On Stage With Joy Behar

8:04 pm Profiles

By Dawn Shurmaitis
ABC Ink, 2002

Picture Brooklyn in the 1950s. Joy Occhiuto – skinny kid with kinky hair – is at an Italian wake, keeping a keen eye on all her relatives. Later, when she gets home, Joy turns all her observations into dead-on impersonations. Her family roars.

“Italian women are all funny. Some of them know it, and some of them don’t. The ones that don’t were my targets,” says the once-skinny kid who grew up into comedienne Joy Behar, who now makes millions laugh with her astute, hilarious observations on the ABC Daytime program, “The View.”

Barbara Walters chose Behar for the new show, which premiered last year, after watching her perform stand-up at a dinner for ace funnyman Milton Berle. “I didn’t even know she was there. But apparently I made an impression on her. And when it came time for the show, she said ‘Get me that woman.’ I was flabbergasted,” says Behar, who joins Meredith Vieira, Star Jones and Debbie Matenopoulos weekdays whenever Walters isn’t on the show.

“For them to tell me, ‘When Barbara Walters is not sitting in her chair, you are sitting there, you are sitting in for Barbara Walters.’ To this day, I’m astounded.”

Through “The View,” Behar learned something about Barbara Walters that most people don’t know: The veteran newscaster is one funny woman. “She really has a great sense of humor. And I appreciate it,” says Behar, whose smart one-liners provide “The View” with its freshest comic juice.

A former schoolteacher, Behar was in her mid 30s when she got up on stage for the first time, doing stand-up at a now-defunct club in the Village called “Comedy U.” Since then, she’s mastered nearly every medium: Broadway, film, radio and TV. She’s opened for Bob Newhart at Carnegie Hall and bonded with Alan Alda between takes for Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” She coached Julie Kavner (aka Marge Simpson) for Nora Ephron’s movie, “This is My Life.” In 1993, she became the first female in the 93-year history of the Friars Club to host a roast. Now, she’s writing a book, a collection of essays called “Joy Schtick,” with chapters like “Why I Hate the Beach” to “How a Near-Death Experience Saved My Life.”

Would she ever tackle a serious role? Behar laughs. “Medea from Brooklyn? I don’t think so. My profession and my commitment has always been to stand-up. You’re naked, and everybody else has clothes on,” she says. “You’re alone. You and that audience. But you feel compelled to keep doing it. You get hooked.”

A life-long New Yorker who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, Behar turns to today’s headlines for much of her material. “I’m interested in almost everything, except sports. Politics, social issues, morality. Hypocrisy is one of my favorite subjects,” she says. “I’m a serious person, even though I make my living making people laugh. It’s my job to observe and give my point of view without being censored. That’s what a comedian does.”

Sometimes, producers will try to get her to wear crazy hats or to act “more like a comedian.” Behar resists. “There’s a difference between Mort Sahl and Carrot Top. And I’m more in the Mort Sahl genre, the Robert Klein genre – people who get up and tell you what they think, who give you a humorous perspective on life. I’m more of a talking head. ‘The View’ fits me to a ‘T.’ But don’t put a hat on me!”

When she was growing up, Behar got her first lessons in comedy from “I Love Lucy” and “Your Show of Shows.” She can still laugh recalling Carol Burnett’s “Gone with the Wind” and Uptight Secretary sketches. When the Billy Wilder classic “Some Like it Hot” first came out, Behar saw the movie with her mother, a seamstress who came to America from Italy at age 13. “We were just howling out loud in that theater,” she says. “That was the funniest movie I ever saw.”

Behar describes her mother as a “party girl” who came alive when she had an audience. Behar’s father, who worked at a Coca-Cola plant, had a wry sense of humor and enjoyed being the teaser. An only child, Behar enjoyed a lot of love and attention. When she was a kid, she says, she was “the queen.”

“From my parents, I learned decent self esteem. In an Italian family, you could be a fat kid and everyone would say ‘look how cute.’ I never had any kind of complexes until I was able to buy Glamour magazine.”

One of Behar’s funniest bits is about people who mistake her ethnicity. “People think I’m Jewish because they have stereotypes about people. They think if you’re Italian, you’re either Mama Leone or Sophia Loren,” she says. “And we are neither.”

Behar’s No. 1 priority is her own daughter, a 27-year-old ceramic artist who also lives in the city. Behar’s boyfriend of 14 years remains close, but lives in another borough; she has no plans to remarry. A tight circle of long-time girlfriends help keep her grounded. She talks to them just like the women on “The View” talk to each other.

“Finally, there’s a show about what women do all the time – talk to each other about things that are intimate and important,” she says, still sounding astonished at landing a steady gig that keeps her – and the audience – laughing. “My job is so much fun. I have fun all the time.”

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