September 4, 2014
Can we talk?
I always wanted to be a writer. As a young boy, I entertained my friends with stories I had written. In high school, I wrote a novel. Like John-Boy Walton, I just knew it was meant for me to write.
But, unlike John-Boy, I couldn't seem to market my fiction. Then, the nature of my writing took an unexpected turn.
I grew up in the 1950s and 60s and was weaned on comedians like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Jackie Gleason. Then along came a new breed: Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, George Carlin. The world of comedy fascinated me as the torch was passed from one generation to the next.
In the 1970s it occurred to me that maybe I should try writing some jokes. My efforts were somewhat lame, but I kept plugging away. As I got better with practice, I began mailing jokes to comedians in Los Angeles. I heard back from virtually nobody. The only formal rejection I even received in the mail was a polite note from Fred DeCordova, the producer of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Then one day, my mom called. She said she had been watching The Phil Donahue Show, a popular afternoon talkfest in those days. Joan Rivers' secretary was on the show, along with other "assistants to the celebrities" and someone in the audience asked if Joan ever bought material from freelance writers.
Joan's assistant, Les Hanson, said that the comedienne did indeed read outside material and he gave the viewing audience her business address. Mom passed that on to me.
So I went to work and put together a small packet of jokes and mailed them off. Weeks went by but finally I heard back from Les Hanson. Joan had agreed to buy one of the jokes I sent.
"Can we talk here? I was ugly as a child! No boy wanted to date me! It's true! In high school, I was chosen to play Mary in the Christmas pageant because I was the only girl who fit the part: I was young, Jewish, and it would take an act of God to get me pregnant!"
That was it. I was off and running on a freelance association with Joan Rivers that lasted 25 years.
Probably my most interesting moment was when I read Fred DeCordova's autobiography, in which he detailed his years with The Tonight Show. He told the story about one night when Joan was filling in for Johnny and she told a joke about Marie Osmond and the Pope.
"Oh, Marie Osmond is such a goody goody goody! The Pope called and told her to lighten up!"
As innocuous as that joke seems today, back in 1985 it was pure sacrilege and the angry telephone response from home viewers jammed the NBC switchboard. DeCordova said never before or since has a single joke incurred that kind of viewer wrath while he was producer of Carson's show.
I had a good chuckle, somewhat proudly, over that. I had written that joke.
But there were some bitter turns along the way. In 1986, Joan was behind a phone call I received from The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson wanted to see my material, and soon! He was about to hire new writers, so I was advised to put some material together and express mail it. An assistant to the head writer phoned me when they had received my material and said it was on Johnny's desk, awaiting his return from vacation.
Then the bubble burst. They say that timing is everything in comedy. Timing became my worst nightmare.
It was at this time that Joan announced she would be leaving her guest host duties at the Tonight Show for her own talk show on Fox. Johnny was livid and he wanted nothing further to do with Joan or anyone associated with her. I made one last phone call to the writers' office at the Tonight Show and my contact there was suddenly very cool, almost unresponsive.
I attempted to land a job on Joan's new show, but was told a staff was already in place. Come to find out, Fox would not allow Joan to hire her own writers and saddled her with a couple of ex-radio jocks from St. Louis.
But the highs of writing one-liners were tremendous: seeing my work on the printed page in Joan's books, and hearing the jokes I'd written come free falling out of her mouth on The Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, and her Grammy-nominated comedy album.
After all, I was just a Nebraska boy creating jokes part time on a manual typewriter.
If I may, here's a sampling:
"Liz Taylor! Is she fat? Her favorite food is seconds!"
"She put sugar on her Sweet 'n Low!"
"Edgar and I never have sex. We've been married 20 years and have one child...which is about right, because 20 years equals a score."
"I have no appeal. I told my husband, 'I want to eat out tonight'. He kicked my dish on the back porch."
"I have a friend who is such a tramp! She's been under the sheets more than the KKK!"
"A tramp! Now she lives in Norway. Every night she turns over a new Leif."
"This woman has done more work on her back than Michelangelo."
"I am the world's worst housekeeper. My table setting looks like this: fork, plate, knife, spoon, fly swatter."
"And I can't cook! I have dining room chairs that flush!"
"The other night I made Leek Soup. I followed the recipe: 'First, take a leek'. Edgar said, 'This soup tastes funny."
"I know nothing about rock stars. I thought Neil Diamond was the stone in the Pope's ring!"
"Have you noticed all the male flight attendants we're seeing on the airlines now? And they're all gay! On my last flight, I asked the pilot, 'Do you get many gay flight attendants on this airline?' He said, 'Not unless I buy them dinner and drinks.'"
Joan did me the honor of buying these and hundreds more over the years. My success with her led me down the freelance road to writing for Phyllis Diller, Jay Leno, and American's favorite Russian, Yakov Smirnoff.
It all started with one joke. She took a chance on me, and I will be forever grateful.
I have a feeling that there's comedy after death. I think today Joan was met in heaven by Robin Williams.
He welcomed her, then shook his head and mused, "Wow! Isn't it ironic that we died just a couple of weeks apart and both of us because we had our oxygen shut off too long."
And Joan answered, "Yes, but I had to pay a goddamn deductible!"
Joan, when you performed, we laughed until we cried. Now that you've left us, there's still not a dry eye in the house.