By Richard Meryman
October 27, 1986 12:00 PM

Backstage on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, the call goes out: “Two minutes to air time.” A sign, “Quiet Please, Live Show In Progress,” flashes like a police car. Beneath it stands Joan, a tiny, clenched, still point in a swirl of stagehands, writers, technicians and TV executives, as the darting hands of a hairdresser and a makeup man make their final, infinitesimal adjustments. Her white-knuckled hands clutching each other at her waist, she breathes deeply, hoping to exhale her tension and pump oxygen to her brain. Her head is swimming with jumbled thoughts, one of which is dominant, recurrent: “Please, God, let it work. Let me still have it.”

“Two minutes to air time.”

Joan can feel her heart thudding—the concussion merging with the din of rhythmic clapping and stamping feet. But the audience’s excitement and anticipation sends spinning into Joan’s mind the flip side of their affection—the hurt from four months of press doubts and sneers: “Lady Joan will fade quickly as viewers grow tired of her beauty salon humor,” “Rivers, seeking guests for her new TV talk show, is getting plenty of ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ ” and most enraging, Johnny Carson’s remark: “Seven or eight weeks is one thing. It would be very difficult for Joan to do this full time.”

“Four seconds, three seconds, two seconds…”

This countdown had in fact started that morning, and so had this pain, born of the world’s peculiar love-hate reaction to Joan that haunts her career and her feelings. While the 53-year-old comedienne was studying her notes for tonight’s guests—David Lee Roth, Pee-wee Herman, Elton John and Cher—a phone call rocked her self-confidence. Bill Sammeth, her manager, said she had been too polite in the three taped, preliminary shows. Joan protested bitterly: “I can’t win. My manager tells me I’m too ladylike. If I get aggressive the critics will say ‘vulgar’ and ‘tasteless.’ ”

For days executives of the Fox Broadcasting Company (launching a fourth network with Joan’s show) and her producers had been, as Joan puts it, “nervous about my mouth.” To satisfy its legal department, Fox had hired a 65-year-old woman in white gloves who would read Joan’s material and, before each show, warn her of the risks. Joan, furious and frightened at the prospect, said, “There’ll be a fight every night. It’ll kill me.” Fox argued, “Give her 10 minutes.” Joan said, “I’ll buy an egg timer.” The issue went all the way to the chairman of the board, Barry Diller. Sensibly, he decreed, “I don’t want a person aboard whose job is to scare us. I don’t want the question ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?.’ in the back of Joan’s mind.”

1 p.m. On this day of her first live show, Joan arrives at the studio clutching her Yorkshire terrier, Spike (see box). In the office of her producer, Bruce McKay, she joins her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, 58, the show’s executive producer, who lately has been waking in the night to list on a yellow pad the minute requirements of a show that is starting from scratch: guest release forms, a monologue stool, a radio mike if Joan wants to go to the audience.

The mood in the room is high as Bruce reports that advertising space is completely sold out for 1986 and 75 percent sold in the first quarter of 1987. Barry Diller also removed some pressure by insisting that Fox is not in a ratings war with Carson and requires no more than a gradual but steady rise through the next one to two years. McKay delights Joan by telling her about Boston: Fox has bought WXNE but has not yet taken possession from Pat Robertson’s Christian network, which is banning Joan. To fill the void, a radio station, WMRE, is broadcasting the show. Joan phones the station to express her gratitude and her deep, sentimental involvement with New England: “My great-grandmother came over on the Mayflower. She was the hooker. She kissed the Plymouth Rock—and gave it herpes.”

1:30 p.m. The daily production meeting, Led by Edgar, the department heads outline the show minute by minute. On every detail, Joan has final approval. As Edgar explains, “Joan has told Fox many times, ‘That’s my name up there.’ ” The set designers, for example, put carpets between the rows of seats in the theater; knowing that carpet absorbs sound and comedy needs a hard floor to bounce the laughter, Joan made Fox tear it out. Grinning, she says, “Now we’re looking for someone with a very strange apartment, 2½ feet wide by 1,472 feet long.” Nobody worried that the set resembled Carson’s. The arrangement was the most comfortable and practical for Joan, who asks, “Is it stupid to design an automobile with four wheels? That’s what works.”

Joan says, ” ‘No’ used to be a hard word to come out of my mouth.” But as she learns to be boss, she worries that “people are going to be afraid to ‘upset Joan,’ afraid to say, ‘Ick, are you crazy?’ I saw that with Carson and it’s very bad.”

In the production meeting Joan reports the final decision on the simmering, slow-motion crisis of choosing an announcer. There would be no announcer on-camera. But she withheld the decision’s complicated history. Fox originally suggested a WASPy, straight-arrow type who would adjust his tie and be a little shocked when Joan was outrageous, a foil she could play against. Her choice was Clint Holmes, 34, a handsome black singer who had opened for her and for Bill Cosby on the road. Joan argued that she should be permitted to follow her instincts. Fox wanted a businesslike winnowing down of a list (their list, which featured a lot of unknown, handsome hunks, inspiring one of the writers to ask, “Are they casting Gidget?”).

The standoff—with the Oct. 9 deadline racing toward them—brought on a fever of nerves and pride and the kind of fear that comes with high stakes. Joan, frustrated and angry, felt herself to be the victim of corporation think. When an executive pleaded with her to be fair and rational, she turned on him: “If you want somebody fair and rational, you don’t want a performer. They care too passionately about their work. It’s their life. We’re giving birth to my child—and you’re killing it.”

Happily for everybody, Joan cools rapidly. A compromise was arranged: Three disembodied voices were to be tested anonymously on the initial “bank” shows. On the second night Joan slipped in Clint Holmes. At the decision conference she said, “Well, I liked the second guy, whoever he was.” Barry Diller, winking at Edgar, said, “Okay, we’ll get the unknown second announcer.”

2 p.m. The daily meeting with the writers, With her staff of eight, Joan plays the role of a lovable but strict headmistress. She writes about 40 percent of the jokes herself and decisively leads each meeting. Today she announces, “This has been discussed ad nauseam; even Spikey has discussed it. We are never going to mention Johnny Carson on this show, even though things may get ugly. An NBC executive, a personal friend, told us, ‘We are going to destroy you.’ But if we get into a hissing match, we lose. Johnny is the American flag.”

Trailed by Spike, who carries in his mouth a fuzzy, shocking-pink slipper nicknamed Carmelita, Joan crosses the large central room. On each desk is a pink memo from Joan which reads: “In the next weeks, every critic in America will be taking a shot at me and/or our show. It already started yesterday in the L.A. Times. Just ignore all this nonsense and please, please, please do not bring any of it into the office. Everyone can go to hell except us! We shall triumph!!”

She finds Bill Sammeth in the office of two bookers, the professional pests who relentlessly pursue possible guests. In charge of booking, Bill carries as his burden the unstated threat that a Rivers show appearance could mean a Carson blackball. Sammeth is selling managers, agents and studio heads the argument that they owe it to their clients to support two shows reaching two audiences. Sprawled on the couch, he explodes charm and persuasion into a phone: “Pick a day, Mr. Agent. We have bookings through January. And there isn’t anybody who isn’t a name—Lily Tomlin, Larry Hagman, Kenny Rogers, Mel Brooks. Nancy Reagan is coming on Oct. 30th.” Even Joan gets into the act. Trying to book a major female star, Joan reaches the woman’s best friend. “I want her to come on my show,” Joan says. “It’s that simple. I’m not asking out of friendship. I’m saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, we’ve all said a woman can do everything and I’m sick of reading that it’s a man’s world.”

3 p.m. The segment producers’ meeting, They have interviewed each guest and prepared a list of questions with indications of the answers. One mentions that Elton John is Sean Lennon’s godfather—”You might ask him what godparents are for.” “To give gifts,” Joan whips back.

With Spike trotting behind, she returns to the bookers’ office, where Sammeth is still working the phone. Edgar joins her on the couch and takes her hand. “It’s fun, isn’t it,” he says softly. Joan whispers back, “I’d love to have it work.” They are quiet for a moment. Then turning to Spike, whose picture will be used on the “more-to-come” announcements before the commercials, Joan says, “Spikey, when you get to be a star, will you still know me, or will you throw me over?”

4:30 p.m. Time to move to her dressing room below the stage—a suite of seven rooms, actually, including a bedroom. The splendiferous accommodations are “an embarrassment,” she says. “I haven’t earned them yet. La Streisand I’m not.” A symptom of Joan’s lifelong insecurity is on the wall in one of the rooms: a poster of her 1983 Carnegie Hall concert with “sold out” printed across it. “It gives me courage to believe I belong in this room.” And following a habit left over from the early club firings, she has brought in nothing else of her own except for a photograph of her daughter, Melissa, 18, and a print by a deceased friend.

In her private dressing room, while her hair is done by Jason Dyl, Joan is wearing a stolen NBC robe, the peacock embroidered on the right shoulder. On the table are tonight’s joke selections, handwritten on NBC notepads. “I’m not burning all my bridges,” she says, laughing. Joan telephones Melissa at the University of Pennsylvania. Melissa tells her mother she is “a bag of nerves.”

The expectation, the tension, the emotion are building. A stream of presents, telegrams and flowers has been arriving, and by now Joan’s suite resembles a Beverly Hills rain forest. An arrangement of yellow lilies and orchids comes from Frank Sinatra with a card that reads, “I wish I could be with you on this wonderful evening, maybe in the future,” signed, “Francis Albert.”

5:00 p.m. Moving to the outer dressing room in a protective smock, Joan sits in the high chair and says to her makeup man, Wayne Massarelli: “Okay, sailor, slap on that face.” Just then Elton John arrives in tight blue shorts and a football practice shirt numbered 43, his ponytail dyed a Day-Glo pink. On his wrist is a one-inch-wide diamond bracelet. Together he and Joan proceed to the stage to rehearse their duet, The Bitch is Back.

Elton begins to play, and on a stool beside the piano Joan grins with excitement till her teeth dry. Later, she says: “The energy of that man passing from my hand right through my body…absolutely thrilling…and Joan Molinsky was meeting him as an equal.” As she screams The Bitch is Back, she imagines yelling at the press: “You bastards, how dare you say I’m going to fail before I’ve even started.”

6 p.m. Back in her chair to finish her makeup, Joan is suddenly frantic, terrified that she is insufficiently prepared to go onstage. Interruptions have nibbled at the sacrosanct hour of isolation when she reviews her notes and jokes and quiets her mind. Still the people come: a secretary asking which flowers should be sent home, a writer with an idea for tomorrow’s show, the head stagehand from The Tonight Show, dropping by to wish her luck. And in every interval she keeps reciting again and again her opening monologue, wearing its grooves deep into her memory—”Cher is so thin, she has to jump around in the shower to get wet.”

6:30 p.m. At last she is alone. Her felt-tip pen scratches across the paper as she rewrites in her own words the questions for the guests. Then Jason comes to help her dress. Finally, the assistant floor manager, Mavis Davis, announces, “Ten minutes to air time.”

While Jason inserts the cuff links and Wayne rubs makeup on her hands, Joan stands to practice reading her cue cards aloud.

“Three minutes to air time.”

“Let’s go, I’m sweating bullets,” says Mavis.

“Three seconds. Two seconds…” The band thunders the theme. Clint Holmes announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Joan Riv-ers!”

As she plunges from the darkness into the light and applause, all her hurt and fear wash away. At that moment, Joan says later, she realizes that “for the first time in 53 years, I know, by God, that I truly belong. Nobody can stop me.” The audience is standing, roaring. Quieting them with upraised hands, Joan abandons her monologue to say a simple, “I am just so happy to be here.” But when she calls out her thanks, they stand again, whistling, clapping, seemingly out of control. Joan’s eyes fill with tears. As she claps back to them, a resolution she afterward admitted races through her mind: “If I have to write every joke myself, I’ll make it work. If I have to call every guest myself, I’ll make it work. If I have to run the cameras, sweep the floors, answer the phones, give up everything else in my life, I’ll stay right here.”