“Joan Rivers paid $10 a joke.”
I was speaking to a writer’s group in Summerlin which was sort of intimidating since many of them were highly accomplished people in many different fields, including a joke writer. He had sold material to Joan Rivers.
When I worked for her, Phyllis paid $5 a joke, back in the early 70s. Five dollars would fill your gas tank and still leave you enough to buy a sandwich at the deli. (According to the Consumer Price Index, $5 had the buying power of just under $30 in today’s economy.)
After I had finished my talk and we were socializing, I had a chance to question him a bit about his writing. I asked him to tell me one of the jokes he’d written for her and it had to do with her being so frigid that her gynecologist had to use an ice pick. I’m not sure I should even tell it here because he told me he’d had to sign a contract.
“Wow, really? Phyllis would just circle the jokes she wanted to buy and we would send back the paper so the writer would know which ones she’d purchased. No contracts.”
“Oh, yes, with Joan Rivers there was a contract.”
Phyllis was a very trusting person — perhaps too trusting in some cases — and she expected people to be honest. When a joke was sold, it was off the table. She would be very put out if she later heard the joke from another source whether it was another comedian or somewhere in print and she would never again purchase material from that writer. It was possible, of course, that an unscrupulous comedian would steal a joke they’d heard from Phyllis and use it as their own.
I was always fascinated by the sources of Phyllis’s material. Some were steady, professional writers and she always found things in their submissions that she liked. Occasionally she would receive a short letter or note with a single joke in it, usually from a housewife or student who thought they could be funny. And often they were. Phyllis loved getting those.
Her style of joke was brief and pithy. If she could tell a joke in less than 15 words, she was happy: “Fang’s idea of a seven-course meal is a six-pack and a hot dog.” That’s an old joke now, but it was a Phyllis Diller original.
“Fang’s mother is so fat, once a month they shove her through the Holland Tunnel to clean it.” Okay, a little longer, but still a classic.
“Did you ever sell her a joke?” someone asked me. “I did indeed.”
“I found Fang chain-smoking one morning. I said ‘what’s going on?’ He said, ‘I’m trying to give up chewing gum.'”
I still remember exactly where I was standing when I told her the joke and she threw back her head and laughed. “Go write yourself a check!” she said with a smile.
I never did that, though. I should’ve. I could’ve bought a nice lunch for me and a friend. No regrets, though. I still have the memory of Phyllis Diller laughing at my joke!