Robert Temple - Author of The Sphinx Mystery

Joan Rivers Presents Mr Phyllis
& Other Funny Stories.

The Bitter End as it was in the mid-1960s, when Joan Rivers appeared there. (The club opened in 1961.)

The Bitter End in later years.

I knew Joan Rivers in the mid-1960s before she had become famous. In view of the fact that she has recently died, I thought it might be interesting for people if I recorded a few things about her from those days. She and Edgar Rosenberg had only just been married, and the birth of their daughter was still very much in the future, when I first got to know them. Edgar was several years older than Joan, and that seemed to make her feel secure, as she was often very nervy and excitable and sometimes needing calming. Edgar himself was a very calm and tolerant person, of a sweet and kindly nature, and he adored Joan. She was his princess. They lived at that time in a small and very unglamorous Manhattan apartment, not having much money. When one was asked to supper (she was always effusive in her invitations, as she was in everything), it meant sitting with Joan and Edgar at the kitchen table eating spaghetti. Edgar did a lot of cooking and preparing and housework. I do not recall Joan being a vegetarian at that time, though she was later well known for it. Edgar wanted more than anything for Joan to be a success in her career as a comedienne and he was her biggest supporter. She was already achieving some early success but was teetering on the brink of either really making it or not making it, which is a nervous moment for anyone. She made a hilariously funny vinyl record, which she gave me and which I still have, entitled MR. PHYLLIS & OTHER FUNNY STORIES. The record was issued by Warner Brothers (W1610) in either 1965 or 1966. I have scanned the front cover to go with this account. The text on the back is so appalling that I have not scanned it! Not many people were aware of the existence of this mono record (it was not even issued in stereo) except her circle of friends, and I do not expect many copies survive. In it, she recorded some of her wonderfully funny monologue skits about ‘Mr. Phyllis’, who was based upon her own hairdresser. Joan’s comedy material was then mostly autobiographical, and she talked and joked a lot about her upbringing by rather straight-laced Jewish parents, especially her dominant ‘Jewish mother’. Joan was very puritanical and prudish at that time, and she would rather die than utter a curse word in public or make an off-colour joke of any kind. I could never understand how she could change so completely and become renowned for extremely rude jokes later on, as it was so entirely against her nature. Joan was at that time managed by a wonderful man named Jack Rollins, who cultivated a coterie of young comedians, of whom Woody Allen (who had not yet made a film) was the most successful, and Joan was his client who showed signs of coming up second. Another of Jack’s clients and protégés was Dick Cavett, a charming young man with a wonderfully droll manner as a stand-up comic. He used to appear a lot at the Bitter End, and at the Bon Soir at 40 West 8th Street, where Joan herself had had a big success.

Joan’s husband Edgar Rosenberg,
such a sweet man.

The Bon Soir on West 8th Street, where Joan and Dick Cavett were such a success, as it was in the mid-1960s.

I remember he used to joke about the black and white shoes he once wore as a student at Yale. Everyone was astonished later when he suddenly became a famous television host of the Tonight Show, for which, as it turned out, he was perfectly suited. At the time I knew them, Joan, Dick, and all of the gang were basing their comedy material on their own lives and embarrassing personal experiences and recollections. They would often go and try out their new material on each other at a small comics’ club called The Improvisation in the west forties. I remember one night I was there with Joan and Howard Storm (another Rollins client, and a very talented comic whom I got to know pretty well) watching Rodney Dangerfield try out some of his newest jokes to see which ones got the best laughs, and Rodney saw me writing them down in a notebook. He became very alarmed and came over to our table afterwards and started challenging me about it. Joan told him to calm down (because Rodney could get over-excited sometimes), saying ‘He’s with us, Rodney, he’s not going to steal any of your material, I swear! I’ve asked him to write some material for me and he’s studying what everybody’s doing at the moment, but I absolutely swear we would never pinch one of your jokes! Can you imagine me doing that, Rodney?’ Rodney relaxed, laughed, and joined us for a drink. As for Jack Rollins, he was uncle, Papa, psychiatrist, and best friend to his gang of comics, and Joan and the others loved and revered him. I believe him to be directly responsible for the success of all of them. He was later to be co-producer of all of Woody Allen’s films. I think it can honestly be said that we owe the public success of not only Woody Allen but also Joan Rivers, Dick Cavett, and numerous other outstanding comic talents to the nurturing, patient, and determined guidance of their mentor Jack Robbins. I know that Joan adored him and wholly depended on him in those early days. I knew all of these people at that time, and they were truly exciting times. What a great privilege it was to be a witness to the birth of modern American comedy, which was to have such a profound and constructive influence upon America and the entire world. The films of Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, the personalities and performances of Richie Pryor, Maddy Kahn, Dick Cavett, Fannie Flagg, Gene Wilder (the latter two not being Rollins clients), and all the others who started out in the sixties, have enriched the lives and gladdened the hearts of tens of millions of people. But of all of those comedians, who were such delightful people, Joan was the sweetest, most lovely, sensitive, and by far the kindest and most generous-hearted. How her friends and fans will miss her, as she was irreplaceable! And to use a New York Jewish phrase (pardoning its male gender): ‘She was such a mensch!’


© Robert Temple 2009-2022