Interviewing comedians by phone is a treat for me, especially pros who have worked a lifetime at their craft. The phone provides intimacy and comfort, so comedians tend to relax and open up faster. But the phone also forces them to work harder, since an interview is a performance. And as performers, comedians rely on rhythm and timing, with much of that information coming from seeing and hearing reactions to what they're saying. The phone raises their game, since it removes the visual component. By default, a comedian must listen harder to get in the groove, which means they feed off of every chuckle, snicker and laugh on the other end of the line. [Pictured above, Joan and Melissa Rivers by Amanda Friedman for The Wall Street Journal]
Joan Rivers has been around since I figured out how to turn on a TV in the 1960s. Perched on a stool, she pioneered fast-talking, tell-it-like-it-is comedy for women when the industry was dominated by men and couples. And as a woman, she exhibited an enviable level of fearlessness and cool, bonding with women in the audience while also being a good sport and one of the boys.
So I had an idea. How about a Wall Street Journal "House Call" with Joan and her daughter Melissa—two talkers in one column? They'd talk about Melissa's house and Joan's experience visiting each week to tape their shows. Joan and Melissa star in Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best,” a weekly reality series now in its fourth season on WEtv. Joan also host’s E’s Fashion Police and the web series In Bed With Joan. They were game, and the results are in today's paper (or if you have an online subscription, go here).
When you listen carefully to a great comedian, you realize they operate like boxers. A few light jokes here and there to get you leaning. Then, when you're softened up, they come across with a right-hook joke that just knocks you out. Getting knocked out this way never felt so good.
Here's Joan Rivers in 1974 on the Carol Burnett Show. Watch as the audience starts out uneasy and by the end, Joan has them wrapped around her finger...