Episode 38: Joan Rivers and Treva Silverman: Partners in Comedy (Transcript)

Episode 38: Joan Rivers and Treva Silverman: Partners in Comedy

[Theme music]

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 back with an episode that we hope will provide some comic relief in these challenging times.

Judith: In our last episode, we shared a 2006 interview with Joan Rivers from JWA’s archive. We also talked about why we borrowed the name of our podcast from Joan’s signature line, “Can we talk?”

Nahanni: In this episode, we’re sharing another interview from the JWA archive. It’s a delightful conversation between Joan Rivers and her writing partner Treva Silverman from 2006. The interview was conducted by Rachel Talbot for JWA’s documentary on Jewish women in comedy called Making Trouble.

Judith: Treva is a successful comedy writer who partnered with Joan starting in the early 60s. The depth of their friendship really comes through in this interview, and is a counter to Joan’s public persona, which was often critical, especially of other women.

Nahanni: Treva starts by explaining how she and Joan met when they were both fresh out of college...and Joan Rivers was still known as Joan Molinksy. [Theme music fades]

Treva: I had a boyfriend then, and Joan was looking for a partner, and he and my boyfriend was looking for a partner, so they found each other and it was Molinsky and...

Joan: Meyers! Molinsky and Meyer. That’s right.

Treva: And so Joan and I started hanging out and like clung to each other a lot. Like, Oh my God, this outside world.

Joan: But she was so smart. She was a Bennington graduate, and she had done her thesis on James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Treva: You remember that?

Joan: Oh yes, because you were smart. She was smart, she was smart, and she was funny, and she was in the business. Do you understand? I mean, such a great combination.

Treva: By the business we mean fringes of. Fringes thereof.

Joan: But Treva did something early on in a review, and she got picked up by the Carol Burnett Show. That's right. Right. And then they flew you out. Remember that they flew out to Chicago somewhere. She was always, her stuff was head and shoulders above anybody's. Truly above anybody's working, uh, that she was always picked up first from the group. She was always noticed first.

Treva: At this point, Joan, Joan was, you are, you would change from Molinsky to... magically changed into Rivers right? Okay. So I really did overhear the following conversation. It was Gary Nardino on the phone, and he was, he was talking about you and you said, no, no, she's not like anybody. Stop asking me, who is she… is she like. she's not like anybody. She's like herself. And then he said. And they wouldn't, they wouldn't do it. And he said, dammit. He said, years from now you're going to be telling me get a Joan Rivers type. Did I ever tell you that?

Joan: No. Gary Nardino.

Treva: Total belief.

Joan: How nice is that? How great is that? But Treva, which impressed me so much, she had her own apartment. And uh, I, and she was making it on her own. And that was in a business that's so difficult and for a woman so difficult and just, head and shoulders above anybody.

Interviewer: You wrote something in one of your books about, uh, how you became friends cause you both understood what it was like to be female in the 50s. What was it like to be female in the 50s?

Joan: A lot of white boots. Female in the fifties...

Treva: and that white, white, sort of white lipstick in the dark, uh, racoony kinda, uh, eyes. But we, we met I think at like the beginning of the sixties.

Joan: In the 60s really.

Treva: We were both in nursery school.

Joan: Yes, yes.

Treva: We met the beginning of the sixties and clinging onto, you know, to the periphery of the possibility of maybe, maybe. But there was also the thing that Joan and I, we both had the belief that it was going to happen. I think our whole group had that belief. It was, it wasn't like if it ever happens, it was when the hell is it going to happen already?

Joan: And you would, you were not trying to be you... you were. You may not have been noticed as a writer yet, but she was a female comedy writer. There was no question about it, of course!

Treva: Joan would come to my apartment straight from her parents' house, and I remember you always had a dime, and you say, can I use the phone? And you’d leave, you’d leave the dime. And I would love to remember that I said, no, no, but I said, okay, but those days...

Joan: We were all struggling! A dime was a dime! You got it. Yeah. It meant something.

Treva: She, she, she left her little, her little dime, and it was for a local call even.

Joan: Call an agent. Pray.

Interviewer: Yeah, I was gonna say, who were you calling?

Joan: Always agents always agents. Can I come down to this can I audition for that?

Treva: Tell about the nightclub act.

Joan: Which one? There are so many.

Treva: Oh, well, the original one... we would all go to the Catskills. Joan had this beat up car that vaguely worked. I mean, you know, sort of sporadically. And so we would go to the Catskills and they were used to, you know, “so then my wife, uh,” they were used to that. So here comes Joan and...

Joan: we had straw hats: “we’ve never seen you before” that act, and it was, they would just hate us.

Treva: There were, there were these old people, old people, very young people.

Joan: These old, these old Jewish people.

Treva: These old Jewish people who were so sweet because maybe they had grandchildren like them or something and they didn't want to be rude, so they'd just kind of like sit it out. Like, this is our fate. We have to kind of, you know, sit here and watch whatever is happening on the stage with these people.

Joan: One of the reasons they book us cause I had a car…

Treva: Because with her having the car, that meant that the agent could always say, “uh, Joan, could you bring so-and-so up cause they don't have a car and the exotic dancer with the snake, the de de de.”

Joan: Yeah, Lola and his snakes, would your mind? Sure, no problem.

Treva: The snakes in the back, Lola in the front. And so, so she was the big, you know, wow. Joan Molinsky hyphen Rivers has a car…

Joan: Silver car.

Treva: Yeah has a car. Sometimes you'd have a car with dog acts in it. A barking car would come up the highway.

Joan: But she hit early and she did something very brave. You were the first to go out to California, the whole group.

Treva: That's true. Joan and I were, were both constantly fighting the idea that that a woman, a woman is, is writing comedy. And, and Joan was, was fighting that she doesn't do these old kind of shtick of dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. But she was doing more character stuff. And do the, do the thing that I love so much about your wig got run over.

Joan: I was telling her that… But she wrote a joke for me that I still use to this day. Uh, if God wanted me to cook my hands would be aluminum. And she told it to me on the telephone. I remember calling her up and I said, alright if God wanted me to cook, my hands would be what? And she said, they would be aluminum. And you go, of course. Of course. And I still use that joke. That’s Treva’s joke. And every time I do it I think, that’s Treva’s joke! It’s so great!

Interviewer: While we’re talking about being a woman and stuff. What about, cause Phyllis Diller had been around before you, what was it. Were people ever comparing you to Phyllis Diller or...?

Joan: They couldn't compare me to... Phyllis was so different. Phyllis was really, you have to understand. Phyllis was married, so she could look funny and stra... I wanted to get married. I tried to look as pretty as you could possibly look onstage.

Treva: And she did with her little pearls…

Joan: My pearls, my little circle pin. I was. There was two lives going there, you know, if you're single and a doctor, Hey, speak to you later. And unfortunately they were all gay clubs. [Laughs] But uh, uh, so that was, there was very, nobody really wanted to be pretty... if you were pretty, you weren't a comedian. You were a singer, you just... don't you think?

Treva: If you were pretty…

Joan: Not that I was pretty… human looking.

Treva: You were pretty!

Joan: Well. Didn't help me. Go ahead.

Treva: In any case, you were pretty, um, in, in movies, in movies, on television...

Joan: Were?

Treva: Had been and is now and will forever be.

Joan: Now please start your answer again. I just had to say it. Go on. Go ahead.

Treva: At that time, in movies, on television, everything, the pretty one was the kind of, you know, dah, dah, dah. And the funny one was the sidekick. And so here's Joan being the pretty one and the sidekick simultaneously. I found that as a, as a writer, it was very interesting because, um, it was, it was it was hard to write… uh, it was hard to write lead characters and make them really, really funny. In the 30s, they did it, but in the fifties and sixties it was always the kind of fat one who was the funny one, or the, you know, with the funny accent was the funny... So here Joan is dressed for a fraternity dance and her lovely black little sleeveless-y thing, and with the pearls and showing up onstage, oh, and the boa.

Joan: That made it Show Biz. I had a boa. But the same thing with Treva. Uh, they didn't want to believe that you could be pretty and very smart, very smart and very funny. It was a whole different kind of look to, to what you expected a writer to be.

Interviewer: Was there a competition among comics then?

Joan: There still is competition. I mean, I don't want to hear this nonsense, "oh, good for Sarah Silverman." Please. She's taking bread out of my dog's mouth. Oh. I am...

Treva: Kibble out of his mouth.

Joan: Kibble, out of my mouth. I’m not a good cook. Oh, there’s tremendous competition. Uh, I am very competitive. I think that's why I'm still doing it at this age.

Treva: Are you saying competitive or ambitious? I mean… is it, I want to knock this one out of the box or is it conversely, I want to get ahead. I want it to be me. I want it to be me rather than I want to get rid of him.

Joan: I don't know about the others, but I want to get rid of them.

Treva: Oh come on, be honest. Don't hold back.

Joan: Every day I read the obituaries and go “damn.”

Treva: One less. Oh.

Joan: Or, “Oh, what a pity, so young!”

Treva: Send some flowers.

Interviewer: Let me ask you a question. Why do you think there are, do you have any theories about why there are so many Jewish comedians? There were writers and, uh...

Joan: You really want the truth? There aren't. There aren't. Yes, there are Jews. Johnny Carson, oh, that's a Jew for you. Jay Leno, ah, have to call him the rabbi’s sick. Conan, oy, oy, oy, Conan are you funny tonight? I mean, Neal Simon, Oh, Neal is Jewish, excuse me. But there are tremendous amount of non-Jews in the business. They just always focus on the Jews.

Treva: But you're talking about hosts who host the Jews.

Joan: It's true. When you think about it.

Treva: Okay. I am an Irish Catholic and now bring out the Jews.

Joan: Bring out Sheky!

Treva: Um, I think that growing, growing up, we all sort of had Jewish, uh, listening to radio, we had Jewish voices in our ears because all the writers, so many of the writers were, were Jewish then and, and now.

Joan: Why?

Treva: Yeah. Why? Um. Well there, there's, there's theories of, because through all the trillions of years of one wandering, everything, it was, it was always the, it was always the defensive humor, the defensive. So why shouldn't I dah dah dah? That. But I don't know.

Joan: On all the staffs you've been on...

Treva: Mostly Jewish.

Joan: Mostly Jewish.

Treva: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Although it’s kind of changed over in the past number of years. But when, but when we were growing up and when we were starting out, but yeah, the question is why, why?

Joan: Um, I think it's good that you're always the underdog. It's the way I live my life. If I make my joke first about myself, I’ve beaten you to it. It’s ok.

Nahanni: There’s so much I love about this interview: how they crack each other up, like they just really can’t help themselves, even in a formal interview.

Judith: I also love how their affection for each other comes through; it’s clear that there’s such deep camaraderie and a sense of shared experience, and a sense of women supporting each other, and that didn’t come through in her comedy onstage, but it’s really nice to know that it was there behind the scenes.

Nahanni: The other thing that didn’t come through in her comedy onstage which does come through in the interview is her awareness that you could be intelligent AND beautiful. In fact, one of her recurring themes was that God doesn’t hand out looks and brains at the same time. So it really makes me wonder why she harped on that very dated stereotype so much.

Judith: Yeah, I think we definitely see the way in which people can have an intellectual critique of the more problematic parts of society but still deeply internalize them… You know, Joan’s plastic surgery is a great example of that. She had a lot of quote unquote work done, and she talked very openly about it, and you definitely couldn’t miss it. Part of that I’m sure was about vanity, and some of that might have been her mode of taking reality to the extreme…. in this case saying to the world, “Ok, you think women shouldn’t age, this is what that looks like when you take it to the extreme.”

Nahanni: And she is remembered for many of those extremes... and also criticized for them. I think it’s also important to remember how talented she was at just making people laugh!

Judith: I think people forget how much of a groundbreaker she was, and you know, there's only so much we can expect people to do as pioneers. And there was a way in which she was, you know, breaking the system and, and busting into it and also very much bound by it. There was a, there was a limit to what she could imagine, but that doesn't take away from all the new things that she did. There wasn't anyone like her.

[Theme music]

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: You can find 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.

Judith: I’m Judith Rosenbaum.

Nahanni: And I’m Nahanni Rous… wishing you good health. Until next time.

[Theme music fades]


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 38: Joan Rivers and Treva Silverman: Partners in Comedy (Transcript)." (Viewed on November 30, 2023) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-38-joan-rivers-and-treva-silverman-partners-comedy/transcript>.


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