What Becomes A (Semi) Legend Most

Joan-Rivers-What-Becomes-A-Semi-Legend-Most-CoverI had few friends when I was growing up in Kansas. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have a fanciful fantasy life. I had HBO in my bedroom where I watched Harper Valley PTA and Making Love, and the televised stage production of Vanities (starring Shelley Hack, Meredith Baxter and Annette O’Toole) every time they aired. I would read James Baldwin novels in the library because I was too afraid to check them out. I had every issue of Gentlemen’s Quarterly from 1982 on that I kept neatly stacked in the nook under my water bed. And I had a cassette tape of Joan Rivers’ What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most that I listened to regularly on my Sony Walkman. I did not understand at 15 or 16 precisely why I loved Joan Rivers so much, I just knew that I did.

Embarrassing confession: one time I went drinking with some high school classmates. I actually don’t even remember who it was, a group of 3 or 4 other guys. We were not close friends and I felt privileged and nervous to be out drinking Malt Duck at a place called The Spot. (At least I think it was Malt Duck and I think it was a place called The Spot.) I did not drink much when I was a teen, if you can imagine, so I was nervous that if I became drunk I might confess that I was gay. So, I got drunk and thought about how much I loved Joan Rivers. Please forgive me for my momentary departure from my blog’s strict PG-13 rating, but I actually confessed to my new friends at The Spot that I wanted to french kiss and yes, titty-fuck Joan Rivers. My new friends laughed. I laughed too. “See? You’re totally straight,” I silently congratulated myself.

In all honesty, I did think Joan Rivers was beautiful. I know at the time, part of her schtick was to make fun of her looks, but I didn’t get it. I thought she looked glamorous and sophisticated and stylish. She was so different than Kansas, what with her talk about Jews and plastic surgery and how Liberace wanted Tom Selleck to be his proctologist. When Rabbit Test aired on HBO, my Mom told me it was written and directed by Joan Rivers and I thought, my goodness, is there nothing this amazing lady can’t do?!?!

A few years ago, I went to see a screening of the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work with a question and answer session with the film’s subject and star. I went with my friends Traci and Linda, fellow storytellers, who had their own memories of growing up hearing and watching this comic genius, this woman who paved the way for other female comics. I don’t really remember any of the questions or any of the answers, I just sat there thinking, this is so cool, Joan Rivers is 15 feet away from me.

I’m not going to lie, though, there have been several times in the last few years where I’ve heard things that Joan said or did where I’ve thought to myself, oh no, Joan, too far! If something crosses the line and it’s funny, it’s comedy. If something crosses the line and it fails, it’s mean. If you’d asked me what I thought of Joan Rivers on Wednesday, my answer would have been less gracious than had you asked me on Thursday.

Since Thursday, like many people, I have been thinking quite a bit about Joan Rivers. I do an internet search every few hours to glean the latest news on the legend’s health status. Every friend I’ve seen in the last 72 hours, I’ve initiated a Joan conversation. I worry about Melissa, who is my age, and like me, her mother’s only child. I even keeping thinking about that horrible tv movie they did where they played themselves.

But back to me, for just a moment. When I remember that little freak whose best friend was a Joan Rivers cassette tape, I now think, that’s pretty funny, but a little sad. At the time, when I was that little freak, I thought my plight was almost entirely sad, but maybe, just a little bit funny. Malt duck, titty fuck, oh, grow up!

If Robin Williams’ passing reminded us of the fragility of life, Joan Rivers’ recent crisis reminds us of life’s absurdity. Flatlining during a minor procedure that was not even elective? It’s like the set up to a joke. Can we talk? Whatever happens, we know that comics will be riffing on it for years to come. If Joan Rivers survives and one day returns to doing shows, you can easily imagine her making light of the dark. And we hope she does and that she does and that she does. I read somewhere that in her show on Wednesday night, (btw, she’s 81, doing a live comedy show the night before surgery; that is grit.) she joked that she could die at any moment and what a story it would be for the audience members. ““Do you understand you would have something to talk about the rest of your life? You were there! ‘I was there, she just went over!’”

What’s the difference between comedy and tragedy? According to Mel Brooks, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Others have said that comedy is tragedy plus time. And I am conforted by that idea, that the pain eases and humor emerges as time passes. It was certainly the case for the 15 year old version of myself.

It is kind of sweet to think of 15 year old me, holed up in my bedroom listening to stories about Heidi Ambromowitz and Marie Osmond making Debby Boone look like a slut and the Queen of England having an affair with her husband Edgar from a woman who made me laugh a lot at a time when I really needed a friend. I don’t know what the future holds for Joan Rivers. But whatever happens, it will be with the passage of time that her family and friends and fans process the outcome. Until then, we have no shortage of Youtube videos of Joan being Joan to make us laugh and ease the sadness. I’ve posted two here, one from The Tonight Show, circa 1982. And also, an episode of her web series In Bed With Joan from just a couple weeks ago where she interviews drag superstar Bianca Del Rio. It makes me a little sad to watch these videos, of course, but also a little happy too. Funny.

“Where Did You Get That Dress? It’s Awful! And Those Shoes and That Coat! Jeez!”

stephen-stuckerairplaneA few months back, I participated in an intimate reading of a friend’s play.  He had written the play years ago, before the group of us became friends.  When we gathered, he told us there was a great part for each of us.  My character’s name was Russell.  He was passionate, silly, camp, funny, ridiculous and wise, the kind of part any actor dreams of playing.  And if I say so myself, I was pretty darn good.  I know it was just a little reading at a dining room table with a group of people who loved me even before we ever got to the first page, but still, it was a fun night.

And driving home, I thought about my characterization, how it just kind of spewed out of me, I didn’t have to second guess how I would say a line or do an impression, I knew what to do instinctually.  And let me confess, for me, anyway, that’s not always the case. I thought about Stephen Stucker, because I realized, that a lot of what I was doing came from him.  I’d like to think it wasn’t a complete copy, that I took what I’d gleaned from a master and gave it my own take.  At least that’s what I’d like to think.

Now, okay, maybe you didn’t know immediately who Stephen Stucker is.  To be honest, I didn’t know his name until I went to IMDB a few years ago.  Most simply, he is known as the gay guy from Airplane.  I’ve posted a YouTube video of some of his character’s best moments.  They are all priceless and when I watched it, it reminded me of all the times I watched that movie on HBO when I was a kid.   I remember doing the bit “Oh, I can make a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl…”  on a regular basis for anyone that would listen.    I loved that guy.  I certainly did not understand at 12 or 13 why he resonated with me, I just thought he was funny.  And I wanted to be funny, too.  

When I did a little google sleuthing about Stephen Stucker, I found that he was born on July 2, which is my birthday, too.  Like me, he  hailed from the midwest (born in Iowa, raised in Ohio) and he eventually made his way to Hollywood.  His IMDB page only has 11 credits, but most are significant like Airplane, Airplane II, Trading Places, The Kentucky Fried Movie and Mork and Mindy.  He died of AIDS related complications in 1986. He was 38 years old. Besides work as an actor and musician, he is important in GLBT history because he was one of the first actors to publicly disclose his HIV status.  I’ve also posted an appearance he made on the Donahue, not long before his death.  His comments are polarizing, his histrionics at times, disturbing.  But he’s still, in the midst of his illness, clearly, full of life.

I wish I knew more about Stephen Stucker. I found an archived interview with him online where he spoke about how supportive and loving his entire family was as he battled AIDS. It moved me because I know that when you’re going through life’s challenges, it’s nice to have family holding you up. Maybe one of these days, a sibling or niece or nephew or close friend will come across this blog and share a story or two. I’d love that. To me, he is so much more than that gay guy from Airplane, but when you think about it, that’s really not such a bad thing to be known as either.


189143_106824046067080_2529733_nA few years ago, San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre, ran the film Picnic.  I was lucky enough to be in town when it was playing and I went to see it with my friends, Michael and Kim.  The Castro is a gorgeous old theatre on Castro street, smack dab in the middle of the Castro, San Francisco’s gayest neighborhood.  I’d obviously seen the movie a few times before, but I’d never watched it with two hundred gay men and their straight girlfriends and I listened to it for the first time through the filter of my people.  I’ll never forget the shrieks of laughter that occurred when Rosalind Russell came to the window, her face covered in cold cream, and pondered, “Anyone mind if an old maid school teacher joins their company?”  But the thing that touched me the most was the pride I felt when Kim Novak sailed down the river, the newly crowned Queen Neelah, and the townsfolk called out to her, “Nee-woll-ah, Nee-woll-ah.”  And while the Neewollahs of my own youth did not include the queen riding down the Verdigris River on a candlelit float (that’s not safe!), it did remind me of the many, many Neewollahs that I’ve enjoyed since I was knee high to a grasshopper.  

It doesn’t matter, where I am: when this week, Neewollah week, rolls around, I keep an ongoing timeline of what is happening back home.  Last night as I was driving home, I wondered who the new Queen Neelah was going to be, even though I’m sure I did not even know any of the candidates.  This morning I thought about how today is probably the first day of the rides at the carnival.  Also, it used to be that today was the first day of the food vendors.  I can taste the jaffles and apple fritters even still.  Friday afternoon, I’ll be thinking about the Kiddie parade, where one year I went as an astronaut (Dr. Ryan Stone?) and the next year, I wore a frog mask and the same astronaut costume and went as the Martian who killed said astronaut and stole his ensemble.  On Saturday, when I am at work, believe me, I will wish that I am at the aptly named, Grand Parade, running into old friends and feasting on barbecue and cinnamon rolls, and sneaking in another jaffle.

I haven’t been to Neewollah for about 15 years now.  That seems unbelievable, but it’s true.  The last time I went, my Dad had just recovered from his first bout with cancer and I remember it felt like we had something to celebrate when we went to the Parade.  We did. The Grand Parade is for many of us who grew up in Independence, a holiday like Christmas and New Years that marks the passage of time.  

I’ve travelled a certain amount and I’ve lived in a few large cities.  I used to live in New York and I never went to the Macy’s Parade.  I live miles away from where the Rose Parade takes place every year and I’ve never gone to that either.  I guess you could say that Neewollah spoiled me on parades, when you’ve grown up with the best, you have no interest in lesser versions.

I’m 45 now, at an age where I’m realizing that few things I experience will resonate in the way the memories of my youth do.  The scariest Magic Mountain roller coaster will never compare to the Tilt-a-Whirl, Yo-Yo Ma will always be second fiddle to Jana Jae. No brush with celebrity compares to the time HBO came to film a concert with Roy Clark, Ronnie Milsap and Merle Haggard and we all thought it was going to make us famous. The prettiest beauty queens will always be Gail Moore and Jeannine Bailey and Missy Housel and Shelly Nelson and Kara Woods. And of course, the most exquisite, sophisticated, delicious, exotic food will always be the jaffle.