Joan Rivers on her stand-up comedy contemporaries, then and now

Joan Rivers has made several headlines already this month while promoting her new book, “Diary of a Mad Diva.”

In her latest interview, a sit-down with Ron Bennington for SiriusXM’s “Unmasked” series — which airs tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern on Raw Dog Comedy Hits channel 99 — Rivers talks about Jerry Lewis and their longtime feud that suddenly bubbled back to the surface publicly, as well as many other topics from her life.

Which also takes her back to her start in New York City comedy, in Greenwich Village at The Bitter End, where she performed there and around the neighborhood with George Carlin, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, David Brenner, Dick Cavett, Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield. Singers such as Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand were gigging there, too. “Everyone was down there!” And Lenny Bruce was playing across the street. “They would let us all in to see him. It was a magical time for all of us, because you knew how brilliant comedy could be. You know? There was a god there to say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to be.'”

“You were suddenly able to talk about yourself,” she said. “I was able to stand up there and talk about having an affair with a married professor. Which was shocking at the time!”

She said she turned down a profile in LIFE magazine and steered them toward showcasing Pryor instead, “because he was better.” “I know,” she added. “It was stupid.” Roll the audio clip!

For all of the talk about what Rivers is like as a comedian now, insulting celebrities and wannabe celebs for their fashion or their looks, it’s much more insightful to hear her talk about comedy.

Now or then.

UCLA recently uploaded a talk Rivers gave to UCLA students back in November 1972, when 18-year-olds newly had won a Constitutional right to vote. Rivers answered their questions about the differences between Los Angeles and NYC, chastised them for being “a passive generation,” complained about the suits who controlled the money for what’s funny and the audiences in smaller cities for their lack of taste, described performing for Ed Sullivan, how she grew up Jewish in an Italian Catholic neighborhood, and the then-burgeoning feminist movement.

Starting about five minutes into the audio (embedded below), Rivers also offered up her opinions on her comedy contemporaries in 1972.

“What’s Johnny Carson like? That was my question!”

She continues:

“My favorite comedian is Jack Benny. Cause he’s brilliant. See, none of you go to see him, because he’s in Las Vegas now. It’s empty. The man has got the best timing of anybody in the world. He’s brilliant! Jack Benny. Richard Pryor — who is a genius (applause) — a genius! Richard Pryor is the closest thing to Lenny Bruce that none of you ever saw, and missed a great deal. And see, that’s a tragedy! My generation. Because they threw him in the toilet and after he was dead, they compared him to Goya. Which did him a lot of good. The day he was dead, The New York Times put out an obituary saying that this man was brilliant, and they compared him to Swift, and to everybody else, who was also dead. For those of you who aren’t English majors. But, uh, some of them go, “Swift, who?” But, my favorite comedian is Jack Benny, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin, who’s brilliant. Who, (applause) yes, brilliant! And, who turned himself around. Because George Carlin was a stand-up garbage-y comic, and like three years ago, stopped. And. Just. Turned himself inside out, and became what he is today, which is wonderful. And the one I hate in all the world, of course, is Bob Hope. Yes. Yes. Because that’s hypocrisy in action. And, if you really want to get scared, ’cause when you live in college, it’s such a wonderful, ideal atmosphere. Right? The Midwest still loves him. And he gets the highest ratings in America. That’s what America’s all about.”

A few minutes later, someone asked her opinion of Dick Cavett, the only real competitor to Carson’s Tonight Show in 1972.

“I’m a very good friend of Dick Cavett’s. Yes. We started together. He’s wonderful and he’s brilliant. And he’s terrific. But Johnny Carson’s brighter.” The audience and Rivers laugh. “Yes. Dick Cavett is very smart, but Dick talks to smart people! Dick is a very good programmer…any one of us could talk to Orson Welles, right? All you have to say is, ‘Tell us about Citizen Kane, Orson,” and he’s off! Then after a while, say ‘Shut up, Orson, we have to go to commercial…Johnny talks to morons! That’s smart! No one gives Johnny credit. I’ve done that show.”

She describes some horrible moments that talk-show hosts have to suffer through.

“I have such respect for Johnny Carson. Everyone puts him down. They think he’s just — it’s very tough to be up there and be charming, and to be witty, and to ask them questions and make it look like you don’t have notes. Because people go on that show and they freeze. There is such tension backstage. I can’t tell you. It’s a very hard show to do as a performer.”

At the 27-minute mark of this recording, she wonders where the new comedians are. Cheech and Chong? She wasn’t buying it at the time. “There’s no payoffs!” she said, reciting lines from their now famous “Dave’s Not Home” bit. She also said that TV was horrible in showcasing improvisation, whether it was “genius” Jonathan Winters or her own Second City peers. And she said Bill Cosby had stopped being as funny because he was “a star,” much as Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope had before him, and that had stopped people from telling him no. “Flip Wilson is going to be around forever, and be funny forever, because he doesn’t stop working, and he doesn’t care if you say it’s not funny, he just changes it. And that’s the difference. That’s why Flip is still funny, I think. It’s just my opinion. Now watch we’ll all go turn on The Cosby Show and he’ll be brilliant tonight. And you’ll say, ‘What did that dumb bum know?'”

Roll the full clip!

Check out “Diary of a Mad Diva” by Joan Rivers

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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