ENTER TALKING by Joan Rivers (Delacorte: $17.95; 376 pp.)
Growing up hearing her parents scream “You’re crazy!” to each other, to her, and to anyone else who penetrated their shaky upper-middle-class serenity made Joan Rivers decide to snatch professional insanity from the jaws of domestic amateurism and be wacky on a nightclub stage before a parent-audience capable of destroying her at any moment. As with the Dickens and Churchill families, maladjustment works in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.
Those who expect this memoir to be a compendium of one-liners will be disappointed. There are a few good ones--"my car was so old its headlights had cataracts . . . my knees were so fat they could have fed China for a year"--but chiefly, it is a deeply felt and superbly written story of an incredible struggle, with barely a trace of that smiling-through-tears banality that infects most books of this sort.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Jun. 29, 1986 An Omission
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 29, 1986 Home Edition Book Review Page 8 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
In our June 22 review of “Enter Talking,” we omitted the name of author Richard Meryman, who co-wrote the book with Joan Rivers.
Doctor’s daughter Joan Molinsky started out as the prototypical Jewish-American princess from suburban Larchmont, N.Y. Aching to be an actress but dissuaded by her parents from mixing with “that element,” she was graduated from Barnard and continued living at home because “you’ll leave here only as a bride.”
Her early life blended Marjorie Morningstar and Sinclair Lewis’ Ann Vickers: a disastrous affair with a bohemian from a prominent Jewish family followed by the ultimate despair of a typing and shorthand course at a business college. In the midst of a promising career in the fashion world as advertising director for several New York department stores, Rivers married the scion of one of them in a ceremony made memorable when the sleeves of the rabbi’s robe caught fire from the altar candles, to the edification of a WASP bridesmaid who did not know that Jews sacrificed the rabbi at their weddings.
When the marriage ended after six months, Rivers took the plunge into show business. The account of her early wade through sleaze is so vividly told that the reader is frequently tempted to stop and take a bath. Groveling before the gum-chewing, power-mad receptionists of two-bit agents and being cheated out of picayune sums by agents who operate out of phone booths are only a foretaste of what she endured on her first job.
Sent to a Boston club called the Show All--because that’s what the “exotic dancers” did--she was booed off the stage by men with one hand in their laps “when they realized I was not going to be absolutely filthy.”
Years of such jobs followed in places like Perth Amboy and Hoboken. The reader can almost smell the stale black-gone-gray plastic Cinzano ashtrays, almost taste the biting blends masquerading as bourbon, almost hear the moist, snorting laughter--what bad novelists call “mirthless"--of the kind of people made sadistic by their own emptiness: the people who must go out . . . somewhere, just out . . . anywhere, just out.
The Catskills hotels were not much better. Here Rivers’ act was frequently interrupted by loudspeaker requests (“Dr. Pinsky, please move your car”) or she had to work with a Yiddish translator (“Every line bombed twice”) to make herself understood to hopelessly rigidified senior citizens who looked upon the comedy act with the same grim determination they bestowed on the Jell-O and the shuffleboard court: They had paid for it and, by God, they were going to enjoy it.
This memoir has the narrative thrust of a novel, falling down only when the subject turns to Rivers’ love life. Either this aspect of life is relatively unimportant to her, and she felt she must get it over with by saying conventional things into the tape recorder, or else her male ghost believes that women-on-love demands triteness.
Whatever the reason, we get sentences like: “I had learned how all-encompassing, how forever, how exciting the first love is . . . how painful it is, how devastating, how exhausting emotionally.” And how unlike Rivers’ voice.
By contrast, and very refreshing in our age of knee-jerk compassion, is the streak of Darwinism she does not trouble to hide: “Talent rises to the surface like the best of cream because there is so little of it. . . . The ones with talent always make it, unless their neurosis is so great it stops them. Talent shines through. . . . Get their attention and their respect immediately. You are like a lion tamer on that stage, either master or victim, and there is no in-between.”
She gives us an analysis of the psychology of humor that ranks with the commentaries of Henri Bergson and George Meredith, but she fails to follow through on the touchy subject of women and humor.
“People like you when you make them laugh,” she says. Maybe, but humor exacts a price from a woman. She must poke fun at herself, as Rivers does in her Jewish princess routines, and she must downplay her sex appeal for the sake of the males in the audience who worry about what might happen if that sense of humor came down from the stage and slipped into their beds, because men regard their sexual performance as a sacerdotal function, and you mustn’t laugh in church. Yet, once a woman comic downplays her sex appeal, she must endure abuse from these same males, because men hate women who downplay their sex appeal.
There is no way out of this conundrum for a woman who needs approval as much as Rivers claims she does. A woman still may not do searing satire in the 18th-Century manner because it demands a trait that has been bred out, trained out, and knocked out of the female sex: curmudgeonry. A woman can get away with anything as long as she “loves people,” but she must never say, as did Jonathan Swift, “I hate and despise the animal called Man.”
“Comedy is anger, but anger is not comedy,” Rivers reminds us. True, anger is not comedy, but it is wit. A woman may be funny, but she dare not be witty unless, like Rhett Butler, she doesn’t give a damn. Rivers does give a damn, which makes her book a study of limitations.