In February of 1967, Joan Rivers, then 33 years old, performed her stand-up act at the Downstairs at the Upstairs (37 West 56th Street). She killed. She had yet to hit the peak of her fame. She was also a bit of an anomaly: A WOMAN COMIC! Writing for this paper in the February 23, 1967, issue, Bill Manville contributed the below review of her set. Rivers died today at age 81 at Mount Sinai Hospital.
I don’t know how a nervous girl can be so funny. Joan Rivers looks like one of your friends who has been cherishing this secret dream of herself as a yodeler, or a bird-caller, or whatever, and suddenly when the con emcee asks for volunteers, there she is, getting up, and striding for the stage. You are too embarrassed for her to look.
But she IS funny. She talks about the difficulties of working with various audiences. “One night, I came out into the room. You ever play to 98 engineers? Even 94 engineers?” she asks the audience. “you come out into the room, and they all got their briefcases. ON the table. I ask you – is that true party spirit?” And the audience, no engineers they, laughs with her.
I think it is this rapport she establishes with the people which makes her so successful. The up-and-back is necessary to her act. (She tells of disaster in the huge, cavernous auditoriums of Las Vegas. “I told my agent, ‘Irving, don’t book me there….’ That’s his name. Irving Agent.”) “Talk to me,” Miss Rivers says to a fat lady at a ringside table, “Where are you from?” “New Jersey,” the fat lady says, and Miss Rivers immediately begins a comic turn about life in New Jersey. Something unplanned and as-yet-unwritten (though of course she jumps into previously prepared routines when comic invention momentarily flags, of her own free-association tells her the spontaneous bit is veering close to one of these guaranteed cornerstones of her act. The method of working the early Lenny Bruce did so well.) “Tell me, where are you from?” she will ask somebody else in the room, interrupting herself to bring another source of energy into the antic discussion. And then she sets up a three-way play of humor, incorporating the fantasy of New Jersey life she’s got going with the fat lady with something else she will begin to build this new interlocutor — who turns out to be a nice, polite drunk from Florida, here on his way back from a vacation in Jamaica. “Big Jamaica or Little Jamaica?” Miss Rivers asks. “You got they-uh by ‘nairplane,” the drunk says. It turns out that Miss Rivers and her husband have just come back from Jamaica too. “Very exclusive place, Round Hill, right?” she says, and the drunk says, “It sullenly ai-iz,” and peers around benignly, happy that his status has been recognized. “No Jews, right?” Miss Rivers asks, but before the drunk can even begin to be embarrassed, she goes past him, taking him neatly off the hook. “No Christians, either,” she says. “THAT’S exclusive. As a matter of fact, all you find are three thin guys, looks toward the East.” Because Miss Rivers does not do the rat thing of scoring off her (amateur) audience.
But you ought to hear her on the Telephone Company, Con Ed, and all the other bags you’d think no one could find new scores against any more. Here she is on Luci Johnson: “She says she’s pregnant, so she regretfully has to quit going to college. She says she’s sorry, because she knows how important education is nowadays. And what’s the course this giant brain is dropping out on? The History of Furniture.”
A very funny girl, if a nervous one. (“She began here as one of our writers,” the Downstairs’ owner Irving Haber told me. “She’s really a writer.” Which explains it all.) Don’t miss her. She’s still there.
The weekend shows and Downstairs are 9.30, 11.30, and 1 a.m. Miss Rivers is preceded by a singer. there’s a $5 minimum you can use up on food (sandwiches) and drink, or else you can remain in the bar, seeing the show through the big glass doors, hearing the jox on the intercom.
Here’s Rivers just a few months later, in April 1967 on The Ed Sullivan Show.
You can stream the 2010 documentary on Rivers, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, here on Netflix.