Joan Rivers Reflects on Legacies, Death, and Bathing in a Sink (1999)
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
As you know, last week we lost legend Joan Rivers. One of the hardest working people in the business, her absence is felt very strongly in the comedy community. In 1991 she sat down with fellow comedian Alan King on his show Inside the Comedy Mind for an interview that is equal parts funny, illuminating and candid. In it she reflected on her career to that point, her struggles and how she got there.
At this point in her career, Joan was entering uncharted tragedy. Three years ago she had faced one of the most tragic and turbulent moments of her life. The late night show that she had hosted, which inadvertently severed her relationship with long-time mentor and friend Johnny Carson, was canceled after six months on the air, which led to the suicide of her husband Edgar. Slowly she reentered the comedy world as a standup and went on to host a daytime talk show that would run for five years and win a Daytime Emmy award. It was in the midst of the resurgence that Joan was interviewed on Alan King’s show.
Immediately into the interview, Joan reveals her well-documented compulsion to always be working when she responds to the question, “Who does Joan Rivers think she is” with “A still struggling person. Still trying to find a place in the business… It’s all quicksand. I feel that if I stop working I’ll be gone in a week.” Though she doesn’t draw this connection, the picture she paints of her childhood may explain where this need comes from. When asked if she had a happy childhood, she says that she couldn’t wait to grow up so that she could get into show business. “I came from very wealthy people, and then the revolution came and it was all over. My father could never make enough money. It was a very tense household growing up.” To have it all in one moment and then to suddenly find you have nothing would be enough to instill a need to always be working in anyone, but it also seemed to have another effect on Joan. This experience of losing everything probably made it easier to lose it all again. When she announced she was going into show business, her parents stopped speaking to her. During this period she lived in her car for two months and bathed in the sink of the local Y. But she had the drive to keep working, and she dug herself out. Later in her career she would declare bankruptcy, put her nose to the grindstone, and eventually make it back on top.
Alan and Joan spend a little bit of time discussion the early days of her standup career as she played Greenwich Village in what King refers to as “toilets.” At first it didn’t go so well, but it was her confidence in herself and her material that pushed her through. But even as she struggled, she found increasingly large footholds to bolster her self-esteem and push her through. Initially it would just be in having a good night. “Say you had six terrible nights in a row. Every once in a while you’d connect with an audience and that’d get you through the next 12 months.” Later one, while bombing in front of a crowd, Lenny Bruce, one of her idols, watched her act then found her backstage. “You’re right and they’re wrong,” he told her. “I lived on that one for six years,” she said. On her first Tonight Show appearance, Johnny called her over to the desk and concluded a conversation with her by saying, “you’re going to be a star.” In disbelief she looked behind her before realizing he was talking to her. The road to legend status was tough, but she found safe havens along the way to allow her to continue on.
In this interview, Joan doesn’t talk much about modern comedy, other than to compare the raunchiness level of what comedians say today when examined against her relatively tame material of the 60s when she was labeled “dirty.” However, she does say that the comedians of the 90s lack the camaraderie that she shared with her Village contemporaries like Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, and Richard Pryor. While they may not see each other all that much, she stated that when they did encounter each other there was still a very strong bond there. She attributes that connection to the fact that they all had to work so hard to get to where they were, whereas the comedian of the 90s simply had to do three good sets at the Comedy Store and they’d be given a sitcom.
You may remember over the summer when Joan walked out on a CNN interview after the anchor asked her about the mean-spirited nature of some of her jokes. When Alan King is asks the same question, she responds a bit more calmly. “I don’t think it’s mean. It’s funny. I’m sorry if people get hurt, but if it hurts them, I take it out. Immediately. They call me, it’s comes out the next day.” She also refuses to accept the label of “dirty.” She admits that she talks about orgasms and gynecologists on stage, but she doesn’t believe that she tells dirty jokes. Audiences were simply shocked that a woman would talk openly about those subjects. But for Joan, the core of her material was always “truth.” “You didn’t talk about your mother-in-law if you didn’t have a mother-in-law…at the time I was having an affair with a married professor. That was my first good routine. Truth is what worked for me. One of my biggest jokes was when I said that ‘I don’t believe he’s sincere because his wife just got pregnant.'”
The mining of her life for material became a bit of a problem after the death of her husband, however, when she learned that the public wasn’t ready to hear jokes about it, even if she was ready to make them. “When tragedy happens to someone else, they can hide in their work. A comedian can’t do that… I did one great joke about Edgar that I thought would just purge the audience, but they just couldn’t handle it. ‘My husband asked to be cremated and have his ashes spread around Neiman Marcus so I could visit him daily.'” Eventually she came to the conclusion that the audience has their own problems, they’ve paid the money, and as such, they don’t want to take on the problems of the performer. But she managed to break through that by finding a way to make her problems funny enough that people didn’t mind taking them on if they could laugh at them with Joan.
With her incredible work ethic, there’s surely some question as to what drove Joan. Throughout the interview she makes reference to her legacy, usually within the context of feeling under-valued by the world. Watching this after her death, and seeing the outpouring of tributes and reflections across the internet, it was particularly interesting to hear her talk about her place in the world. Alan mentions her longevity and how much more important that is than Oscars and nominations. To that she says, “And maybe when I die they’ll say it. I’m telling you, the only time the critics were ever nice to me was after I was fired from Fox. Fired, after they had destroyed me all along on that show. Only when they thought I was dead in my career did they then give me the accolades. I said to Melissa, ‘when they cremate me, throw all the obituaries in because they’re going to be glowing.'”
While she wasn’t exactly wrong about the obituaries part, I like to think that towards the end of her career, through the documentary A Piece of Work, and her various TV shows that she was starting to get the respect that she deserved. However, even if she did feel that way, she certainly wasn’t going to let that stop her from working just as hard as she always did.