Dale Reeves and I were talking music, when Little Mrs. Goldfarb chimed in, “My granddaughter wants cello lessons, but she’s not old enough to have a vibrating instrument between her legs!” Dale was a founder of The American Comedy Network: a syndicate that provided song parodies to radio stations nationwide. Little Mrs. Goldfarb is a character I made up. Her voice made Dale cock his head like a dog hearing a sound humans don’t register, “You could do Joan Rivers!” he said. He’d heard a certain vocal quality.
So I bought “Can We Talk”, Joan’s comedy album. I wasn’t a huge fan of Joan River’s humor, but I picked up on her rhythm: Badada Badada Badada—BUH! That wretch at the end of a phrase was a laugh trigger— like a doctor’s hammer tapping your funny bone. I found her voice by pushing out from my gut into the back of my throat.
My impression of Joan Rivers became a cottage industry. I did Joan on TV and radio commercials. I did Joan on novelty records. I did Joan in the comedy clubs. Joan’s autobiography revealed that Joan Rosenberg from Larchmont, New York had dreamed of becoming a serious stage actor. I too had dreamed of a career on the Broadway stage, but had veered off into stand-up. I got her.
For more than 20 years, Joan Rivers was one of the most popular guests on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but her decision to host her own late night talk show and go up against the “King of late night,” ended the longtime bond between Rivers and Carson, her mentor. The big break-up, brake-out or betrayal, depending on who you spoke or listened to, was the talk of the comedy clubs. Every comic had an opinion, but it was Bill Scheft who came up with the hilarious idea of imagining Joan and Johnny duking it out as a rap song.
Bill was a fan of Those Gennaro Sisters at Caroline’s and knew my singing impressions of rock stars at Catch A Rising Star, so he asked me to rap as Joan, and got political comic Randy Credico to do his dead-on Johnny Carson impression. The Joan and Johnny Rap got airplay on WNBC’s afternoon drive program, The Joey Reynolds Show. Joey invited us on the show as Joan and Johnny and invited us back again and again. One day I started to tear up as I told Joey “I feel really bad about what had happened between Johnny and me.” A New York Post reporter called in. He thought I was really Joan and wanted to quote me on Page Six. Flattered but queasy about the ruse, I said “Call my agent,”
Soon I was a regular on the show playing “Celebrity Guests”; some derived from my original stand-up characters, like Miss America Pageant contestant Cammy-Jo-Anne-Marie Apple-Betty Anderson, who I turned into Texas Super-Model /Mick Jagger wife, Jeri Hall.
It was very cool to be broadcasting from the NBC studios in Rockefeller Center, where the real Johnny Carson had taped The Tonight Show when it was in New York. I loved the Deco building’s architecture, it’s golden glow and shiny floors, passing by excited ticket holders lined up in the lobby to be in the studio audience for that day’s Letterman taping. Knowing I was on my way to work as an actor in the WNBC studio! Howard Stern had recently been fired, and Soupy Sales, whose adult kids show I’d watched as a child was hosting the radio show that aired before Joey.
Joey’s cast consisted of his wise-cracking side kick Al Rosenberg (a dear man), his engineer; Jay “the Jock” Sorenson, who inserted musical snippets into the raucus insanity, and “trafficologist”, Jane Dornacker reporting from the N-Copter.
Jane Dornaker was a witty fast-talker and brave person. Jane had survived a helicopter crash earlier that year. Undaunted, she was back on the air reporting car crashes from the copter. I was impressed. Jane was tickled by my ”guest appearance” as Alison Snooze—who I loosely based on WNEW radio personality, Alison Steele, “The Nightbird.” Jane was also an actor and rock musician. She appeared with The Tubes and performed her own sophisticated sexy cabaret act downtown.
Reaganomics was in full swing, and New York Magazine readers were being bombarded by magazine advertisements featuring Real Estate Mogul and Queen of the Helmsley Palace, Leona Helmsley* ,And now, Leona could also be heard! On The Joey Reynolds Show! Leona’s ear splitting whine, staff of mistreated servants, and Lucy-like ambition to be a radio star barged out of me fully formed and chomping at the bit to steal the show. Headphones in place, Leona sat itching for the damn traffic report to be over so she could talk! “At least the chick in Chopper cuts to the chase. I’ll give her that.” she thought.
Jane Dornaker plowed through rubbernecking delays, overturned tractor trailers, and a disabled vehicle in the right-hand lane before the Kosciuszko blah blah blah at top speed, but the litany was endless!—An accident southbound on the Major Deegan at the Mosholu Parkway—Who cared? A car fire at Hudson and Canal Street — Shuuut Up! ” Leona wanted to scream. Jane Dornacker must have read Leona’s mind. She stopped talking mid-sentence. All you could hear was the helicopter engine. Then we all heard Jane Dornacker screaming “Hit the water!” Hit the water!” followed by static and five seconds of dead air.
Months later, WNBC’s program director Dale Parsons asked me to come to his office where he showed me a handful of fan letters for Leona and offered me Jane Dornaker’s job. It was surreal. Jane had survived one helicopter crash only to die in another. It was impossible to think of replacing her, and I certainly didn’t want to be a traffic reporter. I didn’t know how to drive, let alone have any idea where the boroughs were. Dale assured me I’d have an assistant to create the reports and I wouldn’t have to go up in a helicopter. “Think about it.” Unlike Al Rosenberg or the men who were paid to just be funny it seemed a woman comic had to do double duty as a traffic reporter to earn a regular salary. This was wrong. So wrong. My decision was made.
A week later, I put on a pale pink satin blouse, black leather mini skirt and my black leather trench coat and high heels and entered the office of WNBC’s Vice President and General Manager, John Hayes with a kind of ridiculous ballpark figure in mind. “Can We Talk?”