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Fresh Air Comedy Week: Joan Rivers is "Still Talking."

Comedian Joan Rivers did stand up comedy for years. She was a guest host for "The Tonight Show" and has also hosted her own talk show. In this interview from 1991, Rivers discusses her memoir, called "Still Talking." (Random House). (Rebroadcast from 11.08.91.)


Other segments from the episode on August 25, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 25, 1997: Interview with Henny Youngman; Interview with Alan Zweibel; Interview with Phyllis Diller; Interview with Joan Rivers.


Date: AUGUST 25, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082501np.217
Head: Alan Zweibel
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:15

TERRY GROSS, HOST: A lot of comics who rejected the old style of one-liners in favor of more personal material actually got started in the business by writing one-liners for older comics.

Alan Zweibel started his comedy career writing jokes for comics who played the Borscht Belt, the resort hotels in New York's Catskill Mountains. Zweibel went on to write for Saturday Night Live and co-created and wrote "It's Gary Shandling's Show."

On Saturday Night Live, he collaborated with Gilda Radner, co-creating some of the characters she became famous for like Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna. He later wrote a book and play about Radner called "Bunny, Bunny." Here's an excerpt from our 1989 interview.

Now, you used to write for comics. You wrote for Borscht Belt comics -- the comics who played the Catskills?

ALAN ZWEIBEL, COMEDIAN, AUTHOR, "BUNNY, BUNNY": I started that way. I started writing for men like Morty Gunty (ph) and Freddie Roman (ph) and Dick Capri (ph), and Dick Lord (ph) and Vic Arnell (ph) and -- it goes on and on and on. Thousands of Bernies, thousands of Mickeys, hundreds of Lees, and ultimately -- I started off writing for $7 a joke. And -- this was right out of college, which was 1972.

And to supplement this terrific living that I was making, I was also working in a delicatessen on -- in Queens. And you name it, I sliced it for about three years. And what I used to do was sell jokes to these comedians and write down jokes on paper bags and then shove them in my pocket and sell it to them.

GROSS: What was the first joke that you sold?

ZWEIBEL: You know something? One of the first jokes that I had ever written and no one paid me for was one of the first jokes that we did years later on Saturday Night Live, which was about a stamp -- the post office coming out with a stamp commemorating prostitution in the United States. It was an eight cent stamp. If you want to lick it, it's a quarter. And -- are you allowed to say that on this radio show?

We did it on Saturday Night. I mean, that just goes to show you how long ago that joke was written because I don't believe they have eight cent stamps anymore. And it was those kinds of lines that the people I was writing for said "they're funny, but it's not for my audience." You know, these were by-and-large blue-haired ladies who went to resorts on the weekends and on, you know, major holidays.

GROSS: So, did you have to write mother-in-law jokes? Honeymoon night jokes?

ZWEIBEL: Oh, God yeah. "Don't touch me, I just had my hair done" jokes; "sending the kids to camp" jokes; you know -- all the cliche kind of jokes. And it was incredibly frustrating. In its own way, it was like -- well, it was great in a way.

In one way, it was like writing for your father, you know? But what was very, very interesting about it and which was a great training ground is what your ear got accustomed to was the way different people spoke. All right? You see what I used to do as a matter of self-discipline was I'd wake up on a Monday morning and I'd say: "OK, this week, we're gonna talk about cars." Right?

So on Monday, I would write a monologue as if Woody Allen were to deliver it -- about buying a car. Tuesday, I would do it as if -- write a monologue for Joan Rivers about buying a car; Wednesday, Rodney Dangerfield. Every single day, I'd take the same topic and try to put it in the mouths of other people just as a way of training myself.

GROSS: Did you ever have to write jokes with Yiddish punchlines?

ZWEIBEL: Oh, you know, it's really amazing in that I used to write for a lot of the Friar's roasts. You know, where they used to roast somebody once or twice a year. And those, by and large, are stag. And what you can do is, you can get laughs if you just say a couple of words and then throw in a dirty word.

You know, the -- the shock value would get a laugh. And the same thing for a lot of these comedians. If I would just say, you know, "yesterday I bought a new chair. Rosh Hoshanah." And they'd start laughing -- the audience. I mean, just totally out of context. You know what I mean? If you just put like the name of a Jewish holiday or a recipe, they would laugh.

GROSS: What's an example of a way a comic really ruined one of your jokes?

ZWEIBEL: Oh, that's a tough question. I -- well, OK. This isn't the perfect answer to it, but I think it sort of answers the question. Years and years later, after I had stopped writing for these standup comedians, I was now married and we went up to the Concord Hotel for like a ski weekend. And we went with Al Franken who used to be co-writer with me on Saturday Night Live -- he and his family.

And we were up at the Concord, and we went in to see the show. And on the bill was a man who I used to write for. And I'm sitting there and I recognized much of the material. Now, let's say this was 1986. I hadn't written for this man since 1973. OK? So let's say this is 13 years have gone by. And I'm recognizing the jokes as by-and-large the same.

We went backstage afterwards to see him, or I met him in the bar afterwards, and we said "hi" to each other and we got to talking. And he said: "how did you like the show?" And I said: "terrific. Really good." And he said: "you see? I'm still doing your stuff. It's still holding up." I said: "yeah, I'm flattered." He said: "any suggestions?" I said: "well, one minor suggestion. You know the joke that you do about the Secretary of State?" He said: "yeah." I said: "I could be wrong, but as far as I'm concerned you might get a better laugh if you took out Kissinger's name and put in George Schultz's."


GROSS: You're kidding?

ZWEIBEL: No. This was 1986 and I had written in 1973 when Kissinger was, you know -- and he'd never bothered taking out the old guy's name and so he was doing it still in the present.

GROSS: You see, I find this incredibly depressing. I mean, are you depressed by that?

ZWEIBEL: On one level, it's somewhat depressing. On another level, it's -- you're dealing with, on a few instances, in a few instances, with people who are sort of blissful and unaffected. And there's something nice about that, too. You know? I mean, I'm not trying to wax romantic about it, but if somebody could be off by that much -- do you know what I'm saying? I'm not trying...

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

ZWEIBEL: ... to be cruel...

GROSS: Right.

ZWEIBEL: ... it's like God, my guess is that they sleep better than I do.

GROSS: Alan Zweibel recorded in 1989. His book and play Bunny, Bunny is about his relationship with Gilda Radner, who he collaborated with on Saturday Night Live.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Alan Zweibel
High: Comedy writer Alan Zweibel. He was one of the original writers for "Saturday Night Live." He discusses his 14 year friendship with Gilda Radner whom he met at SNL and teamed up with to create such memorable characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella. Zweibel has written a memoir about their friendship, called "Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner: A Sort of Love Story," which has since been turned into a play. He also worked on "The Gary Shandling Show."
Spec: Media; Television; Comedy; Alan Zweibel
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Alan Zweibel
Date: AUGUST 25, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082502np.217
Head: Phyllis Diller
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We continue comedy week with Phyllis Diller, one of the first and only women comic headliners of her generation. Her persona as a crazed housewife, her jokes about her husband "Fang," and her many rounds of plastic surgery didn't exactly set the stage for the feminist revolution, but she paved the way for other women comics.

Here's a performance from 1961.


PHYLLIS DILLER, COMEDIAN: Now here's what happens. A woman hits 40, going 90 miles an hour. And boy, that's a crackup.


One morning, she gets up, she looks in the mirror, she punches the panic button. She says: "I gotta be younger by lunch."


And she goes through a whole list of idiotic ideas like renting smaller children.


But nine out of 10 will rush off to a plastic surgeon or "go under the knife" as we say at the clinic.


And are you ready for the big fallacy? They all expect to come out looking like Tinkerbell. So, what if you do? What are you gonna do about the rest of it? Gravity's been pulling on it for 40 years. And I hate that word "gravity." It reminds me of a little personal tragedy.


Two weeks ago, my Playtex Living Bra died...


... of starvation.


GROSS: Phyllis Diller got a late start in show business. She was a 37-year-old mother of three when she started to perform.

In 1986, I asked her how she'd come out on stage in her persona as a crazed housewife.

Describe the way you will typically come out for a performance?

DILLER: Like a maniac -- dressed silly, with silly hair, the funny little boots, little gloves -- all clowns wear gloves, even Mickey Mouse. And I wear gloves -- the little teeny short gloves and the little short dress and that's it. It's a funny persona. And this woman is an idiot, you know, she's a harridan. She comes out -- she's telling everybody what's wrong with everything, you know. Please.


GROSS: So you designed your own image. You designed your own clothes, too? Did you decide what to wear on stage?

DILLER: Well, you see, I used to dress pretty square, pretty straight. The first few years, I wore actual -- one year, I wore Chanel suits. Another year, I wore a Balmain suit. And they were satin and shiny, and I realized I had to wear something shapeless or I couldn't make jokes about my body.

GROSS: 'Cause your body was too nice?

DILLER: That's right. Hate to tell you that.

So then I invented shapelessness, and to this day I wear shapeless things so that I can tell them anything I want about my body.

GROSS: What was your self-image lie thing? 'Cause you'd get on stage and talk about how ugly you were and how, you know, your husband wouldn't come near you and all these jokes about that, and in fact, you probably had a terrific figure. You're probably, you know, a good looking women, but you'd made yourself into a crazy woman for the performance.

What was your self-image like deep down inside?

DILLER: I was so busy carving out a career that I didn't have much of a problem with it. I mean, I wasn't a beauty. I was never a beauty. A beauty is sort of a way of life. A beauty is sort of the way you act. Beauties are soft and they talk a certain way. Beauties don't talk like I talk. You know, I'm into the nitty gritty. I'm into editing.

See, my mother, when the phone rang, she picked it up and said: "state your business." So you see, I was not brought up to be a beauty.

GROSS: And you are -- in your routines, you do pretty rapid-fire.

DILLER: Well, 12 laughs a minute is as fast as anyone could talk.

GROSS: How do you build it up? Is there a model that you have about how jokes should build and when the capper should come on?

DILLER: Oh, yes. The final -- the final word must be the joke word; must be the operative word. The final word should end in an explosive consonant, like "pop" or "puck" or "kook." You understand? There are mellifluous words -- "mellifluous" is one of them. It flows. It's pretty, you know. It's one of those lovely words, like lavender. You want something strong and "pop" at the end. Like a shot.

For years and years and years, people likened my delivery to machine gun fire.

GROSS: Is there a rule of thumb you use about how many you can tell in a row like that before changing the subject?


GROSS: A sense of rhythm about that?

DILLER: You find that out by doing them. You have a whole -- you want to do as many as you can on one subject because, you see, it's economy. You have one set up, and then all the tag, tag, tag, tag, tag -- you don't have to repeat the set up because every time you do a tag, it has to have a set up. But if you can have one set up and then, as many as, possible lines.

But there's a limit to how many they will take on one character.

GROSS: Can you give an example of the set up and a few tags?

DILLER: "Well, she's so fat that..." -- that's your set up. Then you've got all these tags, like "da da da da," "da, da, da, da," "de dum, dum, dum." It's music.

GROSS: You always strike me as being the forerunner of, say, Joan Rivers, you know that -- like one of Joan Rivers' models, for a few reasons, first of all because of -- because you're two of the few women who've made it to your stature in the world of comedy, but also because of your self-deprecating kind of humor which she really has gotten into. Do you see any connection? Do you know her well?

DILLER: Yes, she's my dear friend and I don't know any other way for a female comic to get on. They've all -- you have to beef about something because it -- comedy is tragedy revisited. That's the whole -- that's my definition of comedy.

People say: "what is comedy?" OK, if you come out and you're lovely and -- there's no comedy. So self-deprecation and denigration is par for the course. It works.

GROSS: Do you think it's different for women than for men? Do you think that the women more so have to have that kind of humor?

DILLER: They need a little more help than men do, because there's a double standard. Men can talk raunchy without being pilloried. Women are -- it's the madonna complex; the madonna syndrome. They're the mothers -- the softies. And when a woman is going to be hard enough and aggressive enough to do comedy, she better have some saving graces, like: "look, I'm humble. I don't think I'm pretty."

GROSS: Hmm. Did you have to do -- I mean, do you feel like you had to do that to get in or something?

DILLER: No, no, no, no, no. Remember, I didn't know anything about what I was doing.

GROSS: Right. OK.

DILLER: I -- I'm just -- I -- look, if I hear a laugh, it stays in. It's very simple. Like, if the bucket doesn't leak, don't repair it.

GROSS: You recently had plastic surgery, well -- several times.

DILLER: All the time.

GROSS: All the time?


GROSS: What have you had?

DILLER: Oh, have you got an hour? I've had everything. I've had three facelifts. The latest thing, I had that eyeliner put on, permanent -- tattoo. I had a chemical peel. I had a breast reduction. I had a tummy tuck. There's only one procedure I haven't had, and that's liposuction surgery, or a lipectomy, where they use a vacuum thing that was invented in Paris to suck out unwanted fat from places on your body where exercise doesn't effect.

GROSS: Why did you have all the plastic surgery?

DILLER: I was ugly, and beginning to look old...

GROSS: Mm-hmm, well...

DILLER: ... old and wrinkled and hangy.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

DILLER: We're talking droop -- droop city.

GROSS: It's interesting, 'cause you made your career on being crazy looking; on putting yourself down; on being, you know, the frumpy housewife.


GROSS: So now, I mean, you have -- I mean, you look rather glamorous.

DILLER: I hope so, but you see I'm a single woman and I have a private life. My private life is very important to me -- very important. That's my real life. My life on stage is not real. I am a person. I am real, and I want to look good.

GROSS: If you had the perfect nose and lips and breasts and everything when you were getting started, do you think you would have gone into comedy?

DILLER: Well, I did have the perfect breasts, the perfect figure -- and -- my nose was crooked. Let me think -- my teeth were crooked. Well, comedy is within. It has nothing to do with your appearance. My appearance helped because it was displastic. It helped, and then I made it help more by getting crazier and learning to be theatrical and things like that.

GROSS: So you have two personas as you always did -- one offstage and one onstage, and how are you dressing onstage now?

DILLER: Crazy, but chic. I mean, it's that satire of what is chic right now. That's the way I dress.

GROSS: Are you still talking about Fang?

DILLER: Oh, honey -- he's so big in my life. He's one of my big numbers.

GROSS: Did you like "wife" jokes when -- and how do you feel about them now?

DILLER: I think they're wonderful.

GROSS: You do?

DILLER: Oh, I think they're -- I think -- I love jokes. I love comedy. I worked with male comics who say -- usually, this is a classic because more than one comic I've heard say it -- is where he's married to the woman who's so neat? You know, so neat? She's always -- everything has to be perfect, and you know, men don't like it.

The joke that I love -- when he got up to go to the toilet one night, came back, the bed was made.


Have you heard that joke?


DILLER: Isn't that wonderful?

GROSS: Yeah.

DILLER: Can't you see this compulsive woman?

GROSS: Yeah, I just...

DILLER: Making this man's life miserable?

GROSS: ... the problem I've always had with "wife" jokes is that they always seem to be about the whole genre of women as -- 'cause they were never "spouse" jokes because until you came along, there were no women telling jokes. So the joke was always on the woman and never on the man.

So instead of being jokes about married life or having this life-long companion, it was always jokes about woman; jokes about dames. And in that sense, it seemed to put down the whole gender, instead of, you know, talking about the tribulations of a long-lasting relationship that men or women would have. Do you know what I'm saying?

DILLER: True. I know what you're saying. But I -- well, and I did some good work, didn't I?



DILLER: I always have a cause.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

DILLER: Well, it's been such fun, Terry. I really love your show.

GROSS: Thanks -- thanks for being here.

Phyllis Diller, recorded in 1986.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Phyllis Diller
High: For more than 40 years, Phyllis Diller has made a career out of her own poor looks, and the exploits of her bumbling, imaginary, husband, Fang. Diller paved the way for an entire generation of female comics.
Spec: Media; Television; Women; Phyllis Diller
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Phyllis Diller
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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