado-masochistic paraphernalia on the walls, left there by the previous tenant. Friedman had made arrangements to have painters come in the next morning so the room could be made ready for his son. Terry Southern came over the night before, inebriated, and asked if he could “crash in that room.” The next morning when the painters arrived they informed Bruce that there was a man sleeping in the room and Friedman said not to worry about him and instructed them to proceed with their work. When Southern woke up late that afternoon undisturbed by the transformation into a bright baseball themed quarters, he just stumbled out without a word, as if nothing had happened. No doubt he thought that what he had seen was an alcohol-induced fantasy. That absurd incident might have appeared in any one of Friedman’s short stories.

Handwritten notes by Bruce Jay Friedman
Bruce Jay Friedman Archive in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature

Bruce Jay Friedman manages to make things relatable even if the experience is alien from one’s own: “It was the overdraft at the bank and the cat coming home with a Lion King cut that scared the shit out of him and the Rabbi—who wasn’t really a Rabbi—he was a shrink with a yarmulke, who charged Diamond District prices. It was the ninety degrees and counting—for God knows how many days straight—and the pills that didn’t work anymore and his last birthday and the odds that they would lose the apartment and have to move to Harrisburg...” Friedman’s gift of using humor to reveal his characters’ humility in the face of humiliating experiences makes it easy for his readers to identify with them, regardless of our differences from them or ourselves from each other.

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