New York Times Profile

nytimespc.jpgTinker? Tailor? Soldier? Spy? All (and None) of the Above By BARBARA LYNE

Do you know this man? He hopes not, because if too many people know him he’s out of work, despite credentials that would make as executive recruiter jump.

In 40 short years, Harry Freedman MD, PhD, JD, has been a doctor, consultant, a top stockbroker and motivational speaker. He has been described as an expert in worker safety, bank regulation, health care and stock forecasting.

Harry Freedman is also an utter fraud. His entire résumé is a fabrication.

So just who is this man who has addressed top executives at Smith Kline Beecham, Kidder Peabody, Price Waterhouse, Dun & Bradstreet, Tucker Anthony, Philip Morris, and a host of other top companies nation wide?

Harry Freedman’s true résumé reads! Stand-up comedian. Period. He will gladly pose, though, as just about anything you want. And dozens of corporations have asked him to do just that - to play, for example, an industry expert or a newly hired executive with off-the-wall theories They do it not just to bring humor to annual meetings or conventions after days of tedious seminars, but also to spoof their own top executives, to break down barriers and make themselves seem more accessible.

Those were Robert Meltzer’s reasons. Mr. Meltzer, executive vice president at Dun & Bradstreet Information Services, hired Mr. Freedman to play the rule of an outside consultant for a dinner for his group’s officers and their spouses. “I asked him to start out by roasting me and then to take on the people who report directly to me,” Mr. Meltzer said. “It is a very, very effective way of bringing the senior people in the company down to the level of everyone else.”

It was a bit painful, he said, since his secretary had given the comedian all sorts of information about him. “But it made me seem more approachable, and I have to admit, he got our foibles down perfectly,” Mr. Meltzer said.

The first few minutes of Mr. Freedman’s routines - the moments when he plays everything straight, before anyone catches on - are never comfortable. At his first outrageous statement, there are usually spasms of sideways glances, perhaps a muffled chuckle or two and always, he says, peek to see how the boss - usually the target - is taking it.

“It almost always causes tension,” Mr. Freedman said, “until I get to the point where people say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this has got to be a put-on.”

Addressing about 200 health-care clients of the Indianapolis-based Vasa Insurance Group at a convention in Las Vegas recently, he was introduced as Dr. Harry Freedman,: Harvard Ph.D., an expert on hospital administration and an authority on health-care reform who had been a adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s task force.

As “Dr” Freedman strode to the podium, the audience applauded respectfully and awaited his words of wisdom. The words weren’t exactly what was expected.

“Everyone involved in the health care industry is going to have to share in the sacrifice, and that’s particularly true for the insurance industry,” he began. “Some of you may be aware of what is known as the Jackson Hole Plan, where a group of congressmen wrote up ideas for managed competition in health care. Well, frankly, we haven’t really bothered to read that plan, but we have come up with our own program, which we call the Jersey Shore Plan, that we think — is going to revolutionize health insurance.

“You know when you pay for most health insurance, you’re coered for every illness – but you’re not going to get every illness. So our policy is you only pay for the disease you want to be covered for,” he told the increasingly puzzled audience. “You want protection for tuberculosis that’s 50 bucks a year. For another 5 bucks a year, you don’t have to worry about getting salmonella or bubonic plague. Now, some people might argue nobody gets bubonic plague, but for 5 bucks a year, why gamble?”

Judy Jennings, Vasa’s director of communications and training, said it took be very polite audience several minutes to catch on. “As Harry came out with more and more outrageous statements, they began wondering, but they didn’t want to embarrass him by laughing, ” she said. But soon “they felt free to laugh, and it was exactly what we needed.”

His spoofs have been particularly effective in the recent lean times. “We had just gone through a reorganization that was painful and had ost a number of people, with some others being reassigned,” said Harry Kegler, a vice president at the CertainTeed Corporation, maker of insulated glass. “Harry’s routine was absolutely outstanding in making us laugh about the situation. We’re part of a French company that has been in business since 1640. He began by saying there was something the audience probably didn’t even know about our parent company: that when it started, they were instrumental in making the framework for the guillotine - so in one way or another, heads had been rolling here for the last 400 years. Just that one little inside joke relaxed my people.”

Recently, Mr. Freedman addressed 400 bank chief executives at the Independent Bankers Association of New York and was introduced as a regulator from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation - immediately after the group’s president said he hated mile-high piles of regulations. Mr. Freedman heard audible groans when he got up to speak, and more than a few people left the room for a break.

Mary Jo Nortrap, the program director and one of only two people in the bankers association who knew the truth, said a few members actually yelled at her beforehand, saying things like “Are you crazy bringing in someone from the F.D.l.C.?” The not-so-honored guest began by talking about the savings and loan crisis, a topic guaranteed to bring a few more moans.

“There are a lot of theories about why the S&L crisis happened,” he said. “The obvious one is that it was caused by greedy bankers. But there is another theory that is now beginning to take hold in some Government financial circles - that the S&L crisis was not actually  caused by greedy bankers but rather by careless tellers.”I know it sounds crazy, but people often come into a bank with rolls of pennies they want changed into paper money. Some tellers don’t check these coin rolls very carefully, and it turns out later there were only 98 cents inside. You add up a few pennies here, a few pennies there, and the next thing you know, you’re down $500 billion.”

One banker in the audience, Thomas Goldbrick Jr., chairman and chief executive of the State Bank of Long Island, said no one knew quite how to react. “We were looking at each other sideways thinking, ‘What is going on here?’ Within a few minutes, though, he began taking on individual members, spoofing many of us, and it turned into a delightful surprise.

“We have some real nitpickers as members,” Ms. Nortrup explained. “It was a very reserved crowd, but they were banging on the tables laughing. It really broke barriers and brought a sense of community to the gathering.”

The real Harry Freedman is accustomed to audiences. His father was a judge in Freeport, LI. “When other kids got into trouble,” he said, “their moms would say, “Just wait until your father gets home.” My mom drove me straight to the courthouse. We actually used to have trials over who left the dishes in the sink.”

Coming from such a law-infested family - his brother is also a lawyer - made Harry lake the plunge, too. He lasted a year and a half at the University of Miami School of Law and then took on a succession of odd jobs from 1977 to 1979 - copywriter, reporter, insurance adjuster - before wandering into a comedy club in Miami. It was all he needed. In 1979, he made his stand-up debut at a club in Hallandale, just outside Miami, shaking like a leaf but hitting the mark, earning five ovations in 12 minutes.

“It was a big crowd, the right spot, and I gained enormous confidence; then I bombed every other night for the next three months,” Mr. Freedman recalled ruefully. “Stand-up takes a couple of years to become decent and a lot more to get good. Little by little I started getting more consistent.”

After moving back to New York, he began making the comedy club circuit in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. He has opened shows for Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld and other top comics, as well as performing on television comedy shows. But four years ago he saw a window of opportunity in the corporate arena when a friend asked for help writing a script for a corporate show.

It’s different than stand-up, where you have to hit them hard and fast,” he said. “With-a corporate show, you can use more subtlety.” Now Mr. Freedman regularly earns $6,500 a night as he pulls his ruse on unsuspecting executives.

Asked why he allowed his photograph to be used for this article, he acknowledged that “it might blow my cover,” but he said people believe what they’re told and never question his stated credentials. And after all, he said, “I look like a generic executive.”

There are risks, though, and Mr. Freedman learned the hard way what not to do. One cardinal rule: never roast someone too long or the audience becomes sympathetic, even if just one hour before the target was the hated boss. He always checks his script with the person in charge to make sure it’s all in good taste. Mr. Meltzer of Dun & Bradstreet, for instance, had him take out a joke about a female vice president that he considered sexist.

Then there is the fear that the boss might blow up before getting the fake. Michael Rulison, first vice president at the Tucker Anthony brokerage in Syracuse, hired Mr. Freedman to come in as “Phil,” a top stockbroker from Kidder, Peabody. Mr. Rolison also invited Tucker Anthony’s chairman, whom he described as unpredictable. For insurance, he let his boss - who was to sit next to the chairman - in on the joke. The boss had a note in his pocket explaining the ruse in case the chairman blew a fuse. “Thankfully, he didn’t have to use it,” Mr. Rulison said. “The chairman burst out laughing as Harry went after him.”

Another cardinal rule, often a difficult one, is never to spend too much time with guests before the show. Trying to stay in character can be hazardous. Roger Berkley, president, of the Weave Corporation, a Hackensack-based fabric company, hired Mr. Freedman to play a motivational speaker, and the comedian happened to sit next to the executive vice president, who was a great believer in motivational speakers, and the chairman, Mr. Berkley’s father, for lunch, before the speech.

As they grilled him on what he would talk about, Mr. Freedman became quieter and quieter. Just before the speech, Mr. Berkley pulled his son aside: “Motivational speakers are supposed to be good conversationalists,” he told his son. “This guy is going to die out there.”

“Harry has always done an outstanding job. One of the reasons Harry is so successful, is because he really does his homework. I would recommend him for any event, showcase, meeting, or any other situation, with my highest praise.”

Rainey Foster, Vice President: Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau