I have normally post silly pictures with sillier captions on this blog (which I have slacked on as of late). I’m switching it up for this post because I want to share this tribute I wrote for my friend Joan Rivers:
The first time I opened for Joan Rivers I was super intimidated. We were doing sound check and she says to me, “Do you say fuck?” I nervously stammered out, “Uh, sometimes. Depends on the gig but I am a fan of the word.” She goes, “Well, on stage tonight you can say it ONCE. I’m sorry to ask that but I say it sooo much I don’t want the audience to get sick of it before I’m up there.”
Well, I’ve said it more than once today Joan!
I had always admired Joan Rivers. I remember as a little boy seeing her host the Tonight Show and, of course, as the voice of Dot Matrix in Spaceballs but I was not very familiar with her actual stand up. Once I started working with her and had the opportunity to watch her on stage night after night I was completely in awe of her. Always moving material around, inserting new jokes she thought of that afternoon or moments before going on stage, still in her late 70’s doing physical comedy, falling on the stage, getting on top of a piano, incorporating something that happened that day in the news/tabloids into the act… It was always about the act. An act she had perfected over the course of 5 decades in show business.
As an opening act I was always keenly aware that no one was there to see Brad Stewart. Joan still made me feel like it was my show too. She would not start the show until everyone was in their seats for me. For me! The opener!!! Most headliners could give a shit about that. We were doing a show at a casino once and there was a bar at the side of the stage. There were a lot of people mingling at the bar area and not taking their seats. Joan peeked through a slit in the curtains. No one could see her but she could see them and she said, “All of you at the bar. We are not starting the show until you take your seats! I’m serious.” Some guy at the bar raised his middle finger and Joan goes, “You, sir, at the bar. I can see you. Fuck you too. Now sit down.” She’d do all the announcements herself from the side of the stage out of view (she was not finished with hair and make up after all). She would say, “It’s great to be here….where the fuck are we again?” And then act very disappointed when she found out. “Tulsa? It’s come to that.” She’d then say, “Welcome to an evening of comedy and comedy!” (I was the first comedy). “With Mr. Brad Stewart! Ms. Joan Rivers. The (insert made up name of band here). Now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage, the best opening act in his price range, Mr. BRAD STEWART!!” Only once did she change that introduction for me. I did a show with her shortly after my dad died and she said, “…Dean Stewart’s son, BRAD STEWART!” I almost cried but that would not have been funny. The fact that she introduced me herself was great for me. It gave me credibility. The audience knew I was Joan approved.
She treated me like a peer. She would ask me suggestions on jokes of hers and I was thrilled when she’d use them. One night she came off stage and said, “That thing about the cage you gave me is really working!”
Oh, one more thing about her introductions. She always hired a local band for each show to play us off and on and do a couple bits with. She would make up a name for the band at every show. If it was a college she’d ask what the school’s rival or most hated team was and then name the band after THAT team. When we did a show in Iowa she called the band “The Nebraska Cornhusker Marching Band” to loud jeers from the crowd. Or once when John Travolta was in the tabloids being accused of soliciting a man during a massage Joan called the band “The John Travolta Happy Ending Orchestra”! Another time we were at sound check but there was no band. Joan was growing impatient and asked where they were. Someone said they all went to the bathroom. “All of them?” Joan said. They finally arrived and got a stern but hilarious scolding from Joan. That night at the show Joan introduced them as “The Incontinent 5”. Even though she’d give the band a hard time she would thank them after and give them all gifts. Making fun of the band was just part of the act. It was always about the act.
There are many of Joan’s earlier jokes that people may not even realize they were hers because they’ve become so ingrained in the national lexicon. Like how many times have you heard, “More chins than a Chinese phone book”? That’s Joan’s. I could watch her perform over and over again (and I did). I can’t believe I got paid to share a stage with Joan Rivers and then to sit and watch her work! I got paid for that? Lucky doesn’t begin to describe how I feel. I am extremely sad and devastated about Joan’s death but I also feel incredibly fortunate that I got to work with and know this amazing woman.
She was uncomfortable with compliments in general. Once when my Uncle tried to thank her for how well she treated me she said, “Oh, shut up!” and dismissed him with a wave of her hand. I called Joan a comedy legend once. She didn’t like it. She said it made her sound washed up, dead. Well, you’re dead now Joan, God damn it, so I’m going to call you a comedy legend again. You are a legend and that means you’ll never be dead. You left us so many jokes that you’ll live forever.
I love you Joan Rivers.