By the time she died, Joan Rivers had such an engraved image as an outrageous, foul-mouthed comedian that it’s hard to believe that she started out intending to be a dramatic stage actress. In the late fifties, after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College with a degree in English lit and anthropology, she even played the then-daring part of lesbian in a play called “Driftwood” that had a six-week run in a 40-seat attic theater on West 49th Street. (Her lover was another still undiscovered young actress by the name of Barbra Streisand.) By the early sixties, however, Rivers wasn’t getting much theater work, so she accepted an offer from Fred Weintraub, the owner of The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, to join two other down-on-their luck entertainers name Jake Holmes and Jim Connell in a new act called “Jim, Jake and Joan.”
Last year’s sleeper Coen Brothers hit Inside Llewyn Davis offered a reminder, but it’s impossible to exaggerate how what a buzzing hive of talent, creativity and ambition Greenwich Village was in those days. In the music world, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Peter, Paul and Mary were shaking up the folk scene at Gerde’s Folk City and the Gaslight Café. At The Village Gate and the Half Note, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus were pushing the boundaries of jazz. At the Café Cinno, Off-Off-Broadway was being born. And at The Bitter End, Weintraub was proving that he could pack the house not just with musical acts like The Big 3, featuring the young Mama Cass, but a new generation of cerebral, confessional comedians that included Woody Allen and Bill Cosby.
Weintraub envisioned “Jim, Jake and Joan” as a hipper version of “The Revuers,” the musical sketch ensemble from the thirties that included Adolf Green, Betty Comden and Leonard Bernstein. Jake was a talented singer who had performed in a duo called “Allen & Grier” with his wife Kay before their manager, Roy Silver, had an affair with Kay that broke up the marriage and the act. Yet as Holmes would later recall, “Jim could sing okay [but] Joan couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” They also got into such huge fights that Joan stopped talking to the two men. The trio played the Bitter End every week for a year before breaking up, and only then did Rivers start developing a solo act telling self-deprecating jokes about her life as a single woman in suburban Larchmont.
Like Rivers, Cosby was also in the process of remaking his act when they began sharing the stage at The Bitter End in 1964. When he had first arrived in the Village in 1962, moonlighting at the Gaslight Café for the summer while still a student at Temple University, he had modeled himself after the hottest and most provocative black comic of the day. A feature story in The New York Times described Cosby as “hurling verbal spears at the relations between whites and Negroes” and quoted him as saying “Some people call me ‘the Philadelphia Dick Gregory, but that’s silly; I’m taller—and better looking.” But when Cosby saw the article in print, he realized that he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a Negro comic and began to develop his non-racial “Noah” routine and funny stories about childhood that would become his trademarks.
By the summer of 1963, Cosby had also acquired Roy Silver as his manager, and Silver had brought Sheldon Schultz, the booker for The Tonight Show, to the Bitter End to catch his act. Schultz put Cosby on the next week, on a night when folk satirist Allan Sherman was filling in for Johnny Carson, and he was an instant hit. Within weeks Cosby had a contract with Warner Bros. records that would lead to a string of wildly successful comedy albums. By 1965, he too was guest hosting for Carson, and a comic on the show bombed. Afterward, he said to Schultz: “Joan Rivers couldn’t be any worse than this guy. Why don’t you use her?”
Tonight Show talent scouts had rejected Rivers seven times before, but now suddenly she was on with Carson. “God, you’re funny,” he told her during her first appearance. “You’re going to be a star.” And from then on she was. (She sensed it the next day, when a bank cashier who had seen her on the show advanced her cash before her NBC check cleared.) When Rivers got her own Warner Bros. contract shortly afterward, Bill Cosby wrote the liner notes for her first album. “What’s a Joan Rivers?” he asked, answering generously: “The beautiful part about this comedienne is that she’s funny without doing all of the stereotypical things that blondes do to get a laugh…She will not pretend to be the dumbest girl in the world. Joan Rivers is a human being, not a kook. She is an intelligent girl without being a weirdo.”
The fact that they shared the same record label and the same manager (the ever-hustling Silver) no doubt played a role in that endorsement, but Rivers would always credit Bill Cosby for putting her on the map. And although they would become famous for utterly different styles of comedy—Rivers for her non-stop dirty jokes; Cosby for his folksy, clean storytelling—they shared several other life-altering experiences. They both had more professional setbacks along the way than any but their most obsessive fans know or remember. And they both suffered devastating personal tragedies—the suicide of a husband, the murder of an only son—that only their insatiable appetite for work and addictive power to make people laugh helped them endure.
The stories of this brainy but insecure Jewish girl from Brooklyn and funny but unfocused black kid from the projects of North Philadelphia also tell us something about ourselves. As fanciful as it may sometimes seem, the world of stand-up comedy embodies the most powerful tropes of the American dream. It is a meritocracy open to people of talent from all backgrounds (including privilege, like Robin Williams), but it also requires a fierce work ethic, an ability to seize luck and a gift for self-invention and reinvention. And when famous comedians leave us, we don’t just mourn the loss of laughter. We reflect on what we have come to know of the personal struggle and pain that gave rise to their comedy, and how it reminded us of our common humanity.
Mark Whitaker is the author of Cosby: His Life and Times (available Sept.16), a definitive biography on Bill Cosby based upon hours of interviews with Cosby and more than 60 of his friends, associates, castmates, and family. Whitaker is formerly the Managing Editor of CNN, Washington bureau chief for NBC News, and reporter and editor at Newsweek magazine, where he rose to become the first African-American to lead a national newsweekly. His critically acclaimed family memoir, My Long Trip Home, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Book Prize. Whitaker lives in New York City.