Michael Patrick Welch documents the show and the moments immediately after seeing Joan Rivers at Cafe Istanbul.
[Today, friend of My Spilt Milk Michael Patrick Welch steps in while I'm in Little Rock with his review of Joan Rivers' recent appearance in New Orleans at Cafe Istanbul. "This was written two hours, one daiquiri and three vodka sodas after Rivers’ show, when the buzz she’d given us had barely begun wearing off," he writes. "All Rivers’ jokes, retold here, are paraphrased."]
It is not impossible but it isn’t normal that I would simply have to write something right now. But I can’t sleep until I do. I just saw Joan Rivers with roughly 200 people in a New Orleans club the size of where my friends’ bands normally play, and I am just reeling.
“I am going to do the act as if this is just a regular place,” she began, pretending not to realize the backhand.
Outside in the parking lot behind the New Orleans Healing Center’s food co-op after the show, we were so dazed and reeling that we were at first unable to remember anything about the barrage of jokes we’d just absorbed. Then, we began retelling the jokes in full while driving to Sugar Park. We entered the place with dilated pupils, almost ready to fight, or at least insult everyone as artfully as Rivers had in her floor-length, silver-sequined robe wrapped in boas.
They let us bring our daiquiris into Café Istanbul. I had my tiny tape recorder but didn’t bootleg the show, not needing a 60-minute tape of my laughter.
In the dark, I noticed a fellow two seats down scrolling though pictures on his phone of himself and Joan Rivers. I asked if he’d met her. “We are sort of friends,” he said, and he and the fellow between us raised their hands when Rivers later asked the gays to make themselves known. He generously showed me picture after picture of them together. Several years back, he met Rivers and gifted her with a fat scrapbook of articles and other clippings about the comedian’s career. She began following him on Twitter.
He has seen Rivers perform four times. “And how many times was she awesome?” I asked.
“Four!” he answered.
“I have seen her six times,” said the guy between us. They then began quizzing each other: “Who played Rivers’ lesbian lover in the 1959 Off-Off-Broadway play, Driftwood?” The answer: Barbara Streisand.
Then Rivers’ voice came over the PA, hoarse from years of epic rants. She flung out a few hors d'oeuvre jokes, giving the show a houseparty feel. “Welcome these great musicians whose mothers obviously weren’t raped since they are here playing for you tonight.” She’d rented heavy hitters including pianist David Torkanowsky and drummer Simon Lott. The band was soon joined onstage by Spyboy Honey Bannister for versions of Mardi Gras Indian classics--a pretty great way to start a comedy show, though throughout their performance I wondered what Joan Rivers would say about all this.
When she finally got going (“I swear I’m gonna do the act, but first I just need to talk for a second…”), the band sat behind her, old school style, through the entire show. The members stared ahead for a long time, not laughing. Maybe it was because they couldn’t see her face. Rivers was surprisingly physical, her expressions hilarious despite her intense plastic surgery (she said her grandkids call her “Nana Newface”).
At one point Torkanowsky was called on to play his piano his versions of both a fart, and a pussy fart. But up till then, his band seemed to suffer moments of discomfort as she systematically ragged/raged on 18 types of humans: “Chinese women, get the fuck out of the fucking club!” etc. The band finally looked around at each other when she lit into Haitians–-or maybe I was projecting, knowing how many Haitian drummers populate our music scene.
There have been very few Katrina jokes,but if anyone would have them, it would be Rivers. “Of course I came down here right after the storm," she said from the stage. "You kidding? There was so much paparazzi here!” Stalking the paparazzi is a well-mined Rivers theme. “Katrina wasn’t as bad as people say. We had a very nice boat. If any of you saw us, I am sorry the boat was full: my publicist, makeup person, wardrobe. Every once in a while a hand would come up out of the water over the edge and…” She pantomimed stamping the hand violently, then going back to rowing as if nothing happened.
At some point, everybody in the audience sat a joke out. The guys next to me froze a bit when Rivers announced that she loved her gay fans especially. “Because they’re so stupid, they’ll fucking laugh at anything!” Followed by a roar of laughter from all but a few previously identified gays. “Tassle!” she shouted by way of example.
Then she asked the lesbians to raise their hands. In the periphery I saw a woman on the uncrowded balcony waving affirmatively, smiling big. Then: “I want all the lesbians to move to the fucking back of the room!” Rivers roared. As she discussed how much of a bull dike is her friend Rosie O’Donnell, and ripped through a few transgender jokes, the balcony woman’s smile evaporated. Without looking up, Rivers ended the assault with, “I want lesbians in the back because lesbians don’t fucking laugh.” My own moment of silence came during her especially dark rant on long-term marriage. Rivers has the power to make you scared for your life.
And death. After the passing of her dear friend Phyllis Diller, Rivers bemoaned, “Phyllis is dead now and that bitch Betty White isn’t even coughing.”
Before the show, the guys next to me told me that Rivers no longer uses her catch phrase, “Can we talk?” which is even the name of one of her books (the newest, for sale, signed, in the Healing Center lobby, was titled I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me). Throughout the show I noticed several variations, the most awkward being, “Let’s talk with each other.”
The darkest and for me funniest joke dealt with her husband’s suicide. I’d never noticed how much of her theme was her own opportunism and greed, and she went to some dark places with it. She gave props to Jackie O for marrying Aristotle Onassis and reportedly claiming a $160 million payday upon his death. “You can bet when my husband killed himself, before his head hit the floor I had his watch and his cufflinks in my mouth,” she continued, shouting in a garbled voice, “Call 9-1-1! Call 9-1-1!”
“The doctors said that if my daughter could have understood me," she continued, "then maybe my husband could have gotten the care he needed to live. But…no reason to dwell."
At 78 years old, Rivers got on the ground, legs in the air, and rampaged through geriatric sex jokes: “For 160 million, I’d even move around!” Aside from some allusions to Dr. Ruth (the '80s sex-pert) and Vanna White (who provided the wildly dated punchline for Rivers’ closing joke) Rivers seemed extremely nimble in the mind.
She was simply powerful. Right now, I feel the gushing urge to thank Joan Rivers for telling all those deeply transgressive jokes, if only so that I could come home and type them out, while laughing nearly as hard as when she told them.