Joan Rivers has been inducted into the Standup Comedy Hall of Fame. In honor of this;
** An excerpt from my book, STANDUPWORLD. (Which you can DOWNLOAD FREE by signing up for our newsletter.) **
That’s because thanks to Joan Rivers there doesn’t have to be another. Female comics can just be comics. Women doctors aren’t female doctors, they’re doctors. They don’t use the term ‘female Judges’ No one calls women that paint ‘female artists’. Comedians are comedians. That’s by and large the way things are now. I really believe that Joan Rivers did that. You hear talk of how people changed comedy a lot, it’s a phrase that’s thrown around a bit too much, but Joan Rivers truly changed comedy in America, and pretty much the world. Yet she was never really given her due.
Joan was a God of comedy though. She was the Queen. The best ever at what she did. By the time I got out to LA and The Comedy Store in 1977, she was already a legend. She would come in from time to time, and when she guest-hosted The Tonight Show she helped out a lot of new comics that I was close without, particularly Howie Mandel. I went to dinner with her one night in Detroit when Gary Shandling was opening for her.
We all went to a steak house after the show and Joan worked all through the meal on her set with Gary. Going over the jokes, punching, poking, picking things apart, adding on, taking out. This was in a high water season in her career, maybe 1985. She had just headlined Pine Knob music Theatre on a summer night and she basically sold it out. Something like eight or nine thousand people. She was on a roll, she’d had a big book just released and done well and was guest hosting the Tonight show regularly, but she wasn’t taking it for granted. She was pedal to the metal. Working harder than ever. Pressure testing every show. Figuring out how to make everything just a little funnier.
She was smart as could be, Joan. She knew the business so well, from the bottom up. She had hired Gary as an opening act because he was a hot comic, had done the Tonight show a couple of times, but also because he was a great writer. She knew he’d go to dinner afterward and gladly help her punch up the jokes, not only that she also knew Gary’s friends were all comics and writers and she was more than happy for him to invite them to dinner with her after the show in whatever city they were in. She knew how eager we would all be to be with the legendary Joan Rivers, eat steaks and throw around ideas as to how to punch up the routine we just saw. Why the hell not? ‘It was Joan fucking Rivers?’
For about twenty-five minutes I was shy, and polite. Listened. Then I waded into the water, lobbing some ideas out. She started the same way, polite, wading into the pool with me. Laughing at my first few attempts, making me feel comfortable. ‘Oh, that’s good, that’s good, Binder, I like that.. Ha. Funny, Mike.. Funny. Shandling, Binder’s funny…’
Ten minutes in though she was too busy to placate. Too ‘eyes on the prize’. If I threw out a pitch she didn’t love she’d politely just wave her hand away, give it an ‘eh’ or an ‘ugh’ or take a bite of her food, feed her dog or something. Yet when you scored, you scored big and she laughed. (She hand-fed you a bite, not the dog.) She laughed at almost everything Gary said that night, I remember that distinctly, and when she didn’t, she tore into him hard, teasing him, and was wicked funny. It was obvious she adored him. If you love the art of Stand-up comedy as I do, I implore you to watch the documentary that Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg made on Joan and her life called ‘A Piece of Work’. It’s tough to watch because it’s so real and raw but it’s also beautifully done and honest. Wow. I will tell you if you want to know what the life is like, that lane of it, this is the film to view. Sometimes I go on and on about work ethic and what it takes to make it, and then there’s this doc that exemplifies the line you can cross when you’ve made it and it’s obvious it isn’t going to fix anything other than the short amount of time you’re up on stage using the audience like a hit of heroin, a bag of M&M’s or a giant bong.
From what I know of her work and life, the tragedy of this film is that nowhere in it does she talk about her love of her work or the craft in any way. Maybe at the very beginning when she’s putting her play together? But even then it’s really about money and how it will be perceived and reviewed. The constant need to be loved and accepted by her peers and the elites, the media, and the show business establishment seemed to have just worn her down. In the end, she just wanted to make money and keep moving.
Yet in the beginning, and even to the end, even though she was just a ‘comic’, she was a great one. Even if she didn’t want that to be just what she was. In the early days, she pushed the edge, she talked about things people didn’t want to talk about, and, to the end, she was free up there. She wasn’t afraid to say anything.
I have to believe if Joan were alive today she’d be excited by the climate of the world right now. She’d dare anyone to cancel her. She would run straight into the controversy of it all like a little kid running out into the rain. She’d thrive on it. The challenge of it would probably be the best thing in the world for her.
There’s a true story that shouldn’t be forgotten, how at the height of her career after Johnny Carson and his show had built her up for so many years and had helped her become a national name, she was offered a show on Fox at the same time as Johnny’s. Yes, it was another era, there were only a few networks at the time, and Fox was an upstart, so it was competition that Carson hadn’t had for years and didn’t want. Still, the way he handled it was abysmal. When Joan called him to tell him she was doing it he hung up the phone and never spoke a word to her again for the rest of her life. Cut her off and made sure everyone everywhere knew he had done it.
Anyone that knows not only Joan but that era and the power that Johnny Carson wielded knows how it shattered her and her confidence. How it affected her in the dismal, shallow, little town that Hollywood is. Even the greedy rich pricks that were hiring her at Fox like Barry Diller and that whole group of his knew they didn’t have to treat her with too much respect now that Carson had chopped her off at the knees. It was a shitty power play all around and Joan was body-slammed to the stage floor in the middle of it.
‘The Joan Rivers show’ was canceled on Fox after a short run. Her husband Edgar who was a stooge, I’m sorry, he was, he couldn’t stand up to a shag rug that guy, he was her producer and partner and he let them all run over him and her. They destroyed her, and when it was done, he went back to his hometown and committed suicide.
Needless to say, she was devastated. Destroyed. Yet still Johnny Carson, rather than coming to a decades-long friend’s side in a moment darker than night, just let her twist in the wind. Nothing. Her career and her life sputtered along for years. Was never the same again.
I’ve heard recently that they’re going to do a limited series based on her life. I think it’s a great idea. She’ll never be equaled or surpassed. Ever. I just hope they get it right. It’s an incredible story. There’s no one like her. No one was so achingly authentic. Maybe Richard Pryor? I don’t know. No one as brilliant who’s quite as sad to say, fully formed, so open-book tragic. There’s a lot of hiding you can do behind a drug problem or inside the prison of a bottle. But when you don’t have a good addiction like that to hide behind and blame it all on, you just come off as neurotic. Goofy. Selfish. Self-obsessed.
Actually, it seems there’s almost nothing we don’t know about, Joan. She flailed it all out there on the stage and the reality shows, one-woman plays, documentaries, and talk show couches.
Her excesses, her unanswerable needs. Her emptiness and her gnawing drive. Yet she still was funny as can be. Right to the very end. It’s odd, but in stand-up, the tragic don’t generally live as long or turn over as many cards as she did.
They don’t end quite so sober, so naked, so utterly exposed.
Thanks for reading. If you liked it, DOWNLOAD MY FREE BOOK for the other essays.
JUST SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER and it’s FREE.
And watch THE HALL, ON NETFLIX, to see Joan’s induction into the hall of fame, along with Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Robin Williams.