Joan Rivers Sits Down With 1991’s Past, Present, and Future of Comedy
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If you’ve seen either of the great documentaries Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work or Johnny Carson: King of Late Night, then you already know that the road to her own talk show was a very rocky one for Joan Rivers. Here’s the short version: Johnny made Joan the permanent guest host for The Tonight Show. Then, when Joan accepted a deal to host her own show on Fox in 1986 the news got back to Johnny before she could tell him herself and, feeling hurt by this, he never spoke to her again. The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers was cancelled less than a year after it premiered and after her husband’s suicide three months later, Joan disappeared from television for a time.
This changed in 1989. The Joan Rivers Show premiered in syndication as a day-time talk show that lasted four years and featured a number of celebrity guests throughout it’s run. Today we take a look at an episode that aired in 1991 that Joan described as her big comedy episode. In it, she talks about the business with four guests: comic legend Alan King (who at the time had been in comedy for more than fifty years and was working on the early Comedy Central show Inside the Comic Mind), contemporary stand-ups Judy Tenuta and George Wallace and stand-up and one-man-show-writer/performer, Rick Reynolds.
The show begins with classic 90s-style synthesized saxophone music as Joan enters to applause, stepping out onto her set that looks like if The View had a much lower budget and a much higher tolerance for day-glo colors. Joan starts with a mini-monologue out in front of her studio audience that feels pretty improvised as she informs her audience that it is national “Correct Your Posture Day” and goes on to critique the posture of her audience. She makes a joke about Dolly Parton’s career being based on her standing up straight and then manages to shoehorn in a few cracks about Liz Taylor being fat before transitioning over to her chair where she introduces Alan King.
Alan, she explains, is the first guest because after his long career in comedy, he is certainly an expert. Rivers asks about how he got his start and his earlier career and King explains that as the youngest of eight he was driven to comedy as a way to get the attention that he couldn’t get in such a large family. His desire to perform manifested at age six as he would stand on street corners singing and continued as he turned fifteen and was making $100 for a twelve week tour of the Catskills and then finally receiving national attention after more than 90 appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. King attributed his longevity to his talking about his personal life at a very early age during a time in which everyone was doing material on specific topics. He then tells an interesting story about watching Jack Benny perform a year before he passed away in Las Vegas. Alan stood in the back and even though the audience loved the show and applauded and laughed throughout, afterwards, Jack approached Alan and asked him, “what went wrong?” Alan told Benny that after years of performing, it felt as though he was doing an impression of himself. That he’d become aware of his own timing and as a result was overcompensating; taking extra beats when he didn’t need to. Jack asked Alan to stay for the second show and after listening to Alan’s advice, Benny was his old self again.
Next Joan welcomes “one of the wackiest women in comedy,” Judy Tenuta. Judy enters with her signature accordion and maintains her high energy, spunky character throughout, seeming downright erratic when compared to Rivers and King. She refers to herself as a “love goddess,” calls the audience “pigs,” talks about feminine hygiene products and “that not so fresh feeling” and other staples of her act, but doesn’t seem to want to participate in the earnest discussion of comedy that Joan and Alan were having. There is a brief window in which Joan and Judy share a moment of connection when Joan talks about having a command performance at Buckingham Palace being cancelled, just as Judy had a White House Correspondents’ Dinner appearance cancelled for fear that both of the comedians would say something too shocking in the presence of these countries’ respective leaders.
Up next is comedian George Wallace who, despite some recent success in movies, tells Joan that there’s nothing he’d rather do than be up on stage in front of an audience. As he begins to discuss timing, Joan mentions the fact that she hates being told about specific things that she does that are funny, like a hand gesture, because she knows that once she hears that she won’t be able to do it the same way again. The idea of changing one’s act depending on what type of audience is present comes up and Alan sums his situation up by saying that he doesn’t change the jokes, but he can change his act eighty different ways. Joan says that she won’t do a show for an audience comprised of just men, but George disagrees: “I’ll do a show for all men, I’ll do a show for all ladies, I’ll do a show for the KKK if the check is there.”
The last guest of the day is Rick Reynolds, who at the time had just found success with a one-man show that was running off-Broadway called “Only the Truth is Funny.” According to him, the thing that makes him different is that as a stand-up he has a tendency to not necessarily talk about the same topics that other comedians talk about (“like Nancy Reagan”). He prefers to tell about the things between the jokes; stories about his dysfunctional childhood and his thoughts on the pope. Joan compares him to a Lenny Bruce type, in which the act is more confessional, rather than a series of quick punchlines.
Between the four stand-ups that sat on the stage for this episode of The Joan Rivers Show, there were many years of experience, and many opinions on the minutiae of performing, but on the whole they agreed on several key points. To be a comedian requires a lot of hard work, a lot of time and a lot of love for the craft. And no one can speak to this better than the now than the still very active, 79 year old comedian, Joan Rivers.