Episode 37: Joan Rivers, can we talk? (Transcript)
Joan Rivers: My humor is truly stripping everything bare. And very often you have to say to the audience, oh come on! Can We Talk? I mean let’s stop this nonsense.
Nahanni Rous: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet. I’m Nahanni Rous.
Judith Rosenbaum: And I’m Judith Rosenbaum.
Nahanni: We’re so excited to welcome you back for our spring season.
Judith: And we’re kicking it off with a two-part series on none other than the outrageously talented comedian Joan Rivers.
Nahanni: Joan Rivers’s career spanned nearly six decades. She started with cabaret and off-Broadway shows in the late 50s, and then became a star of late night television, hosting The Tonight Show, and The Late Show With Joan Rivers, and eventually the daytime Joan Rivers Show. In the 90s, she was best known for her comedic and sometimes mean-spirited interviews with celebrities on the red carpet.
Judith: Joan’s style was self-deprecating and abrasive; everyone was fair game, including herself. She charted new territory in comedy by telling stories from her own life, combined with her willingness to talk about taboo subjects like hot flashes, sagging bodies, bad sex, marriage problems.
Nahanni: You may have noticed that we borrowed our podcast name Can We Talk? from this hilarious, talented, and complex Jewish woman.
Judith: "Can We Talk?" was Joan’s signature tagline. Sometimes she used it as a punchline, sometimes it was a set up. It was an invitation to her audience... a signal that she was about to confide in them.
Nahanni: Here’s Joan on The Tonight Show in the early 1980s.
Joan: I would not cheat. Mainly because nobody’s asking. But I would not cheat, you know why? Can we talk? Let me tell you why. I think my husband’s fooling around, ok? Which is very hard to say but I feel very close to you.
Nahanni: Can We Talk was also Joan’s way of calling attention to her flaws, and other people’s, her way of saying, "let’s stop pretending and tell the truth here!"
Joan: Can We Talk? Let me tell you something. The reason I have nothing going on up here... and I’m getting older, at least nothing’s there to drop. Oh, you don’t know what it’s like to get older! Do you know what it’s like to go in the morning and go to take off a facial mask and realize you’re not wearing one? Oh, you don’t know!
Nahanni: So why did we borrow her tagline for our podcast?
Judith: When we started this show, Joan had recently died, and we were all steeped in the debate about her role and her complicated legacy, as brilliant and hilarious, but also crass and sometimes cruel. We love that she had so many dimensions, and that she believed in telling the truth about women’s lives and expanding the range of models we see... all things we knew we wanted to do, too.
Nahanni: We also liked that "Can We Talk?" was an invitation to our audience to join us in this project of storytelling.
Judith: And with that, here’s a wonderful interview from JWA’s archive, recorded in 2006 for our documentary about Jewish women in comedy, Making Trouble.
Nahanni: Joan talks about her early days at the Chicago comedy club Second City, being a woman on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and playing mid-Western clubs as a New York Jewish comic. Later in the interview she talks about going back to work after her husband’s suicide in 1987. She starts by telling interviewer Rachel Talbot about a fight she had with her parents over her decision to go into comedy.
Joan: I left my house in pedal pushers in an old car that I used to drive and went to New York and didn't speak to them for a year. And it was just awful. And my dad wrote me a letter saying that we are going to, uh, you better come home, or we're going to have you committed. And I was living in the Barbizon hotel for women, and my dad went upstairs and pulled me out. It was a scene. I don't think they ever forgot, dragged me out. It was just horrible scene, horrible scene. They just thought I was ruining my life. There's no question about it. They just couldn't accept that this is what I was going to do and this is all I could do.
Interviewer: So they got you back home?
Joan: I went back and then I went away again. Yeah. It was just awful.
Interviewer: And then, um, you went to Second City.
Joan: Yes. That was great. Second City was very competitive. There were six of us thrown on stage and it was make up your own lines and get your own scenes going, and everybody wanted to be the star of Second City and everybody wanted to get their stuff in. So it wasn't like being gracious. It was like, you know, well, I got a better idea... I want to do. It was very competitive. And that was great too. I learned in Second City, you have to talk up. And I learned the freedom of you think it's funny, try it, don't wait, don't think about it, do it. I still do that. It freed me. It taught me to be tough. It taught me to fight. If you thought your scene was good, you went in and fought for it and it taught me, go with your instinct. Only do what you truly think is going to be funny. It changed my life.
Interviewer: And then you, you came back to New York and you said you learned so much from Second City. So how had your comic persona changed when you came back?
Joan: Uh, when I came back with second city, I was myself on stage. Good, bad or indifferent. I was what I was and I was a divorced, annulled, Jewish, smart college graduate, not particularly attractive, girl on stage. And I was telling about my life. It wasn't about my mother in law, it was about what I'm going through. My mother's hysterical cause I'm single and I'm having an affair with a married man and my gay friends and what happened to my gay friends. And it was all about truth.
The first um, routine that really worked. I had a wig those days, you know, I had hairpieces. And I was driving into New York to perform at this little club, and the wig flew out of the window and a car drove over it. And I said, there I was walking down the West Side Highway with a dead wig in my arms that says Firestone on it and no one stops.
And, uh, it was all about truth. And taking the truth and exaggerating it. And it just opened me up. And I never went back. I never went back to “he’s so fat that” unless I really believe it.
Interviewer: Yeah. When did you find out you were going to be on Johnny Carson?
Joan: Nothing in my career... and I think that's why I have such a long career... has come easily. Ever. I have never been the first on anything. All my friends and that time I was working in the village with my, uh, George Carlin and Richard Pryor... all these wonderful men... Everybody got through. Everybody was on Carson and on Griffin, and I was brought up seven different times to The Carson Show. I was finally rejected by a secretary who was eating lunch while I was performing. I mean, beyond humiliating. I got on because the night before some comic bombed. So they called me up and they said, you can come on, but not as a comedian. They had no faith in me. They brought me on as a girl writer. And at the end of the show, at the end of that night on air, Johnny Carson said to me, "You're going to be a star." It was amazing. And I looked behind me, I couldn't believe. And the next day my life changed, changed overnight.
Interviewer: Now you were getting all these calls and stuff. Was there ever a feeling of like, Oh, you're too New York to play in different parts of the country?
Joan: I was doing Carson regularly. I don't think I was hosting yet, but really I was, you know, the golden girl on Carson. And the agents would come back and say, you're too New York, you're too Jewish. You’re too New York. And my husband was... I was married by that point... Edgar said “this is ridiculous.” He said pick the worst city in the country. And they said, Milwaukee, they still have Bund meetings there. This is 1970. There're still enclaves that they dress up in their Nazi uniforms and sob that Adolph’s dead. He said, send her to Milwaukee, and let's see. And they sent me to Milwaukee. And I was... they had to change the size of the room and put me in the ballroom, where I was putting originally in a little, uh, in a wonderful hotel called the Vista in their little comedy room. And they had to open up the ballroom and put me in.
So, um, uh, that changed everything. They said, okay, America will get her. I mean people begin to put you in such little pockets and it's so stupid. Cause funny is funny.
Interviewer: What were your, um, after your husband committed suicide, it was, you had to go back on stage. What was that decision to go back?
Joan: Uh, the decision was a very simple one. Uh, I had no money. I had to go back to work. I didn't have the luxury of being the widow in the house on the Hill.
So I had to go back to work and nobody wanted me. And, uh, Vegas gave me back my contracts, cause they said nobody wants to see anybody that has that kind of, you would just fired. Uh, they were terrible publicity went out that I was very hard to work with. Uh, it was just all wrong, all wrong. I was banned from late night and I've never been brought back ever, not one late night show. Um, so I was really struggling with my career and I had all these bills. And Melissa was in college... I mean it was just a bad time.
So I went back to little nightclubs. I just said, well, I'll start again. And I went back and started doing little night clubs and out of that came the red carpet. Which I only went on because nobody else wanted to do it. They said, you're going to stand with paparazzi and talk to people. I said, I’ll do anything.
Nahanni: And she did do everything: a fashion line, a season on Celebrity Apprentice, a TV show called the Fashion Police, and of course, her celebrity interviews on the red carpet. Some people saw this phase in her career as a sign of her desperation, but Judith, could you read it in a different way do you think?
Judith: You know, even though Joan says she went back to work because she needed money, I think what she really needed was to work. She was someone whose identity was defined by her work. She was ambitious! And she was always up for reinvention.
Nahanni: Joan Rivers died in 2014 from complications after a routine surgery. She left a full and varied legacy including decades of stand-up comedy, a dozen books, and an unforgettable persona.
Judith: Stay tuned for our next episode: a charming interview with Joan and her writing partner and close friend Treva Silverman.
Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Sarah Ventre helped edit this episode. Our team also includes Becky Long and Shira Kraft. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.
Judith: We dedicate this episode to the memory of Nancy Schwartz Sternoff, a brilliant and hilarious woman who was a great mentor, a talented leader, and a founding board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Like Joan, Nancy was outspoken, creative, and often surprising. Thank you to Olivia Cohen-Cutler for her generous support of this episode in Nancy’s memory.
Nahanni: This episode is also sponsored by Adventures in Jewish Studies, the official podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. The AJS podcast features engaging and entertaining episodes on Jewish culture, religion, and history, including a recent episode about the 1950s Jewish female comedian Jean Carroll. Search "Adventures in Jewish Studies" on your favorite podcast platform to listen.
Judith: You can find more episodes of Can We Talk online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution.
Nahanni: I’m Nahanni Rous.
Judith: And I’m Judith Rosenbaum. Until next time!
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 37: Joan Rivers, can we talk? (Transcript)." (Viewed on September 21, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-37-joan-rivers-can-we-talk/transcript>.