[3 August 2010]
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
LOS ANGELES — Want to know how to tick off a funnyman quickly? Tell people not to take him seriously.
Richard “Kinky” Friedman has staked out a career generating chuckles, guffaws and belly laughs. He started out singing often-outrageous songs in the 1970s fronting one of the few Jewish country bands, Kinky Friedman & the Texas Jewboys, then for the last two decades he’s kept readers smiling with his one-liner-filled mystery novels starring himself as a wisecracking but reluctant hero.
So when Friedman launched a campaign for governor of Texas in 2006, running as an independent who vowed “As the first Jewish governor, I’ll reduce the speed limit to 54.95!,” his opponents sought to discredit his candidacy by emphasizing his sense of humor.
“They made such a big deal of me being a humorist,” Friedman, 65, said recently between bites of a pastrami sandwich at Canter’s Deli in L.A.‘s Fairfax District, the day before starting his first West Coast concert tour in nearly two decades.
“It was a smear job,” he said. “I kept telling them: Winston Churchill was very funny; (former Texas Gov.) Ann Richards was very funny. Finally, I said (to voters), ‘Ask yourself which do you prefer: a governor who can tell a joke, or a governor who is a joke?’”
Friedman quips that “We won that race, by the way — every place but Texas.” The contest went to Rick Perry. But Friedman got more than 600,000 votes, a little more than 12 percent, in an election during which only 26 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
After deciding not to take another stab at the gubernatorial job, Friedman — also a big animal rights advocate — entered and then dropped out of the 2010 campaign for state agricultural commissioner. He hasn’t entirely given up on throwing his signature black Stetson into the ring again at some point — “Willie Nelson says that if you fail at something long enough,” Friedman said, “you become a legend” — but for now he’s returning to the role in which he first gained fame: as the writer and singer of such politically incorrect songs as “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” “Get Your Biscuits In the Oven and Your Buns In the Bed,” “Sold American” and “Ride ‘Em, Jewboy.”
Along for that ride will be one of the original Texas Jewboys, Jeff Shelby, who goes by the nickname Little Jewford, and Washington Ratso, “a great bluegrass and rockabilly guitar picker.” Some stops on the 16-city tour will feature special guests.
Friedman says he’ll intersperse the songs with a reading or two from one or two of the 29 books he’s written over the last three decades at his ranch in Medina, northwest of San Antonio, writing novel after novel, which he describes as “a lonely, monastic existence.”
Talking to him about life in the political ring, it also sounds like picking up a guitar and going on tour again represents something of a palate cleanser for the soul.
“You know my definition of politics: poli means more than one,” he said, “and tics are blood-sucking parasites: that’s politics.
“I think the problem is something that we articulated early on — and a lot of people laughed about — was that it’s a giant step down from being a musician to being a politician,” he said. “If the musicians ran the country, we wouldn’t get a hell of a lot done in the morning, but we’d work late and we’d be honest. When I’m in a roomful of musicians, those are decent people, good people. You can’t say the same about politicians.”
Friedman may be the world’s most idealistic cynic: He decries the political process as something he considers hopelessly polarized, yet yearns for the day when statesmen on a par with George Washington or Winston Churchill might still emerge — figures like those lauded in his latest book, “Heroes of a Texas Childhood,” a compendium of essays about the historical figures he most admires.
Meanwhile, Friedman has shifted his ongoing search for truth back to the world of music.
“I do think that music may be a better engine for the truth than politics,” he said. “I’m a musician; I’m a truth teller. In politics, you can’t do it.”
The endeavor in which he takes perhaps even more pleasure than in music, more than in writing and definitely more than in watching someone else win an election he’s running in, is helping animals through the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, not far from his own spread. The mission: to find homes for animals — dogs, mostly — that otherwise would be euthanized.
As Friedman is fond of saying: “Money can buy you a fine dog, but only love can make him wag his tail.”
Friedman quotes himself almost as often as his favorite writers; among those in the conversation this day, Oscar Wilde and Raymond Chandler. “Oscar Wilde said, ‘The world forgives the criminal, but it never forgives the dreamer.’” In the same conversation he recites Chandler’s belief that “Art is anything that burns with its own heat.”
Every bit as much the philosopher as master of the Groucho Marx barbed one-liner, Friedman added his own final word on the things that really matter: “The most beautiful things in life can neither be seen nor touched — at least, that’s what the restraining order says.”