By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
NEW YORK -- Joy Behar, now getting ready for her prime-time debut, wasn't always a bigmouth star.
There was the time, as a high school English teacher, that she auditioned for the first season of "Saturday Night Live." "I'd be under my covers waiting to hear from them," Behar says. No one called.
There was the time she was doing comedy gigs for 50 bucks a pop and lost her job answering the phones at "Good Morning America": "Maybe the ratings went down and they said, 'Let's fire the receptionist.' "
But she refused to give up: "I was funny in school. I was funny in the classroom. I really got tired of giving it away for free."
No danger of that now. Already a fixture on "The View," where she holds forth in a voice that bellows Brooklyn, Behar is launching a talk show next week on HLN. The 9 p.m. program will test whether her mix of polite badgering, liberal politics and comedic shtick can draw an audience without her bickering sisters.
Could Behar, 65, run out of gas, doing both morning and evening shows? "People say, 'How can you talk all day?' I could do it on the phone or do it on television. A painter paints. I yak yak all day."
For the channel formerly known as CNN's Headline News, the move yields a lineup of three brassy, blunt and opinionated women, with Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell already having delivered a ratings boost. HLN, which changed its name in December to signify its evolution from a headline-service format, is averaging 597,000 viewers in prime time this year, up from 506,000 at the same point last year and triple the number five years ago. Opinion sells in cable, as Glenn Beck proved at HLN before launching his Fox News show this year.
Barbara Walters, who hired Behar as an original "View" panelist when the show launched in 1997, first saw her perform at a benefit for Milton Berle, where Behar somehow managed to make Salman Rushdie funny. Walters told her producer to track down "Joy Something-or-other."
"She is fearless. There's an intelligence there as well as the humor," Walters says.
When the gang talks about current events, Behar "is very liberal and pronounced in her political views," Walters says. "So it makes very good copy when she's on with a Republican or anyone from the right."
Behar resists the liberal label, saying a better description is that she is "sympathetic to the downtrodden. I came from a blue-collar family. My grandmother was on relief, as they said in those days." Behar's father drove a truck for Coca-Cola; her mother operated a sewing machine.
But surely she's a big fan of President Obama? "Sometimes he's not liberal enough," Behar complains. "He's been wishy-washy on the public option."
What about the other party? "Republicans don't give a damn about the poor."
All righty then. The lady does not mince words.
Behar drew attention during last fall's campaign when she confronted John McCain over a pair of television ads, one of which accused Obama of favoring sex education for kindergartners. "We know those two ads are untrue, they're lies," she said. McCain denied that, and his wife, Cindy, later accused the "View" panelists of having "picked our bones clean."
"Too bad," Behar says now. "They can't handle a question from Joy Behar, how they gonna handle the country?"
No subject seems taboo. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has accused Behar of "Catholic-bashing" for such lines as this one, from a 2006 discussion on "The View": "Don't you remember when you went to Communion? In vino veritas. The priests were all drunk." That same year, the Anti-Defamation League denounced Behar's language as "offensive" after she called former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld a "Hitler type."
Behar is unrepentant, cracking: "That was when Hitler was a good reference. It's so tired now." She also says Catholics have a special responsibility to criticize problems in the church.
With her earthy manner and tangle of reddish hair, Behar seems like the loudmouthed neighbor at the checkout line. But she is also a brawler who delights in landing a punch. On "The View," Behar had her spats with Star Jones, who once called her the B-word (it was bleeped), and often clashes with Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the house conservative. "Elisabeth and I are only surface fighters," Behar insists. "There is no antagonism. We are just polar opposites."
A former radio talk-show host and occasional substitute for Larry King, Behar says the new program won't just be a forum for her views. "I like people who have strong opinions," she says. "I like batting around ideas."
On a recent afternoon, Behar's producer Conway Cliff walks into her utterly barren Time Warner Center office -- "Who has a name like Conway?" she asks -- to run through some possible topics.
Silvio Berlusconi's gal pals? "We love a sex scandal," she tells him.
Jon Gosselin, without Kate? "Being nasty about your ex in public." Behar is getting excited.
Mark Sanford's secret mission? "Going to Buenos Aires to get a little nooky."
Levi Johnston's trashing of Sarah Palin? "Who's more annoying: Levi or Sarah?"
Though she sounds like a yenta, Behar is an Italian American, born Josephina Victoria Occhiuto. Her early forays into stand-up comedy were painful. She once opened for Buddy Rich, and the audience, filled with drummers from Queens, brought their sticks and used them to make a ruckus during her act.
While at her "GMA" desk job, Behar made Steve Allen laugh when she called him for some information. He asked what she was doing "in that dumb job." Months later, Behar appeared on a comedy hour that he hosted.
Only after laboring in the comedy vineyards did Behar eventually win the movie roles (one with Woody Allen), the casino dates (Las Vegas and Atlantic City), the stage work ("The Vagina Monologues"), the book ("Joy Shtick") and the Jenny Craig deal (she lost 23 pounds and then gained half of it back).
After her first marriage, which produced a daughter, ended in 1981, Behar met Steve Janowitz, a Bronx middle-school teacher, at an adult getaway in Upstate New York. "She was funny, she was attractive -- someone I instantly clicked with," Janowitz says.
Nearly three decades later, she calls Janowitz "my spousal equivalent." She announced last spring that they might finally get married, "but then I got the show and I said I'm too busy to get married. If the ratings slip, maybe I'll get married."
Janowitz, now retired, says Behar had been "itching to spread her wings a little more" after more than a decade at "The View." "My only concern was, are you physically going to have the time and strength to do this? It hasn't killed her yet."
If her new gig has sparked any resentment, there's no sign of it at "The View." "I am delighted for Joy," Walters says. But when Meghan McCain was on and Behar asked whether she could help land her father as prime-time guest, Walters gently chided her friend: "Stop booking your show on our show."
Kurtz also works for CNN, the sister network of HLN, and hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."