What Joan Rivers Can Teach Us All About Work

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Joan Rivers performing at the legendary Upstairs at the Downstairs in 1969 / via

The Joan Rivers obituaries haven’t failed to point out that the late comedian was a hard, not to say driven, worker. None that I saw, however, went deeply into her work ethic, which was a doozy.

That’s what you’ll get here, because there was a time in the 1960s when I had the opportunity to observe closely how it was put into practice.

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Joan-Rivers-at-Upstairs-at-the-Downstairs
Joan Rivers performing at the legendary
Upstairs at the Downstairs in 1969 / via

The place was Upstairs at the Downstairs, a once revered, now forgotten cabaret club at 37 West 56th Street, operated by penny-pinching impresario Irving Haber. Haber—who ran the profitable and also now forgotten Gypsy Tea Kettle rooms around town as well—liked to boast that in those days he often paid no less than three headliners, whom he’d reel off, a weekly total of $100.

Slovenly and alienating as he was, Haber knew talent. (And knew how to exploit it.) In the building, also known as the former Wanamaker mansion, Haber had a lease on the first two floors. (A pair of elderly Wanamaker spinsters were rumored to live on the top floors.) He called the second floor room Upstairs at the Downstairs and the ground floor room Downstairs at the Upstairs.

During that time, the featured Downstairs at the Upstairs performer was the great diseuse Mable Mercer, at whose low hem the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett worshipped and for whom the tunesmith likes of Bart Howard and Cy Coleman and Caroline Leigh wrote.

Mercer always had an opening act. For a long while, it was Joan Rivers. I know this because I was involved as a writer for the usually well-received revues that took place at Upstairs at the Downstairs.

No fool, I took advantage of my hop-spot entrée and spent many evenings observing how Mercer enchanted her audiences—drawing her shawl around her shoulders as she sang, often sitting right at patrons’ tables.

I also realized it was worth my time to watch Rivers–already causing a meaningful show-biz buzz–go about her, well, process. She was industry armed with tape recorder. While on stage she was the yuk-machine dynamo we all know, she was nothing but single-minded determination off.

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When she arrived—often with her was husband Edgar Rosenberg (I think she married him during that period)—she had one habitual request of management. She asked (okay, demanded) that 10 minutes before she was introduced the temperature in the Downstairs at the Upstairs room be lowered several degrees.

Her rationale was that comedy must be played in a cold room. Applause was best under those conditions. In a cold room, patrons clap to stay warm, she said, and maintained that In a warm room, sluggishness prevails. When patrons are overheated, audiences are less inclined to pay rapt attention; applause (“the mittage,” as Variety would put it) is less, no matter how entertaining the performer is.

And guess what. Rivers’s rule is incontrovertible. Did she pick it up elsewhere? I can’t say. I certainly picked it up from her.

On stage, Rivers’s sine qua non prop was that tape recorder. She recorded every show she did. The implication was that she listened to every session. Working so tirelessly off the audience, she never knew when an ad-lib would be eminently worth saving. Not having it caught on tape would be criminal. She might forget it otherwise.

Joan Rivers album cover
Joan Rivers: A semi-legend who put out / via

Rivers did have her sure-fire routines. She’d spot a female ringsider and ask, “Married or single? Divorced? Did you keep the ring?” She always advised keeping the ring and was censorious if the answer was no. “When Edgar and I got married, every night it was ‘Chase me, chase me.’ After a while it became ‘Chase me, chase me.’ ‘Is it okay if I chase you tomorrow?’ ‘Sure, chase me tomorrow.’” She also had a barrage of Duchess of Windsor jokes about face lifts and size she long since dropped.

Additionally, what I admired was her ability to read an audience and accommodate their responses. She would shift her comedy hunks accordingly. I never saw her fail to win the crowd over well before she’d finished, no matter how resistant they’d been. (Granted, there were auditors who considered her vulgar and said so. I’m even aware of one Rivers manager who thought of her that way.)

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The word around the club was that her audiences included aspiring gag writers. Those who couldn’t afford the cover charge would wait at or by the long bar in the front room. (Downstairs at the Upstairs was an elegant but small space at the back of the ground floor. It only accommodated about 50 customers.) Before and after Rivers did her hilarious thing, the gagsters would ply her with their one-liners. Since I never saw money change hands, I’ll only say that if Rivers thought she could use what was handed her, she supposedly paid $5 for it.

(Rivers, like any comics, wrote most of her material but did collaborate with others. I know one writer with whom she’s toiled for years—a fellow whose iconoclastic wavelength is hers exactly.)

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The highly impressive aspect of Rivers’s long Downstairs at the Upstairs run is that she never stopped honoring it. Irving Haber and his warren long ago went the way of so many Manhattan fixtures, but she has never ceased settling on a local spot where she could maintain her comic muscle and work new material.

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In recent years whenever she’s not booked elsewhere, she had a succession of Downstairs at the Upstairs replacements. She played the Fez room under Time Café. When that shuttered, she moved to The Cutting Room. Then it was on to the Laurie Beechman Theatre under West Bank Café, where she’s been the Wednesday night staple for quite a few seasons.

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It’s hardly a surprise that she was testing new material at the Laurie Beechman the night before her unsuccessful endoscopy. That was the inarguably seminal Joan Rivers all over.

How did Joan Rivers get to be Joan Rivers? How does anyone get to where Joan Rivers got? It’s like the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice.