by Jerry Waxler
After learning so many lessons from Steve Martin’s memoir “Born Standing Up,” I wanted more, so I jumped in to Joan Rivers’ memoir “Enter Talking.” Her path was remarkably similar to his. Year after year she too made a fool of herself in a desperate bid to please people, persisting through darkness, despair and frustration. What strange alignment of the stars caused these two comedians to suffer so we could laugh?
(To see my essay about Steve Martin’s journey click here.)
While their tales may seem to apply only to the stratospheric world of big celebrity performers, both started as ordinary people. And so, I found lessons in both their journeys that helped me on my struggle to travel from no readers to as many as possible.
Innovation makes publishers nervous
One contradiction sits mysteriously at the center of both their journeys. On one hand, audiences and talent scouts want to be entertained by a fresh voice, and on the other hand, gatekeepers shy away from an act that is too different from the ones that are already making money.
The road to success is littered with the dead acts and fatigued performers who have given up before making it through the gauntlet. And that’s exactly what makes Rivers and Martin so interesting, so informative, and in the end so famous – their relentless pursuit of unique excellence and their refusal to follow the herd. By continuing to push, inch by painful inch, they made almost imperceptible progress, polishing their act, gaining allies, and after each disappointment learning a lesson that would help them do better next time.
Their experience applies directly to memoir writers. Each memoir is its own thing. No one has ever done your particular life story before in your particular voice. But gatekeepers seek books that are similar to ones already on the bestseller list. How do you please them and stay true to yourself at the same time? These two memoirs offer insights into this seemingly impossible challenge.
Different decade, different coast
While the two memoirs bear remarkable similarities, they also have many differences. Steve Martin’s home base was Los Angeles from which he traveled to college campuses and small clubs all over North America, coping with endless miles of loneliness. Rivers’ home base was New York and her endless search was around town, begging agents’ secretaries for a few minutes with the boss, begging for stints at night clubs, venturing out of town for gigs in the Catskills, and a stint at the Second City Improv in Chicago.
Pacing of the memoir works like a thriller
Despite her relentless efforts, for six years Joan Rivers only had scattered success in a few clubs and occasional tours. But the Holy Grail of national exposure on television eluded her. When Jack Paar invited her on to his influential television show, she thought she had arrived. Weirdly, after the show he told his producers not to invite her back, calling her a “liar.” He didn’t understand that her ironically exaggerated stories were jokes. Crushed, she returned to small clubs.
After a few years, she was no longer a kid, and agents started to call her “old news,” and said if she was going to succeed she would have already done so. Over and over she hit the wall of rejection. This heart breaking cycle continued for hundreds of pages, like in a thriller in which the smell of disaster encourages readers to move on to the next page.
Finally, finally, at the very end of the book, her agent practically forced Johnny Carson’s producers to accept her for a spot. From the moment she walked on to the set, Carson clicked with her humor. He laughed. He fed her lines. And he praised her on camera. The tension broke, and the next day her agent called to tell her she would not earn less than $300 a week for the rest of her life. In a surge of joy and accomplishment, Rivers shouted at the world “I was right.”
Satisfying Character Arc
I found the almost abrupt end of the book to provide a focused emotional release equivalent to a well placed punch line. I think at least some of the satisfaction results from her character arc. As we follow her from amateur to professional comedian, the story arc shows us not only her external journey. It takes us deep inside Rivers’ psyche.
When she first tried her hand at comedy, she repeated jokes learned from other comedians. Gradually she tried more authentic material, improvised from her own experience. When she saw the irreverent performances of Lenny Bruce, she realized that he ferociously battled ignorance by telling truth more bluntly than it had ever been told. She had an epiphany that truth is the one thing that makes life worth living and she vowed to incorporate confession as the centerpiece of her comedy.
For example, she was hired at the last minute to take someone’s place in a performance. Many times in her career, she had been hired to do a gig and then fired after the first night by producers who hated her act. So she worked her fear into the routine. “I don’t know how long I’ll be working here. I notice they wrote my name in pencil on the poster out front.” She turned her vulnerability into a joke.
Her most vulnerable disclosures came from the arguments with her parents, who expected her to be more “normal.” She was a middle class girl with a degree from a prestigious college, daughter of a respected doctor. Desperate to succeed she moved out of the suburbs to live practically homeless in Manhattan, a move that so outraged and frightened her parents, they threatened to have her committed. By baring these fights with her parents she brings the same relentless commitment to honesty to her memoir as she offers onstage.
The memoir is a stunning expose of herself, her sorrow, the bitterness between her and her parents, and her struggle to find her own unique place in the world. The rejection and arguments didn’t tear her apart. Instead, the adversity seems to have made her strong, and provided the basis for a public career that has spanned 40 years, giving her the rare opportunity to become rich and famous by being exactly who she is.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
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