Joan Rivers at the at the 53rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Century City, California, November 4, 2001. Photo by Jaguar PS / Shutterstock.com.
Everybody’s sister, brother, brother-in-law and third cousin twice removed is telling his or her Joan Rivers story today, so I might as well log in with mine.
It’s the very early eighties and, as it goes in Hollywood, I’m in one of my intermittent hot periods, having just written Bustin’ Loose for Richard Pryor, ergo the powers that be thought I could be funny. (I’m not altogether sure they were right.) I got what was then a dream job, writing a script for Lily Tomlin. The premise was that Lily would play a “psychic detective” based on an Italian-American woman in New Jersey who was then doing clairvoyant investigations for the police. I met the woman. Lily told me she wanted me to write her as if she were Al Pacino. Cool, I thought.
So I wrote this script. I don’t remember much of it, except that Lily had a parrot that was, naturally, a wisenheimer. Lily seemed to like my screenplay, as did her agent, the late Sam Cohn, who was a big deal in those days. He said it would be Lily’s next movie and, if Sam said so, that was good enough for me.
Until I got a phone call. Lily had been fired. What, I thought? Screenwriters were used to being fired, even the best of us, but Lily Tomlin? The producer, a fellow named Mark Trabulis, told me the studio didn’t think Lily was commercial. They wanted Joan Rivers.
Double what, I thought? Joan Rivers?! In those days, I thought Joan was an unfunny crass vulgarian best left to second-tier Vegas lounges. (That wasn’t the only thing I was stupid about in those days.) Would I do the next draft for Joan? By then I had become friends with Lily and felt guilty about betraying her.
But I bit the bullet and, being as crass as I had considered Joan, agreed to meet her with Trabulis. We went to her house in Beverly Hills where I was also introduced to her husband Edgar (sadly later a suicide). Suffice it to say, the meeting did not go well. I was probably having a hard time hiding my disappointment about Lily and I don’t think I made much of an impression on Joan. After some rather pointless chitter-chatter in which I gathered she wanted the script rewritten entirely from page one and retooled for her, Joan turned to the producer and asked to speak to him alone.
I knew the end was nigh. I sat in the car until Trabulis joined me. ”It’s over,” I said. He nodded. ”What did she say?” I asked. ”She said you’re a depressed Jew,” said Trabulis.
Joan, as we know, was ever direct and, in this case, she was probably right. At that point in my life, I was fairly depressed. I’m not now. Part of the reason is that I’m more like Joan Rivers these days. I’m more honest, with myself and others. I mean — what’s to lose? That’s what Joan taught us, not to mention life itself. It was also the root of her humor.