Liner Note Author: Bill Cosby.
In 1965, Joan Rivers was a long way from being the household name she'd become after the 2000s, but she'd generated just enough buzz with her standup comedy to earn a few appearances on The Tonight Show, which led to a recording contract with Warner Bros, then enjoying considerable commercial success with comedy albums from Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, and Allan Sherman. Rivers' first album, Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories, was not destined to be a hit, but listening to it today shows how much has and hasn't changed about her comedy several decades on. There's a well-honed sense of the absurd in the material on Mr. Phyllis that's a far cry from Rivers' best-known work; the wigs that have lives of their own, the alcoholic dogs, and the families whose name changes pronunciation with their income are just surreal enough to recall Woody Allen's early standup routines, and the humor is more explicitly Jewish than much of Rivers' later work. However, the razor-sharp timing and the unrelenting pace of Rivers' delivery were already very impressive indeed, and if she dishes more on herself than anyone else here, she did so with the bloody skill of a trained surgeon, especially when she recalls the school Christmas pageant where she was fat enough to play not one but three heavenly angels. (And given Rivers' later status as a gay icon, it's worth noting that she makes jokes at the expense of her hairdresser Mr. Phyllis, but she's not unnecessarily cruel about his "lifestyle choices.") Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories may not capture Joan Rivers at her best, but she does sound fresh, lively, and quite funny on her debut album, and shows a side of her humor that differs from her later work. ~ Mark Deming