by Jeffrey Charles Marder
In November, 1987, I walked off-stage at Catch A Rising Star Comedy Club in Caesar’s Palace, Lake Tahoe. I had just closed a lightly attended show. It was early in the week, and historically those club performances are never crowded. Imagine, then, my surprise to see Joan Rivers and a few members of her posse sitting in the rear of the club. Sometimes you wish for a little more control over your “pinch-me” moments in show biz. I introduced myself to Joan with a bit of a back story.
“Joan, my name is Jeff Marder,” I told her. “My mother, Barbara, and her writing partner, Lenny Ripps, used to write your newspaper column along with some jokes in the mid-1970s.”
Her reaction was genuine as both names registered with her instantly. She was highly complimentary of them both, which helped soften the fact that I had just unknowingly performed in front of Joan F—ing Rivers on a shit Tuesday without knowing it. Joan was headlining in the main room that weekend and had arrived in town early. It was a big deal as it was to be her first public performance since the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, in August of that year at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia.
Our first real exchange other than the introductory pleasantries went like this.
Me: “You look great.”
Joan: “What can I say? Death becomes me!”
As twisted as that response may appear in print, it had the immediate effect of putting everyone, including myself, at ease. This was a major star who had suffered a massive personal tragedy and had all but disappeared from the public eye to regain her equilibrium and muster the inner strength to want to get back on stage in front of strangers to tell jokes again.
There was tremendous significance behind that sentence. Joan was getting back on the bucking bronco that is show business. Live stand-up is a different animal. It’s not sanitized like a television sit-com, and there weren’t multiple takes as there are in film to get it just right. Real pressure in real time with an audience that was all too aware of the heartache that America’s funniest woman had been going through.
If my concerns centered on “I wonder if Joan Rivers thought I was funny,” the pressure of her upcoming performances must have been a Richter scale magnitude differential, the likes of which were incomprehensible for a 27-year-old club comic like me.
I’m not exactly sure what happened next, but Joan was surrounded by good people. So good in fact that I remember most if not all of them by name. I believe her assistant’s name was Dorothy. Her manager was Bill Sammeth. Bill’s sister, Barbara, was there along with Jim Stafford and Mary Wilson, one of the original Supremes. On the next morning, Wednesday, Nov. 25, all of us except for Joan and Mary walked into town for no good reason. Tahoe ain’t Vegas. It’s not pedestrian-friendly, but it’s great if you want to gamble and bear hunt, the same day. I just remember a lot of laughs during our outing. Walking single file for miles trying to avoid getting hit by cars (there are a shitload of Subarus in Tahoe) makes strangers bond quickly.
Jann Karam, the middle act and girlfriend at the time, had flown back to Los Angeles to tape her first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (Nov. 27, 1987). When we got back to the hotel, Joan asked me what my plans were for Thanksgiving. I don’t remember if it was my response or lack thereof which prompted her to offer without hesitation, “Then you’ll spend it with all of us up here in my suite.” As I type that memory all these years later, guess what? It’s still as cool as it sounds. Joan F—ing Rivers insisting that I spend Thanksgiving with her and her posse in her suite at Caesars Tahoe.
There was food, there was laughter, somebody may have sung, but as incredibly cool and as much of a career threshold moment your first Tonight Show taping is, this was surreal. The boy from Brooklyn who watched jokes for Joan being manufactured out of the den of his house was now sharing Thanksgiving with Joan Rivers and company a mere 13 years later.
Bill Sammeth managed Joan Rivers AND Cher at the same time during the height of his career. He could not have been more down-to-earth, approachable and affable. To his credit, he avoided becoming a diva after managing the careers of two notorious ones. We kept in touch for years after Tahoe for no other reason than we literally had walked miles in each other’s footsteps that one day in Lake Tahoe.
Years later, after Bill retired, we ran into each other outside Marmalade Restaurant in Santa Monica. I asked him what drove Joan Rivers. Bill told me she was obsessed with remaining famous. To a layman that sentence doesn’t read well, but in a business that eats you up and spits you out, you’re under constant pressure to reinvent yourself, which Joan Rivers did many times with great success.
Those incarnations are well documented, so I’ll spare you the recap. Ultimately her first career and first love made Joan a disruptive force within the industry. If being a comedian gives you Green Beret-type skills, being a gigantic female star comic gave her elite Special Forces Ranger status with an honorary Mossad badge thrown in. You are a force not to be played with. Iconic, legendary, ground-breaking, ball-buster, fierce, loyal, diva, ruthless, ninja, sinner, saint. They all apply.
Our lives intersected when I crossed paths with a superstar on a Tuesday in November in Lake Tahoe. She will be missed, she will be remembered, and she will be studied. And for her, every day will be Thanksgiving.
Thank you, Joan Rivers, for giving a young man a glimpse behind the veil. These are tears of love.
Jeff Marder is a professional standup comic who now lives in California. He was brought to our attention by Brett Harrison, a local freelance writer and former standup comic who occasionally writes for the Local.