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Backstage with Ron Onesti: Comedy icon Joan Rivers talks the ‘tawk’ during spring show

Published: Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 10:12 a.m. CDT

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“Can we tawk?” She actually says that! Those were the first words out of her mouth when we were introduced at the Arcada Theatre this spring. She came in the back door, walked on stage and did a complete visual survey of the theater. “This is gorgeous,” she said. “Lincoln must have loved it here!”

We were shooting her latest Showtime television special, “Don’t Start With Me” back in March. After several weeks of preparation, the day finally came. We were all awaiting her arrival (at 7:30 in the morning). The director was pacing; the camera crew was already racking up the hours, and the donuts and green M&Ms were lined up in the dressing room. With all this stress looming and a hundred pairs of eyes on us, she took my arm and spent the first half-hour asking questions about the history of the theater and how we renovated it. It drove the production team crazy – we were already an hour behind schedule.

When I first saw her, I couldn’t help but notice her signature facial artistry. It was not as “plastic” as I had expected. As a matter of fact, she looked good! 

I embarrassingly caught myself staring at the sides of her face to see where the old ended and the new began. But still, she was a classy lady, dressed to the nines, hair perfectly styled. And she immediately took charge.  

She asked about the band, the set, the lighting – all without taking a breath. We had a three-piece band on stage left. On stage right was a makeshift orchestra – 10 blow-up dolls with musical instruments. Imagine the sight of six interns blowing up plastic (rigid, but non-union) musicians in the hallway, a strong “statement” about her “low budget show.”

After about an hour of barking orders here and pointing there, she retreated to the private tour bus we provided for her. 

Earlier, we dispatched a team of production assistants to secure 10 each of three shades of grey poster boards and five colors of paint-pens – serious stuff. She selected the medium colors and then proceeded to write down her jokes, cue-card style. She then went and laid each one down side-by-side on the floor of the stage. FYI, gray poster boards and a basket of paint- pens do not fetch much on EBay.

Her focus was incredible. Her eyes turned into the two spinning reels of tape on those vintage computers as she processed every detail about the show. 

Then out of the blue, she looked over at me and asked, “Did you get my gay boys?” 

She had called me a few days earlier and told me to make sure she had a large contingent of gay men in the first few rows. “They make a great audience for television,” she said. Talk about strange rider requests. Whatever happened to just a deli tray?

Not knowing if I was to go to some meeting or post an ad in the back of some magazine to accomplish this directive, I wasn’t sure how to go about doing this. So, I left the first three rows open and selected people who fit her “typecasting.” Talk about awkward. My lawyer had a twitch that day that I had rarely seen before.

Her show was intense. When I referred to her as “classy” earlier, well, that went out the window with each one of her jokes. 

I don’t think she was ever accused of being a “classy comic.” She proceeded to lambast those gay guys, the handicapped, myriad ethnic groups, senior citizens and even children – especially the “ugly” ones. Not to mention her take on the art of lovemaking as the 78-year-old writhed around on her back with legs jerking in the air. For the open-minded (and the strong stomached), really funny stuff.

After the first 15 minutes of the first show (there were two that night), she stopped the taping and had a heckling lady in the first row removed. 

I’m tellin’ ya, you don’t want to cross this small-framed “Terminator” wannabe! 

She re-started the show from the beginning, but the uneasiness of forced laughter over jokes previously heard was pretty eminent. She worked hard reeling the audience back in, and it wound up being a good show anyway.

For the second show, however, she came out with guns blazing like Yosemite Sam. It was 10 p.m., and she had been going for 15 hours already. She was joking, but not kidding anymore. 

She killed it. People were clutching their chests with laughter (some with disbelief). It was incredible to watch this consummate professional, this comedy icon do her thing. I don’t think I have ever seen a comic work so hard, but it was still melodic, smoothly tied together and rapid-firing.

After the show she gave me a great hug. For a brief moment, she turned into my aunt. I had to ask her why she did work so hard. After all, aside from nightly talk show hosts, she is on television more each month than any other entertainer in show biz. QVC, Home Shopping Network, the “Fashion Police,” red-carpet reporting, Bravo, etc., etc. Really, Joan ... why?

And she answered something to the effect of: “When you grow up during the Depression, have family go through the Holocaust, then try to make it as a comic on the “Borscht Belt” (a run of Jewish theaters in the Catskills of New York), you appreciate working and getting paid for it. Add a husband who committed suicide – all I can do is to seek the comfort I get from a laughing audience. Besides, ya know what Botox costs nowadays? My surgeon’s payment book is the size of ‘War And Peace’!”

Yes, can she “tawk!”

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of Onesti Entertainment Corp. and the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Send comments or questions to spark@kcchronicle.com.

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