Back in the summer of 1993 one of my favorite humorists, Paula Poundstone, had a column published in Mother Jones magazine that spoke about honesty and Hollywood.
It begins, “The editor guy of this magazine asked me the other day if Hollywood had morals. Gee, I certainly don’t think so. He seems like such a bright man: why would he ask a question like that? Hollywood uses the TV laugh track, the very soul of dishonesty. In the years before I understood that they couldn’t possibly have performed before a live audience, I thought the Flintstones were funny to adults. I assumed that the jokes were just over my head…”
Then Poundstone mentions that she was in the middle of negotiating a contract with a TV network she does not identify. She explains that this is her first time negotiating such a business deal.
Next she says, “I made the mistake of reading ‘Outfoxed’ [by Alex Ben Block], a book about the making of the Fox Broadcasting Company, during all of this. I’m embarrassed to have read it in a page-turning fever, unable to focus on anything else, carrying it with me everywhere I went, underlining passages about Barry Diller’s philosophy, and quoting from the book while talking with perfectly intelligent adults.”
“I got to the distressing point in reading the Fox book,” Poundstone writes, “where I realized there’s no protecting yourself from a big company anyway. When Joan Rivers tried to sue Fox for breaching their contractual promises [made in conjunction with Rivers’ hosting a late-night talk show for the network], they just said to go ahead and try and they would keep her tied up in court for a long time. She settled for settling out of court.”
As Poundstone realized that her own network negotiations were just going round and round, equal parts poppycock and double-talk, she writes, “Joan Rivers said in an interview in ‘Outfoxed’ that Fox had lied, cheated and been dishonorable. [In the book] Fox President Jamie Kellner denied this and said it had just been business. Apparently ‘business’ [in Hollywood] looks, feels and sounds so much like lying, cheating and being dishonorable that even Joan Rivers was fooled.”
The truth is that there wasn’t much that fooled Joan Rivers, who died on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, at age 81. Like the best comics, her observations hit a nerve, their truthfulness lingering long after the laughing stopped. She made a career taking us out of our comfort zones, not letting us fool ourselves. Thus her trademark “Oh grow up!” which she would shout to her audience after she had delivered a punch line that would be greeted with a mixture of laughs and gasps. Inevitably that punch line had been something that was simultaneously terribly impolite and usually unexpected. She was the godmother to many truth-tellers to follow, from Howard Stern to Roseanne Barr to Simon Cowell.
Rivers wrote several memoirs. One of them, “Still Talking,” published in 1991, and written with the professional writer Richard Meryman, I recall devouring in a few days when it came out. I recommend it highly. The book focuses on Rivers during the time she was Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host, her leaving Carson to start a competing late-night talk show on Fox, and the subsequent suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg.
In “Still Talking” she also spoke briefly about her place in the pantheon of stand-up comics. She writes that in the early and mid-1960s – right around the time Rivers was 30 years old – “funny women were expected to look weird and ugly and therefore be non-threatening to the ladies out front. At that time the two top female comediennes were Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields. A major part of Phyllis’s act was her wild drag-queen outfits, the gloves, the long cigarette holder and crazy hair, and that mad, cackling laugh.”
But these comics were far more traditional than Rivers. For example, as Rivers says about Totie Fields, “She was a brilliant comic, singing a couple of songs, talking, doing routines about panty hose, about her husband George, about being fat.”
Rivers said in those days audiences found her jokes shocking “because they came from a winning young girl in a nice little dress and pretty little pearls, her hair in a cute flip. I was everybody’s married daughter saying things no lady would ever talk about in public.”
For example, “In the sixties my breakthrough joke came just after Melissa was born [in 1968]. I said on Carson, ‘When I had my baby, I screamed and screamed. And that was just during conception.’ ”
Another Rivers joke from that time: “I know nothing about sex. All my mother told me was that the man gets on top, the woman gets on the bottom. I bought bunk beds.”
Rivers observes in “Still Talking”: “People were shocked. I was breaking new comedy ground with talk about women’s intimate experiences and feelings, with jokes like ‘I have no boobs. I went to nurse my daughter. She sucked on my shoulder. I moved her to the breast, and she lost four pounds.’ ”
One of the factors that makes “Still Talking” so compelling still is Rivers’ blow-by-blow, 64-page description of her relationship with Fox Broadcasting and its executives, most notably Barry Diller, who was Fox’s top executive at the time.
It was the mid-1980s, and Rivers, who was enjoying great success as Carson’s permanent guest host, was at a peak of popularity. After negotiating with Fox, it was announced with fanfare on May 6, 1986, that “The Late Show with Joan Rivers” would debut on Fox-affiliated TV stations in October of that year.
Rivers thought it was going to be the pinnacle of her career. Instead, as she writes in “Still Talking,” it was “a self-contained saga of the folly, the infantile behavior, the ego exercises, the fear and ambition, the pain and delight, that pervade backstage show business. The plot was driven not by business considerations, but by the characters’ needs and compulsions and terrors. Nobody in the drama rose above the foolishness. Not me, not Edgar, not … Barry Diller, not any of the lesser executives. To this day [about five years later], so much of what happened makes no sense to me. All I know for sure is that when the curtain on the tragedy descended, the smartest man in Hollywood was the dumbest, forced to give five nights of late-night programming back to Fox’s affiliated stations. I was so deeply wounded, I nearly did not survive. And my husband was dead.”
Wow. Yeah, go get the book and you can read all the juicy details. A year or so earlier I had read a lot of those details in Alex Ben Block’s excellent “Outfoxed.” In that must-read book, as Paula Poundstone noted in her column, Alex (who is a former editor of TVWeek) writes all about Rivers’ Fox experience, and he had the advantage of talking to Rivers, Diller, and the other players in the saga. But there’s nothing like reading Rivers’ emotional telling of that same story.
Here’s an excerpt from “Still Talking” that’s about a meeting on March 20, 1987. Rivers says she thought the meeting was supposed to be with Jamie Kellner, but not his boss, Diller. After a few minutes, though, Diller walked into the meeting. Rivers writes:
In a controlled fury he began pacing behind Jamie, saying he was sick of all the problems, saying we were a failure, and they owed it to the affiliates and the advertisers to rescue the show. …
In one terse sentence he stripped Edgar of his duties as executive producer and banned him from the set. In that instant the show and our future was balanced on the point of a needle. Then Edgar and I catapulted ourselves into destruction.
“You’re a tinhorn dictator,” Edgar said. “I don’t need this. I’m a rich man.”
Barry Diller said, “Go fuck yourself.”
Had this been a silent movie, there would have been music swelling and a close-up of my face. What will she choose. Her husband? Or her career?
I should have told Edgar to shut up. I should have grabbed Barry [and] should have said, “Edgar’s out of control. Let me talk to you. Help me. I’ll do whatever you want. Just keep us on.”
But instead, Rivers writes, she “automatically” backed up Edgar. And she said that if given the chance, she’d decide the same way again.
That was the one thing I doubt Fox ever understood — that the bottom line of my behavior and marriage was loyalty. There is so little of it in life. It is the only thing you have left when everything else between two people is snipped away. You take the words “love” and “affection” and “devotion” and what they really add up to is “loyalty.”
We walked out of the meeting with Edgar’s dignity and our marriage intact. But from that moment on we were dead [with Fox].
The last “Late Show” hosted by Rivers appeared on Thursday, May 15, 1987.
Three months later, on Aug. 13, Edgar committed suicide.
By mid-1990, Rivers had bounced back, having appeared on Broadway in a Neil Simon play and having won a Daytime Emmy for a new talk show she hosted, syndicated by Tribune.
Having recovered from the depths of despair, Rivers writes in 1991 in “Still Talking” that if things turn south for her once again, she believes, “Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present. God always comes up with a third-act twist — and we won’t know until we die whether the play was a comedy or a tragedy. So you’d better be prepared for both. That’s the exhilaration of being alive. There is always another scene coming out of nowhere. God is the best dramatist.”