I had already heard Cosby’s albums. Then at camp some kids played Cheech and Chong and the live recordings of college bar piano player, John Valby’s rated R song parodies. Then, somehow, I remember flipping through the record store’s cassettes in the comedy section when I see a cover with a blond woman wearing a mink stole and bright red lipstick.
The album title “What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most”. The comic? Joan Rivers. The stamp next to the title? “ADULT CONTENT – Parental Discretion Advised”. I bought it, ran home, locked the door to my room, tore open the cassette box, slammed it into the boom box (it was the 80s), put on my headphones (the size of toasters) and pressed play. I was stunned. Dumbfounded. Numb. Not from the comedic content. I didn’t understand half of what the hell this woman was talking about. But the crowd.
The wall of laughter was like a tidal wave over and over. I had never heard anything like this ever before. I listened to this tape 10 times a day. I studied it. The timing, the vocal dynamics, the audience ups and downs. And the insults. The zingers. And the balancing act of insult then appeasement and compassion only to club someone over the head a second time! I was hooked. When I was a kid, it was Abbot and Costello. But this was something completely different. Live. Organic. Over the years, I’d study and appreciate all genres of comedy. Whether it’s my kind of comedy or not, I get it.
It’s a shame people today only reference Rivers for her crass red carpet chatter. They have no idea that even with Diller and Toty Fields, Joan was the trailblazer for comediannes and then comics across the board. Years later I would get to work with her and my other hero, Don Rickels. But let’s not skip ahead.
I was first introduced to Joan through Clint Holmes, her musical director of her late night show on the brand new FOX network scandalously going up against Johnny Carson. Clint later became a tremendous talent all his own.
I had the opportunity to open for Joan a few times over the years. It was difficult to be comfortable with her because each time I’d opening for her, I’d have to reacquaint myself with her all over again. It generally took a few days. I make a point of never talking shop with stars. I try to disarm them on a more personal level … family, weather, clothing.
Most of the time Joan would rarely be in one place long enough to engage deeply. But I knew I was “in” when we were in Minnesota and she popped her head in my dressing room after walking off stage asking, “Were they weird for you?” I replied, “SO weird the whole set.”
“Good I knew it wasn’t me.”
I learned early on that sometimes it’s not the artists that’s crazy and rude but the entourage that tries to cater and protect them. I think the first time I opened for Joan I was standing in the wing ready to go on when her handler said with all seriousness, “Don’t do better than her.” … Ew.
About two years later Joan was spilt-billing with Don Rickles. We hugged, she grabbed my arm and said, “You wana meet Don?” Thus opening another door to a dream come true.
It’s fascinating that Joan, Rickles, Diller, Gorshin, even the younger Bette Midler were all cut from the same cloth. No matter how much they have done or how much they have in the bank, they are all worried that tomorrow the call won’t come in and they’ll go under. It is The Depression mentality. There are no coat tails to ride on these people because they feel they have none. Secondly, unlike the stars of today, these people don’t have an entourage of reps. Maybe there is one assistant traveling with them mainly due to age. Little ego, they just want to work, period.
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