Think you know Joan Rivers? Can we talk? Rare album releases April 18, 2015.

When I was in seventh grade, I was obsessed with the book Having A Baby Can Be a Scream.   Granted, most of it went over my head, but it didn’t matter.  Comedy was something of a religion in our house and I recognized the voice of a deity when I read one.   I didn’t know who the author Joan Rivers was, but it was clear she had a gift for fearlessly pointing out life’s challenges and making them very, very funny.  When you’re eleven and a bit of a misfit, this is just the perspective you want.

Having a baby can be a screamThe years went by, life ebbed and distracted and flowed and there were years when, inexplicably, I forgot how much I love comedy.   Then I rediscovered it.  Joan Rivers, I found out, was much more than a favorite childhood author.   She was a bold, funny voice in a way no one else could be.

She was the patron saint of good girls, the one who pointed out how counterproductive it was to be a good girl and who said all the things good girls thought, but never dared to say.  Okay, she said things we never even dared to think.  But we would have thought those things if we’d been brave enough.

Raised as a good girl, Joan Rivers’ perspective was transformed by her year in Chicago at Second City in 1961 and soon after by a revelatory night at a Lenny Bruce performance.   Lenny Bruce, whose equal she would become, unleashed her passion for ferocious truth-telling, the whole painful truth, at any cost.

This mission is clear on The Next to Last Joan Rivers Album, a rare, out-of-print recording from 1968.  The album will be reissued by Stand Up! Records on April 18 as an exclusive Record Store Day release meaning it will be sold on that day only. Dan Schlissel, who heads up the label, described to me a unique package which will include original essays by Sarah Silverman and comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff and long lost photos.

When it comes to Joan Rivers, the contemporary press likes to play up the Fashion Police, her plastic surgery and if they’re feeling generous, Celebrity Apprentice.  But if you’re among the lucky few to get your hands on her Next to Last album (prophetically, it was her next to last album), you’ll hear a comedian who should be mentioned in the same breath as Richard Pryor and George Carlin.

Joan RiversIn 1968, the clay pigeons of stifling expectations weighed heavily on women.   Dress a certain way, act a certain way, keep up appearances and don’t make waves.   Joan Rivers would have none of that.   “Do you cook for your husband?” she asks an audience member in Next to Last.  When the woman says yes, Joan demands, “Why?!”, then proceeds to blast away at every lame societal pressure commanding women to appease and conform.

No one is safe, including Joan Rivers.  She targets her own self-image, her marriage including a hilarious riff on her failed attempts to make her impassive husband jealous, and dissects tension between women.

The album is not a time capsule.  The material is fresh, funny and compelling today and even a reference to Green Stamps doesn’t make it dated.   Her timing and delivery, which would mature and ripen to perfection over the decades, is mesmerizing.  She talks fast, never hesitates, and interacts with the audience who are left barely a moment to catch their breath between laughs and sometimes shocked laughs.

Her trail-blazing continued for the next five decades, although the press was more perceptive in 1965.  Writing for The New York Times that year, Charles Mee called her a “talent, alone and apart … a prime example of what is new in comedy … She is the poet, the prophet.”

Dan Schlissel agrees.   The son of a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli, he has his own interesting story about how he got into the comedy business.    He originally set out to be a physicist, but got hooked on producing when he started a music label in his University of Nebraska dorm room. He signed heavy metal band Slipknot to its first deal.

Dan later moved to Minnesota, retaining the physicist’s ability to see magical things ahead of the crowd.  He signed Lewis Black early on and the two would go on to record at Carnegie Hall and to win a Grammy.    Artists on his label include comedians with Chicago ties, among them, Hannibal Buress, Kyle Kinane, Tim Slagle and Mike Stanley, plus many more of comedy’s most distinctive non-conformist voices including Maria Bamford, Marc Maron, Jackie Kashian, Al Madrigal, David Cross, Judy Gold, Will Durst, Patton Oswalt, Greg Proops, Doug Stanhope and the Sklar Brothers.

He also founded the Akumal Comedy Festival with comedian Gus Lynch who died in December.  The festival on Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, now in its fourth year, takes place this coming week and honors Lynch’s memory.

Dan kindly took time out for a phone interview about Joan Rivers’ legacy, how he does what he does and his views on Chicago comedy.  The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: How did your family background influence your sense of humor? 

A: My dad saw the grim side of life.  Once you survive a whole series of surreal encounters like he did, I think humor is what you use to survive.  My mom was born in Israel when it was still Palestine.  You need to have a sense of humor to survive in a state that’s living through its pioneer days.

My folks spoke Hebrew at home so it was my first language.  My mom brought over records from Israel of a sketch comedy group that was kind of an Israeli Monty Python. I listened to those records and asked for bits of them over and over again because they made me laugh.

So that’s where comedy started for me.  Then being exposed to Mad Magazine later on. When the ‘70s and stand-up in America progressed and became a cable TV thing in the ‘80s, that was really where my taste formed.

Q: How did you go from producing music to producing comedy?

A: Quite accidentally.  I moved to Minnesota in 1998.  Within three months of living here, I heard on the radio that Lewis Black was going to be in town at a comedy club.  He had been on the Daily Show for two or three years, but wasn’t a big name yet. That night, I grabbed a stack of my music CDs and a notebook, got directions to the club, went there and handed a note for him to the usher with a bunch of CDs saying, “This is what I do for bands. I would like to work with you. It would be a dream.”

Later, I started to walk out of the club never expecting to see him because that’s the way it is for music acts.   But he was hanging out in the bar. So I went up and talked to him and made the pitch and he seemed into it, so that’s really how it began.

Q: What is a typical day like for you now?

A: A typical day is I wake up late, out of sorts, get caught up on email and then figure out what the day’s activities are, whether it’s going to be paperwork or editing work or that sort of thing. The one thing I didn’t realize is that when you start a company like this, it’s not all fun and games and making records.  A lot of it is administering the business of the label and the paperwork is actually the biggest drag of what I do.  I love to pay my artists, but the accounting to make sure it’s done is a significant amount of work.

Q: What are you looking for when you’re deciding whether to sign someone?

A: My stock in trade is scouting national talent, trying to figure out who I think is funny and needs to be exposed to people.   I’m looking for who makes me laugh. That’s the alpha and omega of it for me.  If I find you funny, then you’re funny.  I’m not looking for a look or an age range or anything that goes to any of that disgusting marketing stuff.   Funny above all else.

Q: On the Stand Up! Records website, you say about comedy that “comfort is good, but challenge is better.”  What do you mean?

A: The challenge of art is you can’t be complacent.  You can’t be creative on a rote path of security. You can’t be bored.   If you’re bored, you’re going to create boring things.  Make it a challenge by shaking stuff up and pulling it off under those circumstances.

Q: What is your favorite or craziest thing that’s happened since you started Stand Up! Records?

A:   It’s hard to pin down one thing.  My whole existence is kind of surreal.

Once I was recording an album and realized that the mics to record the audience had rusted out.  We had used them in Mexico and the salt air corroded them.  There was a good chance I wasn’t going to get the recording I needed and that was a frightening prospect. I couldn’t go get new microphones. The show was about to start.

So we had to figure out if we had anything remotely equivalent.  I found microphones totally ill-suited to the purpose.  I called another recording engineer to see what he thought of the situation and he said, “It’s not going to work.  Those microphones are only meant to be a few inches away from the face of the person performing, not to record an audience.”  But it was time, so I rolled tape and sure enough, we caught a great recording.

Dan Schlissel
Dan Schlissel

There was another time when my gear failed.  I was in Miami to record Dave Williamson and I rented equipment in Miami, set it all up in my hotel room the night before and let it run for three hours.  It worked great.  Set it up two hours before the show and things were running great.  Six minutes into the show, everything died and there was no way to bring it back.   But I realized that we had a guy filming in the audience with a good camera and a decent microphone set-up and we could still capture the main microphone through the laptop that the venue had.  So we used that and we put it together within twenty to thirty seconds of it happening.

I talked the camera man into staying for the second show so we could continue.  His battery died partway into the show leaving us in the lurch again.  But when all the tapes came back and we got them all mastered, sure enough there were twelve seconds of overlap and that was enough so we could make an album happen.

Getting to record at Carnegie Hall [with Lewis Black] was mind-blowing.   I was on that stage having my mind sort of melt while doing the actual work of what we needed for the recording.

That recording happened by force of my will, too, because it wasn’t going to happen. Initially, Comedy Central didn’t want to record there because it was going to be a lot of money, like almost $20,000 to record one show.  So I negotiated with another company to help do the live recording and to sell product at the venue.  That started the ball rolling in a serious manner and got Comedy Central to actually consider the money to do it right.   That’s what got the whole thing launched.  It was just an utter surprise that it happened.  It was a mind-blowing experience.  There’s no other way to put it.

Q: It’s very exciting to hear about this Joan Rivers album.  So it’s only going to be available on Record Store Day?

A: That is the way we’re planning it, yes. It’s kind of funny because it’s in a format that [vinyl purist] Record Store Day doesn’t really give a damn about.  We decided to put it out on CD because it’s been on vinyl already.   It’s part of the practical joker side of me to think it would be funny to make it available on CD.  It’s a limited run.  There are a thousand copies.  I hope they’ll all sell on Record Store Day.

Q: How did it happen?

A:  I met [music producer/writer] Noah Uman.  He’s had experience licensing from Sony’s music library. When I met him he said, “Hey, if you ever want to license anything from Sony, I’d be the guy to talk to” and the first words out of my mouth were “Joan Rivers’ second album.”   My hope was to use this as a way to establish a relationship with her, to potentially do some new recordings, but that never ended up happening because of the way circumstance works.

My focus became doing as good a job as I could of honoring her memory because it’s her, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Rodney Dangerfield, George Carlin.   They’re all the folks that inspire what I dig the most in comedy, the ability to craft a joke with a bite, with that honesty and with that critical eye and wit. And because of that, I really wanted to have a chance to work on this particular release knowing that it had never been released in a digital format of any sort.

It gave us the chance to work with Kliph Nesteroff who did the liner notes and a history of the recording.  It was a chance to reach out through a mutual friend to Sarah Silverman. Through research we found the photographer John Shearer who took photos of Joan in 1968 and 1969 for Look magazine. He was amenable to licensing a bunch of great photos that hadn’t been seen in years.  All of this allowed us to put together a really good booklet and not just a straight re-issue.

We really wanted to establish that she was an important person beyond how most people know her now as the Fashion Police red carpet person.  So many don’t have the historical oversight to know how important she was to stand-up comedy.

People don’t realize that without Joan Rivers there’s no Sarah Silverman.  There’s no Kathy Griffin. There’s a whole broad sweeping genre of comedy that is gone without people like her opening the door and continuing to open the doors.  She proved you can be in your eighties and still be a viable comic commodity.  She blazed that trail the whole way through.

I’m glad the documentary about her, Joan Rivers:  A Piece of Work, came out to provide some of the context and I wanted to further contextualize it with this release.   This album was recorded in 1968 and came out in 1969.  It’s not the Joan Rivers who’s biting a celebrity, but it’s still that same caustic wit.  She’s talking about gender roles right at the beginning of the sexual revolution.  That was a very important stand to take, to emphasize that a woman’s life from a woman’s perspective could be funny.   It was such a groundbreaking thing.  If she hadn’t done it there would be no Inside Amy Schumer right now.  Without that level of groundbreaking comedic insight and the opportunities it created, we would have lost so much fertile soil today.

Q: She was such a genius and her comedy was always so tight and hilarious and brilliant in every decade.

A: Yes.  There’s also a lot of crowd interaction on this particular record.  She’d always ask a question of the audience and then know where to take you regardless of what the answer was. So that stuff alone was pretty incredible to witness and to listen to on this recording.

Q: Why do you think she is so often under-appreciated?

A: I don’t have a great answer to that.  She’s always been a known quantity through televised appearances.  And she did well enough in Vegas throughout the years.  I don’t know if the radar was too full of stuff.  I have no idea how the vagaries of that worked.  But to me it seems like the biggest crime that she always had to fight for recognition.

I hate to paint it this way, but I wonder if some of it is outright sexism.  I’m not familiar with any female comics who had the run of someone like Robert Klein who had seven or eight HBO specials.  I don’t know of any woman comic that had that many specials.  Maybe it was just blind oversight by those who are in power.    The ups and downs of her career and life may have conspired and then there’s a certain amount of ignorance from the people in power.

My wife and I watched a television interview with her a year or two before [she won] Celebrity Apprentice.  I said, “There is the person who is most under-represented now. If someone were smart, they would get on it before her surge in popularity comes back.”

I’d originally tried to reach out to her then, but as you find out in A Piece of Work, I was talking to her manager, who was becoming less and less responsive and eventually got fired.

Q: How do you think Joan Rivers’ time in Chicago influenced her career?

A: I think it influenced her greatly. It was quite influential to have been around those great minds and having the great mind of her own.  Without a doubt, the ability to interact with the audience all comes out of improv.  Her time in Chicago was invaluable and I think it also affected her acting choices, being in The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster and writing Rabbit Test.  And then performing at Mister Kelly’s, it being the club that it was, was highly influential.  You have to perform at a high level to play at a showroom like that.

Q: Isn’t Mister Kelly’s where Bob Newhart got his start?

A: Almost everybody played Mister Kelly’s.  I got to meet Shelley Berman at the Chicago Comedy Festival in 2000, 2001, and he was telling me stories about it.  Just in the first few minutes of meeting him, he had his arm around my shoulder telling me about Mister Kelly’s and the neighborhood and the other acts that would perform there. One of the many surreal experiences of me being in comedy.

Q: What is your view of Chicago comedy?

A: Chicago comedy is winning on the overall national scene.   Hannibal Buress is having an incredible run including bringing all the Bill Cosby allegations back.  He’s such a prime performer.  His TV appearances on Broad City and The Eric Andre Show are undeniable.  Kyle Kinane is an unstoppable force on stage.  TJ Miller is appearing in so many commercials and movies and killing it on all levels.  Without a doubt, Chicago comedy is an important part of what’s going on in the scene today.  And there are plenty of younger comics that have done time in Chicago like Mike Stanley, Emily Galati, Junior Stopka, just so many folks.  And that’s not even counting the great improv scene.

I have a record coming out soon for Mike Lebovitz who’s a great Chicago comedian.  I’ll be in Chicago in June for the first time since the Lakeshore Theater closed.  I’m coming to record Derek Sheen.   It’s good to be coming back.  I recorded a bunch of albums at the Lakeshore and they were very close to my heart.  When the theater went under it broke my heart and I haven’t been back to Chicago since.

Q: Thank you for all your insights and time and thank you for releasing this Joan Rivers album.  I think she’s one of the greatest of all time.

A: She definitely belongs on my Mount Rushmore of comedy.


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