February 8, 2013

Joan Rivers: From "The Adventures With Letterman" to the Freedom Old Age Brings

Like many Gen X kids, I literally grew up listening to Joan Rivers' raspy but distinctive voice.  I feel like I've known her for my whole life, and in a way, I actually have.

Joan Rivers was the narrator for the original PBS show "The Electric Company", although her work on the show began in Season 2 (around 1973) in a segment known as "The Adventures of Letterman" produced by the Children's Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop).  At the time, I was too old (or, so I thought, was too smart) for "Sesame Street", but about the right age for "The Electric Company".  The cast of the original "Electric Company" was truly all-star, including Bill Cosby, Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman and Gene Wilder (yes, the original Willie Wonka's voice was that of Letterman on "The Electric Company"), just to name a few.  Check out this clip below, or by visiting http://youtu.be/z3y_H3SaoAY:

"The Adventures of Letterman" was a segment about a flying superhero who wore a varsity sweater and a football helmet (the voice of Letterman was none other than the original Willie Wonka Mr. Gene Wilder).  Letterman was routinely foiled by a character known as Spell Binder, an evil magician who made mischief by changing words into new words by replacing 1 or 2 letters.  For the record, Shout Factory! has released seasons 1 and 2 of the original version of "The Electric Company" on DVD, see https://www.shoutfactory.com/product/the-best-of-the-electric-company-vol-1?product_id=2831 for complete details.

I saw Joan Rivers' live stand-up show a few years ago in New York, and it was about what I had come to expect (I'd heard it on cassette so many times), and I have to compliment her by saying, she's really very good at keeping the content fresh and up-to-date.  Instead of talking about old, dead celebrities, these days, she targets younger celebs, and she's good at that, too.

Anyway, since I'm about the same age as Joan Rivers' daughter Melissa, I kind of look at Joan Rivers herself in much the same way as I do my parents.  She's always been a part of my life, and she's still very much alive and kicking, in spite of having had a LOT of plastic surgery (my parents, however, have not had any plastic surgery).

Joan Rivers herself used to make fun of people who had plastic surgery.  Back in the 1980s, on her album that was released on what was then a new record label Geffen Records "What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?" (which went on to reach #22 on the U.S. Billboard 200, and was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album) Ms. Rivers herself made fun of people who she claimed had too much plastic surgery.  One target was Anderson Cooper's mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, who was, at the time, best known for her designer jeans with her signature in stitching across many women's rear ends.

Ms. Rivers talked about Gloria Vanderbilt and what a "mean bitch" Ms. Vanderbilt was, and said when she asked for her [Ms. Vanderbilt's] autograph, "... she wrote on my ass!".  She moved on to say she thought Gloria Vanderbilt had one too many face lifts, and that her face had been "pulled too tight" noting "with that pullback face on her, every time she sits down, her mouth pops open".  I guess we can now safely say to Joan "look at the pot calling the kettle black"!

Even before that time, as Ms. Rivers wrote in her first biography "Enter Talking" about how she began her entertainment career "off, off, off Broadway" with another young singer/actress from the same part of Brooklyn known as Barbra Streisand.  Joan Rivers is even better known for her stand-up comedy, some of which I quote in reference to Gloria Vanderbilt.  My grandparents told me they saw Joan Rivers' stand-up comedy show back in the late 1960s Las Vegas when they drove out to California, and while they weren't overly critical since it was, in fact, stand-up comedy, my grandmother did comment that "she [Joan Rivers] had a very sharp tongue".

Of course, that is WHY people go to see comedians/comediennes.

Ms. Rivers also had a big run as Johnny Carson's guest/co-host when "The Tonight Show's" Mr. Carson was sick, travelling or unable to appear for whatever reason.  Although Mr. Carson mentored Ms. Rivers, when she discovered she was not even being considered as a potential replacement for Mr. Carson upon his retirement, the comedienne decided (along with her husband who managed her career) to leave that job.  In her 1986 autobiography "Enter Talking" she wrote about the fact that she was hurt she wasn't even being considered for the role, and she felt betrayed by Johnny Carson, but she felt she had to look out for herself.

At the time, a soon-to-launch startup network known as Fox Television gave her a late night talk show of her own called "The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers".  The show was scheduled to compete directly with NBC's longstanding "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson".  Mr. Carson claims he learned about the show from Fox, not Ms. Rivers.  It may well be that is true, although Ms. Rivers says she tried calling Johnny Carson, and he hung up on her.  That may also be true, but it could well be that Fox, eager to make a name for itself, could have told Mr. Carson before Ms. Rivers had even signed a contract with them.  Who cares.  It's history now, and Johnny Carson is toast.

Ultimately, Ms. Rivers' late night talk show on the fledgling Fox Television Network bombed (and with good reason).  But the show's failure also lead to the suicide of Ms. Rivers' husband (who was a native of the UK), whom she said was humiliated by Fox.  Beyond television and stand-up comedy, Ms. Rivers also appeared in the 1978 feature film which co-starred her and another young comedian named Billy Crystal known as "Rabbit Test" (Ms. Rivers was also the director and writer for that movie), and later in the feature film "The Muppets Take Manhattan" as herself, as well as a voice over role in 1987's "Spaceballs" and "Look Who's Talking" to name a few.  Aside from stand-up, she's quite well known for her voice over roles.

She's also appeared in many guest roles, including such TV shows as "Nip/Tuck" (a role she was born to play, if I don't say so myself) and countless other guest appearances.  These days, she co-hosts the E! show "Fashion Police", along Kelly Osbourne and some others.  She's also on the WE tv series "Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?".  She also built a fairly substantial fashion business on QVC, although I don't know if that's as big as it once was, since home shopping cable channels aren't quite what they used to be, especially since cable consists of hundreds of channels now.  She claims, however, that it's a billion dollar business.  Perhaps it is, I've never spent any time researching it.

My point to all of this "history" about Joan Rivers is that her presence in entertainment, for better or worse, has been in existence for my entire life.

Terri Gross from NPR's "Fresh Air" program interviewed Joan Rivers in July 2012, which can be listened to below, or by visiting: http://n.pr/V18Ewz.

At the time of the 2012 interview, Ms. Rivers was promoting yet another new book, although most of the NPR interview had absolutely nothing to do with her book (entitled "I Hate Everyone, Starting With Me").  However, Ms. Rivers talked candidly about a host of topics, including how she got into comedy because she would try to make the secretaries laugh so she could get into see agents, and how the secretaries were the ones who suggested she go into comedy.  She said by doing comedy, she could "... make $8 a night in the comedy clubs. I thought that's better than being an office temporary."  That would later lead to her writing for comedy legends Phyllis Diller and Bob Newhart.  But she also admits she was "smart enough to go through any door that opened" for her in show business.

To be sure, Joan Rivers is doing pretty well for herself approaching age 80, but she says with her age has brought her some wisdom, but she also talks about getting older, and how awful it is to be outliving so many of her friends.

She says:

"And it's terribly sad. You cannot - that's the only sad thing about age. You can't bring back the ones you really loved and that is why, little miss sunshine, when I have a fight with a friend, I never - two negatives. I never do not make up with them. I make up with them immediately if I care for them. I will not let a day go by. Life is too short these days. How about that for a nice serious stupid note?"

Aside from "Enter Talking", I have not read any of Joan Rivers' other books because I like biographies better than books that are supposed to be funny.

I think we are lucky to still have Ms. Rivers keeping us entertained.  If you're interested in adding something interesting to your Netflix queue, consider adding the documentary about Joan Rivers called "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" to your queue.  She discussed that in a 2010 NPR interview with Terri Gross just about 2 years earlier, which you can listen to below, or by visiting http://n.pr/WxdCCt:

The documentary was also covered by The New York Times at http://nyti.ms/XTfHWM.  In the 2010 interview with NPR about that documentary, Ms. Rivers also comments about how her old age has made her much more fearless.  She says:

"I am so much freer now because I always say: What are you going to do? Are you going to fire me? Been fired. Going to be bankrupt? Been bankrupt. Some people aren't going to talk to me? Happened. Banned from networks? Happened. So I can say anything I want, and it has freed me totally, totally. And I talk much more freely now than I ever dared to talk before."

Much like TV legend Betty White, time does tend to make people more willing to say and do things they wouldn't when they were young because now, they really have nothing left to lose.  They've been through it all.  Joan Rivers is proof of that.

Author P.S., September 4, 2014:  Joan Rivers, the irreverent comedian known for her sharp wit and sharper tongue, died on Thursday, September 4, 2014 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan at age 81.  News had surfaced that she was taken to Mount Sinai a week ago after reportedly losing consciousness while undergoing a procedure on her vocal cords at a doctor's office on the Upper East Side.  Doctors at the hospital placed her in a medically-induced coma.  She remained unconscious in the hospital for nearly a week, but had been moved from intensive care to a private room prior to her death.  Read her obituary at  http://nyti.ms/1t4YFVc and a New York Times blog posting about her, including some video clips, at http://nyti.ms/1ptU0bV.

1 comment:

shle896 said...

What's so astounding to me is that these cool old videos of Joan Rivers, and it makes the fact that, if anything, Joan has a career even bigger than she did the 70's and 80's. She helps me when I wonder how I'll be one day at her age. Watching Joan gives me hope. She's pushing 80 and is STILL one of the edgiest comedians around today.