Reflections of a Former Joke-Writer for Joan Rivers

Now that I’ve reached the age of 80, a milestone year if ever there was one, I thought it’d be a fitting time to revisit some moments from my life as a writer—for better or for worse.

Let’s bypass the rave reviews I received from my parents for a play I wrote and starred in at nine, Detective Dick, and skip along to 1964. I’d just graduated from the University of Chicago with a B.A. in Humanities and was living with a friend in Berkeley, California.

I decided to launch my freelance career by writing poems and greeting card ideas—two surefire money makers. Some poems got published, most suffered a less happy fate. As in: “Sorry we won’t be able to use your poem, but we did like parts and particles of it.” The word “the” in the second line of the third stanza, I surmised, the third syllable of the eighth word in the fifth line of the second stanza, the…

I also submitted poems to various anthologies. One replied: “Of the six poems you sent, we’d love to publish five—unfortunately one’s unsuitable for our needs.” I was highly flattered until discovering there’d be a small charge for the anthology.

Meanwhile, I sent off l60 pages of ideas to American Greeting Cards— hoping the enterprise shown might lead to a possible job down the line. A few weeks later I received a $75 check and note: “Thank you for your many creative and erudite ideas, good luck,” meaning don’t knock on this door again.

Through a guy in Manhattan who published a comedy newsletter, I started writing jokes for Phyllis Diller. I’d send her 100 or so gags at a time, and she’d buy maybe 15-20, at $5 each, which didn’t exactly put me on easy street, but no matter, being in my own company was endlessly amusing and entertaining—life was a non-stop comedy club.

I eventually moved to Manhattan—and soon my contacts widened. One day the phone rang: “Hi, it’s Joan Rivers, we think you’re funny.” Rivers was then performing at a nightclub called Upstairs At The Downstairs, and I met her and her husband/manager Edgar after the early show one night, in a small, dimly-lit room upstairs…at Upstairs At The Downstairs…

Rivers seemed wary and guarded and interested only in checking me out. Edgar, a Svengali-like figure wearing horn-rimmed glasses, sat behind her and—as I recall—never said a word. A fun, bubbly pair they were not, and the interview lasted about five minutes.

I was later hired as a writer for a Rivers morning TV show, which led off with her doing a monolog.  There were five or six writers, and each of us submitted around l0 or so jokes every day; of these she used about l5. The only joke of mine I ever saw Rivers perform was: “I’m a really sloppy dresser. I was wearing a floor-length gown, and my slip was still showing,” and it later appeared in an Earl Wilson column. I was on my way!

We turned our jokes in after lunch each day and waited in the hallway while Rivers closed the door to her office and read them.  One day, emerging, she glanced at us with a hard, withering look, and said, “not funny.” Out of some 60 jokes, not one had passed muster.  The writers exchanged anxious, twitchy glances.

And then it hit me: This is a totally foolish thing to be doing, and I walked out and left gag-writing behind forever,

Nelson Algren

At loose ends, I headed next to the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, most noteworthy for a course I took from Nelson Algren ( Man With A Golden Arm), which proved  less instructive than billed, mainly because Algren himself never showed up—not once the entire semester. I later learned he’d spent the bulk of his time there playing poker.

Hoping at least to get credit for the course, I turned in a story before I left. Several months later I received it back, in a battered yellow envelope, In the margins Algren had written one comment: “I hate this story.”

—-

After this rather rocky beginning (and I few other detours), I went on to have a very happy career in publishing, as a writer and magazine editor. And I had a eureka early on, which will sound absurdly simplistic but which has served me well. Nothing I wrote was being published, so one day I took a fresh look at my output and asked myself: “What do I need to do that I’m not?”

As the heavens thundered and lighting rent the sky, the answer came roaring back: Write Better!

Duh.

Elmore Leonard

Specifically, I needed to both enrich and tighten stuff (stories, articles, essays)—add and subtract. And it worked—not to sound arrogant, but from then on most things I wrote found a home. (Regarding the red-pencil process, btw, novelist Elmore Leonard said it best: “I delete the parts that readers tend to skip over.”)

Along the way, I also helped launch or relaunch five national print magazines (back when there were such things) and went on to become the editor-in-chief of two and a senior editor at the other three. One, in particular, tested my staying power and inner fortitude: World, a  lavishly-illustrated general-interest magazine published by—odd as it may sound—KPMG, the world’s largest accounting firm. One big perk: Every year I travelled with a photographer to write a cover piece on a country in the news—stops that included Canada, Mexico, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Taiwan, and China (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong).

Typically I’d meet with 10 or so business, financial, and government leaders, an intimidating group of folks indeed. Over time, however, I developed a surefire interviewing technique: I’d wear a pinstriped suit and vest, square my shoulders, rise in the chair to full height, and ask my questions in a loud, commanding voice—punctuated with artfully timed pauses and  gestures and facial expressions.

I’d fake it, in other words. As long as I appeared to be knowledgeable, all was well. That I rarely understood the answers posed no problem—I had them on tape, which somebody else could make sense of later.

Perhaps the most stressful (and complex) interview I ever had was with the President of  a large bank in Spain. That he’d recently been visited by Ronald Reagan didn’t exactly lower my anxiety level. The President spoke no English (or chose not to) so I met with the translator beforehand, Camila, a stunning young woman, who outlined my options: Either she would summarize each answer, or speak softly into my ear and simultaneously translate.

“I’ll take the ear one,” I said.

The President sat imperiously behind an imposing desk for the interview, looming over me, and also present were several officers from the bank as well as senior members of our firm. At a signal the room grew silent, and all eyes turned toward me.

I—who’d had to take a summer make-up course in 8th grade geometry—asked my first question in a booming, resonant voice that told all parties present I was someone to be reckoned with, banking-wise. But then, as the President answered, Camila leaned nearer (holding the tape recorder close) and began translating, her warm, moist breath caressing the deepest inner recesses of my left ear and throwing my inner compass into a total tailspin—my next question might well have been, “Sir, are you free for dinner tonight?”

Well, you get the picture.

I see my time’s nearly up, so a parting thought: I’ve found my interviewing technique works equally well with public speaking. Stand tall and talk in a loud, assertive voice, and you’ll have the audience in the palm of your hand.

Without exception: A good speech is a loud speech.


Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings. He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and as senior editor at the others.

 


 

12 Replies to “Reflections of a Former Joke-Writer for Joan Rivers”

  1. I absolutely loved this article Bob! It’s about your indomitable spirit of can do. I love your insights and ever present sense of humor. Great writing

  2. What a joy to read. Have you written a memoir? I think you have had a fascinating life and you are such an honest writer. Always look forward to reading your stories.

  3. Hi Bob, as usual your excellent faculty of self-deprecation adds to every one of your stories and makes it unique. I also enjoyed your clear presentation of what every artist (be it musician, painter, writer, or sculptor) goes through in life to barely survive. Your interior strength comes through at all times, and am so happy you have reached such high positions as a writer; also, the way it opened the world to you. I also love your diction! Bravo!

  4. My good friends know I’m hopeless at telling jokes. Would you consider writing a few one-liners that I could trot out at parties to impress people? Another great piece, Bob. Thanks!

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