Before she became a staple on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," made herself into a household name and forged a second career out of mocking celebrity fashions, Joan Rivers was one of the first female stand-up comics to break the disingenuous, male-dominated mold that was so pervasive in the comedy world.
In the 2012 oral history, "We Killed: The Rise Of Women In American Comedy," curated by Yael Kohen, Joan Rivers recalls how she got her unlikely start in comedy back in 1960s Greenwich Village. As Kohen notes, Rivers' humor was similar to the new, conversational style pioneered by Woody Allen and took cues from Phyllis Diller's self-deprecating one-liners, but she did it with style -- in a little black dress and pearls.
"I wanted to be an actress. And when I would make the rounds to the agents, I would always make the secretaries laugh so they would remind the agent about me. Then someone said, 'You can make a little money, your'e funny. A friend of mine is a stand-up, they make $8 a night. You should go down and be a stand-up.' And I thought, 'How great, I can do that at night and make the rounds during the day.' And that's how I started in comedy."
As Joan continued to work on her comedic voice and did a brief stint at Chicago's "Second City," she started to realize how different her act was from the standard material of the time, particularly in her rejection of the accepted notion of how a woman was supposed to think.
"I was talking about having an affair with a married professor and that wasn't a thing a nice Jewish girl talked about. And I was talking about my mother, desperate to get my sister and me married. I was talking about my gay friend Mr. Phyllis, and you just didn't talk about that. It sounds so tame and silly now but my act spoke to women who weren't able to talk about things. How nice it was to have a girl that's fairly attractive stand up and say, 'My mother wants me to get married but I don't want to,' or 'I hated this date.'"
As she hit her stride, she came to understand that she was part of a new wave of comedians who used the truth to their advantage, played up their own faults and insecurities and didn't rely on stagnant formats of the past.
"And when I heard Lenny Bruce I suddenly realized, I'm absolutely on the right track here. I had seen Lenny Bruce very early on when I was on a date. He was just talking about the truth: he wasn't doing mother-in-law jokes, because he didn't have a mother -in-law. He was talking from his life experiences. I thought to myself, 'My God, he's doing what I"m doing.' I was talking about things that were really true."
For more of Joan in her own words and a thorough history of the American comedian, check out "We Killed."