We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedyby Yael Kohen
No matter how many times female comedians buck the conventional wisdom, people continue to ask: "Are women funny?" The question has been nagging at women off and on (mostly on) for the past sixty years. It's incendiary, much discussed, and, as proven in Yael Kohen's fascinating oral history, totally wrongheaded.
In We Killed, Kohen pieces together the/i>/p>
No matter how many times female comedians buck the conventional wisdom, people continue to ask: "Are women funny?" The question has been nagging at women off and on (mostly on) for the past sixty years. It's incendiary, much discussed, and, as proven in Yael Kohen's fascinating oral history, totally wrongheaded.
In We Killed, Kohen pieces together the revolution that happened to (and by) women in American comedy, gathering the country's most prominent comediennes and the writers, producers, nightclub owners, and colleagues who revolved around them. She starts in the 1950s, when comic success meant ridiculing and desexualizing yourself; when Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller emerged as America's favorite frustrated ladies; when the joke was always on them. Kohen brings us into the sixties and seventies, when the appearance of smart, edgy comedians (Elaine May, Lily Tomlin) and the women's movement brought a new wave of radicals: the women of SNL, tough-ass stand-ups, and a more independent breed on TV (Mary Tyler Moore and her sisters). There were battles to fight and preconceptions to shake before we could arrive in a world in which women like Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, and Tina Fey can be smart, attractive, sexually confident—and, most of all, flat-out funny.
As the more than 150 people interviewed for this riveting oral history make clear, women have always been funny. It's just that every success has been called an exception and every failure an example of the rule. And as each generation of women has developed its own style of comedy, the coups of the previous era are washed away and a new set of challenges arises. But the result is the same: They kill. A chorus of creative voices and hilarious storytelling, We Killed is essential cultural and social history, and—as it should be!—great entertainment.
“We Killed shines in its details and its anecdotes....Well crafted and entertaining.” The Boston Globe
“An anecdotal history of the women who crack us up and push boundaries [told] by the trailblazers themselves....You'll learn as much as you laugh.” Cameron Diaz
“A comprehensive oral history...Part show business chronicle and part unabashed (read: drugs, digs, and dirt) confessional, We Killed [is] further proof that women, and the men who heed their talent, will have the last laugh.” Elle
“Comics of all levels of celebrity and vintage, as well as club owners, producers, writers, agents, and network executives, carry the story...[and] there's a bracing dose of shoptalk that puts you right inside their wheelhouse....Satisfying.” The New York Times Book Review
“A remarkable history of women in comedy.” The Observer (London)
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Read an Excerpt
Mothers of Invention
Among the politically charged, foulmouthed, and confessional comics who revolutionized the entertainment establishment in the 1950s and early 1960s were two women who upended the image of the traditional comedienne: Phyllis Diller and Elaine May. In style and substance, neither woman had much to do with the other. Diller was a stand-up who built her act around seemingly trivial husband barbs and self-deprecating housewife jokes; May was an improvisational sketch artist who injected her vignettes with highbrow intellectualism and sharp, incisive observations about middle-class life. And yet, both women laid the groundwork for a new kind of female comic. Until Diller and May hit the New York nightclub scene in 1957, comediennes were expected to sing and dance. But that all changed. Diller—the prototypical female stand-up—proved that women could tell jokes “just like a man,” while May—the mother of sketch comedy—introduced the country to improv. While each woman practiced different comedic art forms, both set future generations of funny ladies on one of these two separate but equally important paths to comedy success. And rather than make their names on the vaudeville circuit like many of the best-known comediennes of the past, Diller and May shot to national prominence from a group of small clubs in New York that were slowly changing the face of entertainment.
SHELLY SCHULTZ, talent coordinator and writer, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson In New York at that time, you had the Copacabana, you had the Plaza Hotel, you had the Empire Room in the Waldorf, you had the Latin Quarter. And the Copacabana was the kind of place that had a line of dancing girls, it had an orchestra, and it had a big-name act and a supporting act and you could eat there. The Latin Quarter was more of a Las Vegas-y kind of thing, also had a line of girls, but they did more production. Barbara Walters’s father owned that: Lou Walters. And then the smaller clubs were the Bon Soir and the Blue Angel, and they had the hipper acts. And the Bon Soir and the Blue Angel were very similar. They were both small, they both sat maybe a hundred people, they both had little tiny tables and a cover charge of five, six, or seven dollars. Food was secondary: couldn’t get a meal there, really. People came to drink and watch the show. But you had some jazz clubs; you had piano bars. I mean, there was just tons of nightlife, just tons of nightlife. And in those days an agent would need to be out four or five nights a week or more.
JAN WALLMAN, manager, Upstairs at the Duplex I was from St. Paul, Minnesota. I was married very young and widowed very young at the end of World War II and I came to New York because I wanted to get away from everything out there and I just wanted to go out every night and hear the music. Somebody called me the walking Cue magazine, which was kind of the Time Out of its day. I could always tell you who was performing here, who was performing there. And there were loads and loads of small clubs and big clubs. People went until four in the morning and everybody was out having a good time.
PAUL DOOLEY, actor and comedian In the late fifties, I was acting and trying to break in as a comedian and I got this dream job, which, to most people, would just be a dumb job: I was helping seat people in a nightclub. But it was the famous Village Vanguard, which is still going in Greenwich Village. It’s a jazz room basically and my friends would say to me, “You mean for free you get to see Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie?” and on and on. And I said, “No, I don’t get to see them for free, I get to see Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, a guy named Professor Irwin Corey.” There were about half a dozen comics who played in that club with these jazz greats. They would open the show and do about thirty or forty minutes and then Charles Mingus or Thelonious Monk or whoever—they were all famous jazz people—would come on and do their thing for maybe an hour or so. But for me, this was a clinic where I could study all these comedians, and get paid $5 a night to do it.
VARIETY, January 18, 1956 “New York is becoming a city of small cafés and intimeries. The economics of night clubs are such that the postage-stamp sized rooms are a feasible development in the present era. Large rooms, it’s felt, have become victim of their own particular brand of economics. The public apparently cannot support more than three in the style to which the large spots have become accustomed. Many regard the present time as an era of shrinkage in niteries and therefore the small spots have a better chance of catching on.
“In the forefront of the small room development are the Blue Angel, Le Ruban Bleu and the Bon Soir, which are prosperous operations … The Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel also provided the push that helped many toward name status.
“Many regard the intimeries as a means of resuscitating the nitery biz …
“Many also feel they do better in a small room entertainment-wise, because of the informality of the proceedings and the absence of a regular show.”
MARSHALL BRICKMAN, writer Every generation that comes up likes to define itself by its own movies or its own music. With us it was with the movies and people like Woody Allen and Mort Sahl and Elaine and Mike. They weren’t cheesy Aqua-Velva-scented Vegas kind of cigar-chomping comedians. They were more sensitive, more aware, more cosmopolitan, more cultured, more intelligent. But oddly enough that didn’t limit their impact.
HOWARD STORM, comedian We didn’t want to be labeled a Borscht Belt comic, so we started working in the Village. We still did the Catskills in that period—those of us who were able to—because it was a way to make money. In the Village, you didn’t make any money. But the Bon Soir was the club to work in in the Village. It was considered fancy and high-class, kind of a step below the Blue Angel. The Blue Angel was the epitome of the chichi clubs.
JAN WALLMAN In 1959, this was a time when comedy was going through a change. And it was tough for the guys in that era, because the stand-up guys that had done pretty well had worked in the [Catskill] mountains, which were very active in those days. They told jokes basically and they had a hard time switching over to that first-person conversational kind of comedy. It wasn’t telling jokes. It was just being funny. It was a lot more cerebral, if you will, and much more intellectual.
PAUL DOOLEY The Blue Angel was one of these rooms in New York where these hard-core joke-telling guys would never play. The acts that played the Blue Angel were very discreet, intelligent, hip, and the audience, instead of being noisy and rude and drunk, would just stop and listen to them.
JAN WALLMAN The Blue Angel had panache; it had a European feel. When I was running the Upstairs at the Duplex I went to the Blue Angel at least every other week on my night off. If I went with another woman who was a friend of mine, they would pick up our check, they’d treat us like princesses. If we came with guys, if we had dates, they’d make them pay for it. I modeled what I was doing at the Duplex after the Blue Angel, which was my idea of the greatest place in the world. The Bon Soir was quite wonderful too. I hung out at those places before I had a thing of my own to do. But Herbert Jacoby of the Blue Angel was really my mentor and he used some of the acts that started with me. Mine was a room where people started and moved on.
LAUREN SACKIN, daughter of Nat Sackin, owner of the Bon Soir in the 1960s The Bon Soir was very dark and very small. When you went from West Eighth Street downstairs there was quite a steep set of stairs. It was how you would imagine a speakeasy to be. When you went down, there was a gentleman at a small podium, and I don’t know what he was there for—maybe he was a bouncer, maybe he was to greet important customers. When you walked in there was a very tiny stage in the front. It was very dark, very gently lit with candles on each table. And there was a little tiny bar in back, a very tiny bar, and that bar was completely gay. Gay men, totally. Straight men did not hang out at that bar, gay women did not hang out at that bar. It was exclusively gay men who hung out at the bar. The nightclub was predominantly straight, but the bar in the back was three or four gay men deep.
PHYLLIS DILLER, comedian We used to call them discovery clubs. There was a group of discovery clubs, small boîtes: Mr. Kelly’s, Bon Soir, Blue Angel, Purple Onion, the hungry i. They all had a gay bar. And it’s just where you could work more chicly. You could do some very, very esoteric stuff. And you’re working for about, oh, $1,500 a week. But you weren’t anybody till you worked the Copa, right? In those days the Copa was for the big boys: Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Jerry Lewis, Martin and Lewis. No female comic had ever played the Copa until this agency booked me for $3,000. You played for $3,000, then you’d get $5,000 for the next time you played, and then $7,000. That’s a three-play deal. I played the $3,000 and told them what they could do with five and seven. I went back to the Blue Angel for $2,000. I did it for my career; I was on the wrong course at the Copa. If I was doing it only for the money I would’ve played the three, five, and seven. But I was not right for that room. ’Cause the audiences were that bad! They were rag people: rag salesmen. They needed titties, and boobs, and dancing girls. They wanted male comics who were sort of Borscht Belt circuit-y; they just needed music and the girls. The gay guys, they were chic. That crowd, that Copa crowd, was un-chic. They didn’t care for smart material. If you want to be successful, you better stay with the gay crowd. Joan Rivers, to this day, just tells you that right out.
In her platinum fright wig and garish frock, waving a long-stemmed cigarette holder, Phyllis Diller hit the stage like a machine gun, shooting out joke after joke, every few lines punctuated with a blast of a cackle that was so infectious audiences keeled over in laughter. Diller was manic—and hilarious, a caricature of the prim 1950s housewife so idealized in Ike’s postwar America. Certainly, there were brilliantly funny women who preceded her, but Diller, unlike her predecessors, didn’t launch her career on the vaudeville stage but in the hot new clubs that were changing the face of comedy, emerging as the first female stand-up to garner mass, mainstream appeal. And while Diller’s humor was not intellectual in the manner of her contemporaries—her delivery was always the joke-joke-joke rhythm of Bob Hope—she rode the wave of desire for a new kind of act.
PHYLLIS DILLER I was a housewife with five children. And we reached the bottom. My husband, Sherwood Diller, said, “You’re gonna have to get a job.” And I immediately looked for a job and got it at a newspaper in Oakland, California. For five years, I was writing newspaper advertising, and if an advertiser would allow me, I would write a funny ad. That led to radio. But my husband kept nagging me and telling me I had to become a comic. It was his idea. He thought I was funny. And of course he was thinking of the money.
I met a guy, Lloyd Clark, who was coaching the writer and poet Maya Angelou for the Purple Onion nightclub. He was sitting next to me at a little bar where they had a jazz group, and I said, “I’ve been looking for someone to coach me.” Lloyd knew about demeanor onstage. And he knew about attitude. He’s the one that gave Maya that queenly, regal entrance. And he liked me. I was skinny (I only weighed about 110 pounds), and I was well-spoken, and he was glad to have a new client. So I started preparing for the audition. There was no such thing as an open mic but since he knew all the club owners in the North Beach [San Francisco] area, and they all knew him, he got me my own audition. And the whole time during my audition, which I did very seriously, all dressed up and everything, they were ordering Chinese food. I don’t think they heard it at all. So I did it, and they said, “Thank you.” And that was it. They had just hired a male stand-up comic by the name of Milt Kamen two weeks before and they didn’t have room for me. But when Milt was offered a two-week stint in radio he begged them to let him go to New York for two weeks. Since I had just had my audition, they called me on a Friday night and said, “Could you open Monday?” And I said, “Yes.” And in the two weeks that I worked, they watched me improve day by day by day. Milt got back, and I’d had two weeks onstage at the Purple Onion, which was as long as he’d worked there before he left. So they had to decide: Which one of these two, the man or the woman, were they gonna keep? They couldn’t decide, so they kept us both.
LORRAINE GORDON, wife of Max Gordon, nightclub owner Phyllis Diller played at the Blue Angel and she was a howl. She would come out from the wings with a leotard. Not great legs but a leotard anyway, and there was a big baby grand piano and they put the top down for her and she came out and she jumped and slid across the top of the piano and put her face and elbow like that and looked at the audience. It was such an entrance everybody broke up because she almost didn’t make the piano. She wound up on top of that baby grand. She was very funny about her husband, Fang. She made terrible fun of him. We didn’t believe it was a real husband, she just used that as a hook.
IRVIN ARTHUR, talent agent She was definitely a new personality in the field of comedy for women. She was funny, and she was likable. People could identify with her. I thought she was one of a kind and she was offbeat. When I booked her in the Bon Soir, I booked Phyllis with Barbra Streisand. And I think Phyllis was the headline, and Barbra opened for her. Phyllis gave Barbra tips on how to dress.
SANDY ARTHUR, talent agent And I must tell you that the first time that we saw Phyllis Diller at the Purple Onion she looked like she was wearing rags.
ARTHUR GELB writing in The New York Times, March 13, 1961 “Phyllis Diller, who is installed for a four-week run at the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village, is the leading member of that rare breed of nightclub entertainer—the female stand-up comic.
“Unlike the routines of such cabaret comediennes as Kaye Ballard, Dorothy Loudon or Jane Connell, who do what is known as ‘special bits’—funny songs, skits, satirical takeoffs and so forth—Miss Diller’s act consists of an hour or so of rapid-fire, out-and-out gags.
“The most taxing of all nightclub formulas, it is used by only two or three other women on the cabaret circuit; few have the tenacity to stick with it and develop into first-rate performers in demand across the country, as Miss Diller now is.
“Her patter, which she writes herself, combines the ingredients of a number of prominent male nightclub comics—part topical, part ‘sick,’ part blue (pale blue)—but the performer she most closely resembles in style is Bob Hope.”
PAUL DOOLEY Phyllis Diller was around at the same time that the change in comedy was happening, but she wasn’t part of that movement. She didn’t do that realistic, subtle Second City–influenced kind of throwaway humor. She always was and remains the person who got up and told jokes. She didn’t make observations—well, I can’t say it’s not observational, because she wrote jokes about her life. But she made up a husband and she was mostly self-deprecating. Phyllis Diller wasn’t subtle but she was new inasmuch as there weren’t that many female comics. I can see why they would want to put her in the Blue Angel just as a novelty. A person who had become a successful female comic—there weren’t that many around.
JAN WALLMAN Most of the women in comedy that I worked with in those days were singer-comediennes, who were in either a revue that I did or they had a one-woman show where they sang—like Jo Anne Worley or Ruth Buzzi. Most of the male comics I worked with were just pure stand-up, like Woody Allen, like Dick Cavett, like my favorite, Howard Storm, and Rodney Dangerfield.
PHYLLIS DILLER There’s the actress, the comedienne, and the comic. There’ve always been comic actresses in the movies but most of them couldn’t possibly, ever, do stand-up. Lucille Ball was mainly a comic actress. Carol Channing is a perfect example of [a] comedienne [because she could sing and dance]. But stand-up is the ultra-final funny. You don’t sing, you don’t dance, you talk. It’s just brain to brain.
SHELLY SCHULTZ Phyllis was very hip—very hip. She was fresh and new. She was not a Borscht Belt comedian. That’s not what Phyllis was. Phyllis Diller was more intimate—they use to call them intime. She played smaller rooms. She also came out of the [Purple Onion], which was a very hip club in San Francisco. She was never this kind of brassy broad that Totie Fields1 was. She didn’t get risqué but she did material that was off-center. She was a thinking person’s comedian. And she was so far from being Jewish. Phyllis Diller’s act didn’t have anything to do with a Jewish mother, or an Italian mother. She was totally American and WASP. There was no religion attached to it, none of that heritage. You could see why Bob Hope adopted her, because she was white bread.
GENE PERRET, writer Comedy at one time was Henny Youngman: “I haven’t spoken to my wife in two years—I didn’t want to interrupt … I wanted to buy a new car, my wife wanted a fur coat. So we compromised. We bought a fur coat and we keep it in the garage…” It’s that kind of stuff. It was mostly male-oriented and it had a kind of swagger to it. I think Phyllis opened that up. She said, I’m a woman, I’m home doing housework, I’m home taking care of the kids, and maybe my husband is not so great. She was doing jokes about her life. And she did good jokes about the husband: “He drank so much that one day, when he cut himself shaving, he bled so much his eyes cleared up.” That’s what the change was: We have a life of our own and it’s different from yours. A man does certain things and complains about certain things; a woman does other things and has her own complaints. But we’d never heard them before. And now we’re starting to hear them. Here was a woman complaining about a husband rather than a husband complaining about the woman or the mother-in-law and I think that was the big switch. We have a life too and it’s fun and it’s funny and we can make fun of ourselves and you, but from our side of the fence and not from yours. That was the big difference in comedy.
RICHARD LEWIS, comedian Her jokes really were an extension of many of the horrors in her real life. And the thing about her in particular—because I know her and I can speak about her—she’s incredibly brave about using humor to explore all her pain. She had an unbelievably dark past, particularly with men. And there’s a reason why she did a whole thing about Fang, because that represented the horrors that she had gone through as a woman.
BETTE MIDLER, comedienne It really was like someone who had been chained to an ironing board for years just said, “You know what? I’m too smart for this—let me out.” And I think that in the days that she was working, it was a real relief for people, especially other homemakers.
PHYLLIS DILLER When I first started, I didn’t know what I was. My coach was pointing me in a certain direction. He was gay and he was taking me to all these wonderful nightclubs to see all these female impersonators, drag queens. And he felt they were great actors—they probably were—but he was pointing me in a chichi direction. He wanted me to be chic. That’s what they were doing—they were trying to be chic women. They would do Bette Davis. They would do Tallulah Bankhead. He wrote some wonderful stuff for me. When I started, he had written a parody of “Monotonous” from 1952’s New Faces, and I did Eartha Kitt slithering and sliding all over the top of the piano in a black leotard—half cat, half snake. And I did a pretty good imitation of her voice. I can’t tell you what a great opener that was. But if I had continued that way, that would’ve prevented me from being a stand-up comic. When I started writing, I was going housewife, because I was going where the laughs were. I learned from the audience where they wanted me to take ’em. I’d work off the audience’s reaction: I see what’s getting laughs, I see what’s tickling them. They wanted me to talk about the kids at home: “How do you know they’re growing up? Well, the bite marks are higher … How do you go about looking younger? Rent younger children…” I took it down the suburban road, where most of the people lived.
HOWARD STORM She was not an attractive woman, and she had that weird wardrobe and that feather boa.
PHYLLIS DILLER It helps a stand-up comic to have something wrong—to either have buck teeth, no chin, weigh five hundred pounds, have funny hair, or be too skinny or too tall or too something. Like, for instance, a guy comes out and he weighs five hundred pounds, and he says, “I haven’t eaten in ten minutes,” something like that. To refer to oneself in a negative way is always a good way to say hello to an audience. So right away, you come out and kiss ass. And the reason I developed things like [wearing a bag dress] was because I had such a great figure. So I had to dress so that they couldn’t see any figure because I wanted to make jokes. I had ’em convinced that underneath whatever I was wearing, I was a skeleton, an ugly skeleton—and that’s what I wanted. My legs were really thin. Model thin. I stuck out what was thin and covered up what wasn’t, and everyone thought I was flat-chested.
SHELLEY BERMAN, comedian And she used to just knock me out with that terrible dirty laugh of hers.
ANNE MEARA, comedian I know where Phyllis’s big guffaw came from. That was a save in case the audience wasn’t laughing. But she didn’t have to worry that much, because the audience was usually laughing with her ninety-nine percent of the time.
GENE PERRET Phyllis Diller and Bob Hope are basically the same style of comedian. They do setup, joke; setup, joke. They never waste any time. Phyllis was adamant about that. You go out and you tell jokes. You don’t do other stuff—you don’t ask how you doing or where you from. You just tell jokes. And Phyllis, like myself, idolized Bob Hope. He was the ultimate as far as jokes go. From our point of view, he had funny jokes and they were good on paper. Certainly the delivery added to it, same as with Phyllis—she adds that laugh to those jokes and she can pull laughter from the audience. So she respected him and felt, “This is a guy I can learn from.” So he was a mentor, in that sense. And he was encouraging to her.
GEORGE SCHLATTER, creator and producer, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In What we don’t realize with Phyllis is not only the enormity of the talent, but also the vast skills that she had. She understood the joke. There is a science to joke telling. You have to have the attention of the audience, you have to have the intellectual as well as physical participation of the audience, and you must have an audible indication of their acceptance of you, and if you don’t hear that every ten seconds, you’re dying. Singers need applause once every three minutes; comics need to hear you love them every ten seconds. The joke is like a little play. It has three parts—a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has to have a story, it has to have a rhythm, it has to have construction. And what makes you laugh has to be at the end of the sentence. That’s the same for men and women. For Phyllis, each joke had a plot, had a cast, had characters, had a beginning, a middle, and an end. You knew Fang.
PHYLLIS DILLER Wrong! A joke has two parts—setup, payoff. Forget this bullshit in the middle. The quicker you get to the payoff, the better. My idea is edit. If one word can do the work of five, now you’re talking. And there are other rules. The joke ends, preferably, on an explosive consonant—like cut. Certain numbers work in certain places when you’re writing a joke. You’ll have to find just the right number—whether it’s eight or eleven. Every word. No one realizes what a science it is. Of course, by now it’s second nature.
SHELLY SCHULTZ She was able to put her evening together with a bunch of jokes. If six worked and the seventh didn’t, it didn’t bother her; she went on and did five more. She was a machine and she was just superb. A craftsman, a real craftsman.
PAULA POUNDSTONE, comedian The thing about Phyllis Diller is that she’s like a windup toy. I was on a bill with her years ago, and she’d go out, she’d tell her joke, and it wasn’t even a particularly funny joke, and it wouldn’t go very far. And then she’d tell another one. And it was sort of the same thing—people kind of chuckled mildly. And then she’d tell another one, and it would just go and go and go and go. Eventually, what became funny was the fact that she is a bulldog and just wouldn’t stop. And eventually you’re laughing in spite of yourself. And it’s not that they’re all uninspired, unfunny jokes—they’re not; many of them are very funny. But it doesn’t matter when she’s telling it. It doesn’t matter if it’s funny or not funny. It’s Phyllis Diller telling it. And eventually you break down.
In the late fifties, Elaine May established herself as an outré new voice in comedy. She was whip-smart and sexy; her sense of humor tended toward verboten aspects of modern life. She and Mike Nichols, performing as Nichols and May, emerged as national stars in 1959. Their dynamic was sharp, neurotic, and unabashedly intellectual, marking a strong departure from the era’s other major duos. They developed highly improvisational sketches that poked fun at middle-class mores. Their subjects, like adultery and psychoanalysis, had been deemed unfit for mass consumption by previous generations. But along with Mort Sahl and a handful of other contemporaries, Nichols and May were improvising their way to broader horizons—and audiences, in ever larger numbers, were listening.
PAUL DOOLEY The influx of Nichols and May and comedians like Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart brought into the comedy world people who were primarily actors—not joke tellers, not comedians per se—and it became so popular it began to change comedy. A Milton Berle or an Alan King would sort of be acting like funny people rather than doing scenes. With the new group, a kind of realism entered into comedy. Just telling jokes was no longer the only way to do comedy.
MARSHALL BRICKMAN Their act wasn’t jokey. There were no jokes that could be taken out of context and then repeated at a dinner party.
TREVA SILVERMAN, writer To me, Nichols and May personified the new way of thinking. It was a breath of fresh air. Elaine was hysterically funny and brilliant, and besides that, a real beauty. That was a revelation to me. She didn’t put herself down, she didn’t do self-deprecating humor like Phyllis Diller and the others. She didn’t strain to make a lack of self-esteem seem funny—she was light-years away from anything like that. She did characters. Fully developed characters who might be intellectual, or silly, or gorgeous, or whatever was called for. And they were people who were really talking like people talked. It was a whole different head trip. And it was really the beginning of the changeover of comedy.
TIME magazine, June 2, 1958 “The fastest-sharpening wits in television belong to dark, disheveled Elaine May and blond, carefully tailored Mike Nichols, both twenty-six, whose dry dialogues are as lethal as cold gin on a hot day.
“‘It’s not what they do,’ says Milton Berle, who caught their nightclub act ‘sixty or more times’ in Manhattan. ‘It’s how they do it, and they always do it different.’”
PHYLLIS DILLER I thought they were absolutely sensational. Sensational. They were totally different than all comics. It was really deeper and very gentle humor. No slam bang thank you ma’am. None of that. It was just really subtle and gentle and based on things that were really highbrow. Like the rocket scientist whose mother wants to know why her son doesn’t call. And, of course, there was a Jewish slant to their humor because they were both Jewish.
TREVA SILVERMAN In the movies and plays that I was raised on, a lot of times there was the star, who was beautiful, and then there was her best friend, who was funny. It was kind of divided up like that. Rarely were both characteristics embodied in the lead actress, as if being funny was okay as long as it was relegated to the second banana. Kind of an afterthought. So here on the landscape comes this gifted comedian-actress who is both dazzlingly attractive and stunningly hilarious. Wow! My world turned upside down.
MARSHALL BRICKMAN What was interesting is that Nichols and May came out of a political theater in Chicago. And they made assumptions about the range of knowledge and interest of the audience that were totally fresh and different from the set of assumptions that traditional comedians made. And of course that assumption worked to select out their audience from the general population, but it turned out to be a much bigger audience than you might have guessed. So they would do improvisations where they’d say, “Give us an author,” and somebody would say, “Jane Austen.” “All right, give us another author.” “Uh, Friedrich Nietzsche.” And then, “Give us a premise.” You know, “Guy comes home and finds his wife in bed with somebody else.” So a lot of their stuff carried the assumption that higher culture was fair game for humor in a popular art form. It was very audacious.
To fully grasp the shift that was taking place in New York comedy, one must understand the 1950s Chicago theater company the Compass Players, from which the art of improvisation and Nichols and May first developed. The Compass Players was a theater group primarily made up of University of Chicago alums. It was founded by David Shepherd, a Harvard-educated East Coast intellectual who dreamed of establishing a new kind of theater in Chicago, the middle of America. Unlike New York’s theater scene, which he felt was overly influenced by European traditions and dependent on the works of dead English and French playwrights, this one would spring out of American culture and be geared toward the American working class. Ironically, though, Shepherd drew inspiration from the commedia dell’arte troupes who toured the towns of Renaissance Italy performing scriptless shows. Commedia troupes often injected their scenario plays with popular references, and they were often satirical. Shepherd’s vision was to present loosely scripted, theme-based “scenario” pieces in which key events were planned but the dialogue was spontaneous. The theater wasn’t supposed to be funny, but it was supposed to be accessible to all audiences, blue- and white-collar alike.
When Shepherd arrived in Chicago, he fell in with Paul Sills, a young director at the University of Chicago whose mother, Viola Spolin, had developed improvisational games while working at Hull House in the mid-1920s. The games were devised to teach people to drop their inhibitions onstage by focusing their attention on their partners rather than “performing.” These games proved to be a perfect tool to help Shepherd realize his idea, at least in part.
The Compass made its debut on July 5, 1955. When the theater closed two years later, Nichols and May made their way to New York, while the handful of Compass members who stayed behind went on to create the famed Second City, an eventual launching pad for sketch comedy greats.
DAVID SHEPHERD, founder, the Compass Players I went to Chicago because I thought that the Midwest had more vitality than the East Coast. I felt that the East Coast was dominated by European formats. Cabaret in New York City might have a German groove to it or be based on what was going on in the Catskills. I was not interested in the Catskills. I was interested in mainstream Chicago culture. I also wanted to do a cabaret theater that would contradict the three-act play, so I joined this group of people who were surrounding Paul Sills and Charlie Jacobs. They wanted to do repertory theater, so I said, “Okay, we’ll do repertory theater.” And I did it for three years with them. I put a lot of money in it and then when it collapsed, I took the people I’d gotten to know well down to the South Side, near the university, and we did the cabaret theater that I’d wanted to do.
BARBARA HARRIS, member of the Compass Players and Second City David Shepherd took a bunch of us aside and discussed what he called a “working-class theater,” where his idea was to go into different neighborhoods where nobody was interested in theater or Shakespeare, and go into bars, set up a stage, and do improvisational-type performances with a scenario of what we felt people who frequented bars and such would catch on to. And we would get to know the neighborhood and what the sociology of the neighborhood was and then do scenes and pack seven acts—however brief—of what he and everyone thought would enlighten the people of the neighborhood. The scenes weren’t even supposed to be funny.
DAVID SHEPHERD It had nothing to do with comedy at all. We were not interested in comedy. We were interested in erasing the three-act play and the institution that goes with it, what we considered to be very stilted constructions and stilted characterizations. The scenarios had very funny twists in them because in all life there is both comedy and tragedy. So we were taking from life to improvise on the stage.
BARBARA HARRIS But we couldn’t really stick with that premise because most of the people in the audience were in fact intellectuals from the University of Chicago. I don’t know how we managed to do it, but we found a space that connected to a bar that was frequented by all the University of Chicago people. And they would come into our room—where we were funny or not funny—trying to do this thing that everybody seems to do so easily now, which is to create scenes that are funny.
SHELLEY BERMAN As improvisationists, we were confined to play as much to our lives as we could. We could only draw from our own experiences, or from the experiences of others, and by relating to the other person. We were trying to live a life in each moment.
BARBARA HARRIS Actors didn’t have to act. They had to know what they were talking about. We had a very nervous lawyer there: we put him onstage—he had never acted—so he talked about how to catch a tax evader or how to evade your taxes. We had something called “living chess” and then we had two of the best chess players from University of Chicago play a one-second chess game onstage. Then the lights would come on. And people were laughing.
DAVID SHEPHERD [During the early days of the Compass Players] our format was based in stories, and Elaine May, who had come by way of California and was close to Paul Sills, had dozens of stories. And they were not the normal funny stuff about a normal life. She wrote a very strong piece called “Georgina’s First Date.” That tracked the desire of a mother to get her chubby daughter into the social set, which she did. I think the daughter was raped in the process. It’s not totally clear. But that was a strong scenario. So she did one after another. There was another scenario called “The Real You,” which was about a new form of human potential training that she wanted to satirize. And she did it by showing several people answering a radio ad for it and going to the workshops, which were run by a guy name Bob Coughlan from the University of Chicago, and then going back home and practicing what they had learned and completely wrecking their lives—one after another. It was a very cynical scenario but it was strong and it was successful.
SHELDON PATINKIN, former manager and director, Second City The material was always reflective of the audience. And the University of Chicago audience, which would become the Second City audience as well, already had their degrees. They were doctors, lawyers, many many psychiatrists and analysts. They were wealthy, upper-middle-class, and well educated. And over time, the Compass morphed to the format that is still the basic Second City format—a two-act revue of material that is set. The set piece often came from audience suggestions during the previous show, but the show was set. And then there were usually one or two pieces done on the spot in each show. And there still are.
JOAN RIVERS, comedian Second City defined intelligent comedy at that time. It was very snobby. Half of them were University of Chicago graduates and if you know anything about the University of Chicago, you know they look down on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
SHELLEY BERMAN This style that came out of the Compass Players had not been a style before. Whatever that style was—it had not been a style before.
Even from her earliest days at the Compass, Elaine May stood out as a particularly expert writer and improvisationist. And when Nichols and May arrived in New York in late 1957 with an act, their rise to national prominence was quick. By January 1958, three months after they rolled into town, Nichols and May appeared on the television show Omnibus and shot to stardom.
LORRAINE GORDON They opened at the Village Vanguard. They were brought in one night by their agent. They had never played anywhere except in the Midwest. I was in that room, standing in front of the red velvet curtain. The place was packed with people. Nichols and May got up on the stage. They were auditioning live. They had never been there. Well, Max, my husband, he came up to me and said, “Please don’t laugh so loud. The agent is in the room and the price is going to go up.” I buckled my mouth.
PAUL DOOLEY I saw Nichols and May open their show down at the Vanguard and they were such a hit that within a week or two they were taken uptown to the Blue Angel. That’s where Mike and Elaine started getting national recognition. Then they did the Tonight Show, they did some Sunday afternoon shows, and pretty soon they did a two-person show on Broadway, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.
BERNARD SAHLINS, cofounder, Second City I think everyone was skilled in entertaining the bourgeoisie but she was a tremendous actress. I think it’s often forgotten that to succeed, that kind of comedy requires acting talent. It isn’t a matter of punch lines, gags, but it’s personifying the targets.
MARSHALL BRICKMAN She had the ability to inhabit a character, a situation, and bring endless inventive changes on it so that if you set up a situation for her, whatever it might be, she could keep going for an hour or a day. And actually if you listen to the albums you see that it’s Mike who is shaping it a little bit and bringing it to a conclusion. She was an endless fountain of invention and insight, a lot of which, I suspect, is not by design, it’s just intuitive. She had some path between her various levels of unconsciousness. She was a great, great actor—but she was not only acting but writing at the same time.
The screen is split: on the right is Mike Nichols, blond and baby-faced; on the left is Elaine May, in dark-rimmed glasses and a classic housewife apron. They hold telephones to their ears.
“Hello, Arthur? This is your mother. Do you remember me?” May says, aggrieved and long-suffering.
“Mom, I was just going to call you. Isn’t that a funny thing? You know that I had my hand on the phone—”
“You were supposed to call me last Friday…”
They haggle over why the son failed to call his mother on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday …
“Mother, I was sending up a rocket! I didn’t have a second!”
“Well, it’s always something, isn’t it? You know, Arthur, I’m sure that all the other scientists there have mothers. And I’m sure that they all find time after their breakfast, or before their countoff—”
“—to pick up the phone and call their mothers … And you know how I worry. I read in the paper that you’re still losing them [rockets]—”
“Mother, mother, I don’t lose them—”
“—I nearly went out of my mind. I thought, ‘What if they’re taking it out of his pay?’…”
Arthur tries to change the subject, so he asks his mother how she is.
“Nothing … Well, you know what it is, Arthur, it’s the same thing it’s always been. It’s my nerves. And I went to the doctor and he tells me, he said, ‘Listen, Mrs. White, you are a very nervous, very high-strung woman—’”
“God knows that’s true.”
“‘And you cannot stand the slightest aggravation.’ I said, ‘Doctor, I know that, I do I know that.’ You know I do, I know that. I said, ‘But you see, Doctor, I have this son. And he’s very busy—and it’s the truth, he is, he’s busy.’ I said, ‘You see, Doctor, he’s too busy to pick up the phone and call his mother.’ Arthur, when I said that to him, that man turned pale. He said, ‘Mrs. White, I have been a doctor for thirty-five years, and I’ve never heard of a son too busy to call his mother.’ That’s just what he said to me, Arthur. And that man is a doctor.”
May continues to torture her son with guilt. She tells him she’s going to be in the hospital for a while—so they can “X-ray my nerves.” She fusses over a hangnail he had recently. He tells her not to worry.
“Arthur, I’m a mother … Someday, honey, you’ll get married, and you’ll have children of your own. And, honey, when you do, I only pray that they make you suffer the way you’re making me suffer. That’s all I pray, Arthur. That’s a mother’s prayer.”
Head in hand, the rocket scientist gives up. “Okay, Mom, thanks for calling.”
“You’re very sarcastic … I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I bothered you when you were so busy. Believe me, I won’t be around to bother you much longer. And listen, I hope I didn’t make you feel bad.”
“Are you kidding? I feel awful!”
“Oh, honey,” May says, in controlled (and controlling) triumph. “If I could believe that, I’d be the happiest mother in the world.”
MARILYN SUZANNE MILLER, writer I heard a recording of them, improv-ing the scenes that became the sketches. And it felt to me, when I was listening to some of this stuff, that Elaine was taking the lead in creating the setups for Mike to follow. When I heard that, I couldn’t believe it. She had something in mind, she had a place to go that he didn’t know, and she would lead him there and then he’d figure it out. Boy, she was absolutely my idol. I couldn’t imagine anything more desirable than to do whatever it was that she was doing.
ROBIN WILLIAMS, comedian2 Elaine would throw out the idea. She’d say, “Okay, let’s try this.” And Mike would literally say, “Okay, that works. That works. That works. That doesn’t.” And really kind of shape it. Sometimes he’d really cut away, and sometimes he’d say, “I need a little more there,” and it was wonderful. But he would just tell her, she would bring it in, and most of the times it was great, and when it wasn’t, he would just say, “Let’s lose that.” You know, he would kind of look at it, he wouldn’t have to say much, he would just raise an eyebrow and go, “Okay, cut.” Sometimes she would know before he would even say it. And it was great to see that she was available to do that with him. I think they had that shorthand as performers.
DAVID SHEPHERD When we were at the Compass, if she saw that you didn’t make any sense, she’d tell you right out: “You’re not making any sense; you’re being sentimental.” I don’t know where she got this tendency, but I remember being wilted by her comments sometimes. And I was supposed to be the producer of this new group. She didn’t give a shit. She’d tell me what she thought.
PAUL DOOLEY I used to hear bad press on her. Like, she’s very tough. Men who would work with her think of her as tough. I wanted to work with her but I thought if she didn’t like what you were doing she would be a bitch on wheels. But [years later, when I got to work with her], I didn’t find that at all. She wrote a play called Adaptation. We rehearsed it four weeks, then it was dropped; about six months later it was revived and we did it in Greenwich Village. We rehearsed again for three or four weeks and it played for four or five months and in all that time I never saw her be anything but terrific with the actors. I thought she was a total sweetheart. She was helpful and informative and helped us find ways to make things funnier. So I don’t know what people are talking about.
LOUISE LASSER, comedian I revered her as a person. I wouldn’t say we were close as best friends, but I knew her over the years and I revered her. I thought she was so hip. And she would smoke cigars. Her husband was a psychiatrist and she was married a few times before and broke everybody’s heart. I thought that was great! A total heartbreaker.
PAUL DOOLEY She doesn’t like to be interviewed. She doesn’t like publicity. She doesn’t like all that stuff. I remember The New York Times wanted to interview her. She says, “I’ll do this but you have to let me interview myself!” So she wrote an interview where she did the questions and she did the answers. And she wrote, “What’s most important to you as an actress?” And she says, “Good grooming.” And it was hilarious, because she’s the last person in the world who cares about good grooming. When I worked with her on our play, every day she wore the same thing: a sailor’s peacoat. And she was so concentrated on what she was talking about that when she would smoke, the cigarette in her mouth would grow a very long ash and then as she would talk the ashes would fall off on her jacket. But she was so concentrated on what she was thinking and saying that she paid no attention to the ashes on her clothing. So when she said in the interview “Good grooming,” I thought, “Boy, that’s funny.” She doesn’t care anything about that. The actors used to go out for lunch and they’d say, “Elaine, come on, let’s go to lunch. You want to go out to lunch with us?” And she’d say, “I have to talk to the lighting man.” “What can we bring you?” And she’d say, “Bring me a Ding Dong or a Yodel.” It was always some little dinky lunch. A little cheap cake. Not even a nice dessert—just something you’d buy at the candy store. “Bring me a soda, a Dr Pepper.” She just didn’t care about the things most people care about.
And she’s not a person who cares so much about fame. Elaine has doctored a lot of stuff. She worked on Reds uncredited for Warren Beatty. She worked on Tootsie. A lot of them—because she’s uncredited, we don’t know about them all.
MERRILL MARKOE, writer and co-creator, Late Night with David Letterman I watched the movie A New Leaf [written, directed by, and starring May] three times in a row once, just marveling at how well she milks comedy out of her own behavior. For example, there is a scene where she can’t get into a one-shouldered Roman toga, and another one where she is trying to apply eyeliner and can’t see well enough without her glasses so she keeps holding her glasses in front of the mirror to try to see her eye. I kept thinking to myself, Why was she not as big a comedic actor as, say, Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler? And the question remains to this day. I think the unfortunate answer is that women just don’t get as far being hilarious as men do. Period.
By the 1960s, the influence of Nichols and May, and improvisational contemporaries like Shelley Berman, had infiltrated the stand-up crowd, among them Woody Allen, a comic who was becoming best known for the way he blurred the line between his onstage persona and the real person. The comic wasn’t just telling jokes; he was airing his dirty laundry. The first woman to join the new confessional wave was Joan Rivers, a Barnard-educated self-declared Jewish princess from Larchmont, New York. When Rivers first took the stage in the mid-1960s in Greenwich Village, she wasn’t the caustic celebrity insult comic that we know so well today. Instead, Rivers, dressed in her little black dress and pearls, presented herself as the pathetic single girl who couldn’t fulfill her mother’s dream: to nab a husband. Like Allen, she shared personal thoughts and stories in front of a live audience. But in style, she seemed to teeter between the worlds of Diller and May, filling her act with a series of self-deprecating jokes but delivering them attractively dressed and in the fresh, new, breakthrough talk style.
JOAN RIVERS I wanted to be an actress. And when I would make the rounds to the agents, I would always make the secretaries laugh so they’d remind the agent about me. Then someone said, “You can make a little money, you’re funny. A friend of mine is a stand-up, they make $8 a night. You should go down and be a stand-up.” And I thought, “How great, I can do that at night and make the rounds during the day.” And that’s how I started in comedy.
In those days you used to make the rounds on foot. The B&G was one of those little coffee shops you’d always hang out at between appointments, talking to other comedians, and there was a telephone there, so you could use the phone, and you got to know the people in the business, and you could hear tips—“Oh, this one’s looking for this,” and “This one is a good Catskill agent.” But in the beginning, when [bookers] sent you out, they sent you to these horrible places. They didn’t know you and you didn’t know who the hell you were, and you worked wherever they needed somebody. I worked the Catskill Mountains, which was a nightmare because they surely didn’t get me. And I was doing stolen material at that point and it wasn’t working.
It was just years of trying to find yourself. You worked on your material, you tried things, and you would get all excited: “Oh, I’m going to try this,” and then you’d do it and half the time it didn’t work. And it was very competitive even at the lowest level. It was a struggle and it was total rejection. And for every audience that did like you, there’d be six shows where they just didn’t.
IRVIN ARTHUR I was never a fan of her performance. I’m still not. But I liked her and I would go downtown to see what she was like. I was quite frank with her. I said, “You are [in] poor taste and I wouldn’t know what to do.” But there was no doubt that she was determined. She had such a determination to make good. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone with the flair she had and the fire in her belly to fight to become something. I think she would have killed somebody to make it.
JOAN RIVERS It was all about a place in Greenwich Village called the Duplex. That’s where I started, and Woody started, and Dick Cavett started, and Linda Lavin started, and Bill Cosby. It was a little dumpy place, upstairs, on Bleecker Street. It had a little bar along the left-hand side of the room. And there was no dressing room. There were four performers on the bill and we just stood outside in the hallway and waited.
JAN WALLMAN Joan sang in her act in the beginning. Or it was her opinion that she sang. In my opinion, she was not a singer, and as soon as I could, I disabused her of that notion and took the piano player away from her. But she was doing some singing comedy in a coffeehouse on Bleecker Street and this guy named Bob Waxman was playing there. And he brought her to me along with a couple of guys who had a song-and-dance-man kind of act that I worked with and he said he thought she was really a funny lady. She had to audition for me—nobody went on my stage that didn’t audition for me—and Bob played for her and she sang a song written by a guy I knew named Ronnie Ax called “I’ll Never Forget What’s His Name.” At that time, I had three acts on a bill and I’d usually start with musical comedy or a boy singer, then have stand-up comedy in the middle, and a strong girl singer to close. And at first I wouldn’t hold Joan the whole three acts, I’d hold her over one or two or none, changing every few weeks. And then I brought in John Wallowitch, who later became a famous songwriter, and I told Joan he has to play intermission piano and he has to play for two other acts and if you want the stand-up spot in the middle you have to stop singing and just talk.
HOWARD STORM Jan allowed you to fail. And that was the beauty of it. Rodney Dangerfield decided to try to make a comeback and the way he did it was in the Duplex. He got up there every night. That was the thing that was so great. You got up and you tried anything you wanted to try. I remember I would take the subway downtown, and while on the subway I would start to write a piece of material, something I saw, something that someone did, and I’d get up and talk about it. And that’s what Joan did.
IRVIN ARTHUR Joan Rivers was my secretary. We had an office on Seventh Avenue and at night she would be doing stand-up down in the Village at the Bitter End or at a place called Upstairs at the Duplex. What was funny is, people would call me, people who were well known and who she thought could help her, and she would do her act on the phone before she would turn the phone over to me. Like, I was doing work for Woody Allen, trying to get Woody Allen some stand-up jobs, and Jack Rollins [the legendary comedy manager] would call, and she’d tell him her name and do a monologue on the phone. And then she would tell me, “Jack Rollins is calling.” And he would say, “Who’s this dame? All I want to ask is, are you going to go down to the club tonight?”
In 1961, Rivers joined Chicago’s Second City, which had been started two years earlier by Compass Players alumni. She was replacing Barbara Harris. While Rivers’s stint at Second City was brief—she was, at heart, a solo act—the experience was fundamental to her development as a stand-up.
JOAN RIVERS Second City was very frustrating because I really couldn’t do what I wanted to do, and while I was there, I would work at night afterward as a single. But being at Second City gave me enough confidence to really go off on my own. It all gelled there. And it was great in Chicago. But smart little kid that I was, I said, “This is wonderful, I’m going back to New York.”
CHARLES L. MEE, JR., in The New York Times, October 31, 1965 “Though Miss Rivers does not consider herself a ‘product’ of Second City, the experience counted crucially. She learned to rely on improvisation, to turn autobiography into comedy. And with that she joined the ranks of the New Comedians, for if Joan Rivers is a new talent, alone and apart, she is also a prime example of what is new in comedy.
“The style is conversational, suited to television ‘talk’ programs. It may take the form of Bill Cosby’s colloquial stories or Woody Allen’s self-analysis or Mort Sahl’s intellectual nervosities. But it is not Jack Benny. Benny may be a tightwad onstage and a philanthropist off. Not so with the new comedians. They write their own jokes and are expected to live them offstage as well as on.”
MARSHALL BRICKMAN The thing about those days was that the comedy became much more personal. I was in a folk-singing group in those days, and when I first saw Woody, when he was our opening act, he was talking about his analyst and his wife and sexual problems and things like that. It was very startling to hear somebody actually get up and sort of reveal themselves.
FRED WEINTRAUB, former owner, the Bitter End Joanie, basically, was a girl who hung around the club, watching Woody a lot. She was just full of all that energy, which she still has today. There were three Jewish girls in the back room; sometimes they’d sit around talking. There was Carly Simon, Naomi Cohen—who became Cass Elliot—and Joan Rivers. And I always wondered what their mothers thought of them, the three of them just sitting in the back there.
EUGENE BOE, in Cue magazine, March 2, 1963 “Joan ‘Second City’ Rivers … is a very funny femme in search of an act. Her unmeasured monologue contains some of the sharpest, smartest talk to proceed out of the mouth of a babe since Elaine May. Female comics are usually horrors who de-sex themselves for a laugh. But Miss R. remains visibly—and unalterably—a girl throughout her stream-of-consciousness script.”
TREVA SILVERMAN What made her so different was, first of all, she was young and pretty attractive. Her whole thing is “Nobody wants me.” But she was really an attractive woman and pretty adorable. Her early stuff was quite attitudinal and quite personal. What she’s doing now isn’t so much about her as her opinions. Then it was more about her.
JOAN RIVERS I was talking about having an affair with a married professor and that wasn’t a thing a nice Jewish girl talked about. And I was talking about my mother, desperate to get my sister and me married. I was talking about my gay friend Mr. Phyllis, and you just didn’t talk about that. It sounds so tame and silly now but my act spoke to women who weren’t able to talk about things. How nice it was to have a girl that’s fairly attractive stand up and say, “My mother wants me to get married but I don’t want to,” or “I hated this date.” And when I heard Lenny Bruce I suddenly realized, I’m absolutely on the right track here. I had seen Lenny Bruce very early on when I was on a date. He just was talking about the truth: he wasn’t doing mother-in-law jokes, because he didn’t have a mother-in-law. He was talking from his life experiences. I thought to myself, “My God, he’s doing what I’m doing.” I was talking about things that were really true.
JAN WALLMAN She was an instant success at the Duplex. And her act was rough and it was raw. When I say raw I don’t mean bad taste. It wasn’t refined. She was single and she was talking about her own life and it was highly personal. But she was the hardest-working act I’ve ever worked with. She wasn’t a drinker. She wasn’t a chaser-arounder. She was focused on what she was doing. She worked with a real tape recorder, a great big thing that she had to carry in and set up in the club. And she’d tape the show every night and worked on it the next day, and the next night it was sharper and better and different.
HOWARD STORM Jan was very nurturing. And I would say that sixty to seventy percent of the audience was gay. And they were great audiences and it was a great place to work. And as you went on, you got braver and braver.
JOAN RIVERS I wouldn’t be here without the gay audience, absolutely wouldn’t be here. They were the ones that laughed and encouraged and thought you were wonderful and therefore gave you the impetus to move on, and go, “Ooh, if they liked that, let me try this.”
PATRICIA BRADFORD, talent coordinator, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson She wore a little black dress primarily. She didn’t try to look like a comedian. Phyllis Diller was taking the I’ll-look-strange kind of road and Joan always tried to look attractive, which was unusual. Up until then women comedians were kind of dependent on looking funny and Joan really didn’t. Although she did do a lot of her act about not being able to get a date, not finding a man. Of course, when she got married she went into bad-marriage jokes.
PHYLLIS DILLER I always was very careful to keep it separate: there was a husband Sherwood Diller and there was Phyllis Diller’s Fang. But Joan talked about a real husband: Edgah.
JOAN RIVERS One of us always had an agent who was bringing somebody from the Tonight Show down to the Duplex since the Tonight Show was always looking for young, unknown comedians to introduce. So someone from the Tonight Show saw me at the Duplex and then brought me up for eight different auditions. But they never booked me. Finally Bill Cosby got on the Tonight Show—he was really white-hot at that moment—and the comedian they had on the show with him bombed. And Bill said to them, “You might as well use Joan Rivers, she can’t be worse than who you had on tonight.” And they put me on.
SHELLY SCHULTZ Let me say something about Joan Rivers. Joan rewrites history as she remembers it from time to time. Many performers do. She wrote a memoir some years ago and I was in it and I read the story and it had nothing to do with what happened. She did not audition eight times. There is no way she could have auditioned eight times and missed me. Impossible. I’m telling you impossible. Now, let me tell you this story. She had a manager by the name of Roy Silver. Roy Silver and I were buddies. He had two acts: the Mamas and the Papas and Bill Cosby. And I put Bill Cosby on the Tonight Show for the first time. Roy called me six months before that and said, “Come down and see my guy, please.” I got down there and it turned out that two or three people from my staff had been down there and didn’t like him. And I saw him and fell in love with him, so I came back and told our producer in a staff meeting, “I’ll put my career on this one.” Well, he was phenomenal. So much so that we brought him back the next night with Johnny and he was phenomenal again, and then, the next day, he got called by Sheldon Leonard and they asked him if he would do a series and that was I Spy and it was off and running. So Roy was over the top and I was all excited for them, so Roy and I became really close buddies and he called me and said, “I’ve got somebody for you again.” I said, “Okay.” And I went down to the Bitter End and I saw Joan and I just loved her. She was adorable. She was just wonderful. She was cute and Brooklynese and she was funny and she had style. And I thought she was vulnerable and I thought Johnny would love her. And I said, “Okay, we’re going to do this.” And I sat down and helped her craft her spot. And she came on and it was the same thing. Bingo!
JOAN RIVERS I remember, on the show I was doing this whole bit about my wig being run over by a car. I was saying that I was in an old car and that my wig blew out and somebody ran over the wig. So I was walking down the West Side Highway with a dead wig in my arms that said Firestone across it. Okay, it doesn’t sound funny now. But I also remember talking about being single, that my mother had a sign up in Larchmont, New York, that said, “Last girl before highway.” That was the kind of stuff, single-girl stuff, that I was doing. And on the air, Carson said, “You’re going to be a star.” The next day I went into a bank and asked the woman if she’d mind holding the check—in those days, you could ask them to hold the check. She sees me, and says, “I saw you last night! Of course, no problem. God, you were funny.” And I thought to myself, “My life has changed.” After I got on the the Tonight Show, I said to my agent, “My God, you know what this means?” He says, “This means you’ll always make at least $300 a week.” I couldn’t believe that. Wow.
Copyright © 2012 by Yael Kohen
Meet the Author
Yael Kohen is a reporter and editor in New York City. A contributing editor at Marie Claire, she covers books, pop culture, and issues important to working women. She has written for New York magazine, Salon, The Daily Beast, the New York Daily News, and The New York Sun.
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This book is filled with funny and insightful interviews from both men and women across the board of the comedy world. A great read for anyone interested in comedy or entertainment.
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