Barry Lewis: When I met Joan Rivers

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Joan Rivers was putting the finishing touches on her makeup when an 18-year-old knocked on her door backstage at Kutsher’s resort.

I introduced myself as a columnist for Panorama Magazine, hoping for a few minutes of her time to do a quick interview for the readers of our Catskills publication.

I left out the part that the magazine was a glorified weekly summer shopper and that I was as green a journalist as her eye-shadow.

Even in the waning years of the Borscht Belt, the two dozen or so remaining resorts still paid headliners big bucks on a Saturday night to attract outsiders to fill their nightclubs beyond the hotel guests.

And in 1978, there were few comedians in show business bigger than Joan Rivers.

She was the queen of stand-up, THE guest host for Carson on “The Tonight Show” and director and co-writer for the comedy film “Rabbit Test” starring Billy Crystal.

But when she answered the knock and heard the pitch for an interview, she was just another Jewish mom with Brooklyn roots who said “Sure,” in the raspy voice I first heard as a kid watching Ed Sullivan. She asked if I had eaten, offered me food and started moving chairs around so we could sit and schmooze. I started her off with some common family history.

“You know, my grandmother has told me that your father (Dr. Meyer Molinsky) brought my father into the world.”

She didn’t miss a beat.

“Well, I hope she paid the bill.”


We talked Catskills, comedy and Carson. I asked if there were lines she wouldn’t cross for a joke and she said, “It’s comedy — if I don’t think I’ll get a laugh, I won’t say it. You’ve got to be willing to go to the very edge of the cliff. And yeah, sometimes you do fall off it.”

She gave me self-deprecating lines about aging, the struggles of being a show business mom and questions about my future after college before the small room quickly filled and the interview was done. Someone took a picture of us and I thanked her for her time.

A year later, in that same Kutsher’s dressing room, Joan Rivers again agreed to sit and chat as if we were old friends. The conversation quickly picked up where we left off the year before. I was still fiddling with my recorder when she grilled me on college, my parents and life in the Catskills.

Rivers, like most of the entertainers I met with who cut their show biz teeth fine-tuning their act in the hundreds of small hotels that once lined these country roads, returned years later as stars — generous with their time and patience from what I suspect were feeble questions from a very raw reporter.

I thought of that, and Rivers’ line about willing to go to the edge when I’d watch her over the years perform with that same very special mix of comic genius and timing.

I caught her on TV before she got sick, promoting her latest book, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” going near — some said she went over — the edge, when comparing herself as an author to Anne Frank. You could only imagine.

I’ll admit I laughed. A lot. And shook my head at her chutzpah. She was near the cliff. She was Joan Rivers.

Barry Lewis is executive editor of the Times Herald-Record. Contact him at