People have many issues with Joy Behar, but here is one that has gotten scandalously slight attention. Joy Behar is a bad driver. A person sitting in the back of her SUV to, say, drive a short distance on flat roads, will get nauseated, which will significantly impede that person’s ability to carry out such journalistic duties as noticing whether Behar stops and starts so much because in two months she’ll be 80 and her reaction time has slowed, or because she doesn’t care how she makes people feel.
The View co-host has agreed to go yard-sale shopping near her home in the wealth-soaked Hamptons area of Long Island. Behar, the publicist says, loves yard-sale shopping. But she doesn’t seem that thrilled. We are among the first to arrive at a modest spread in Sag Harbor, and the homeowners appear a little confused that the pile of castoffs in their garage has somehow attracted a celebrity. Behar keeps her sunglasses on and does not linger. “Do I know you?” someone asks. “I don’t know,” says Behar in that voice. “Was it that night in Paris?” It’s a perfect answer; everyone laughs, and yet it’s abundantly clear the conversation is over.
Thus loosened up, Behar leans over a stroller. “Is this doll for sale?” she asks, before doing a pretend double take. “Oh. It’s a baby.” There is an appreciative titter from the parents, and one gets the sense that this is a line that will be repeated at birthday parties for years to come. Unless of course the parents are fans of former President Donald Trump, in which case there will be headlines on Fox News: Joy Behar Disses Infant!
Finding a compelling and amusing thing to say on demand and without offending anybody is a high-wire act, and Behar has been walking that tightrope on camera now for 25 years, more or less successfully—although often less. Just days after our yard-sale trip, she told Lindsey Granger, a Black gun-rights supporter and guest host on The View, that U.S. gun laws would change “once Black people get guns.”
As if a drawbridge had been lowered, the critics swarmed in. “I think Joy Behar is just ridiculous,” Byron Donalds, a Representative from Florida’s 19th District, said to Fox News Digital on June 10. “What she said is a lie,” former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told Sean Hannity. Other conservative pundits call her racist or at least ignorant, observing that 25% of African Americans own guns and the number is rising, which led progressive media to point out that white people outpace any other race in gun ownership. Another day, another spat sparked by a grandmother from Brooklyn.
Behar claims her comments are never designed to provoke. “I just say what I say,” she says over takeout Caesar salad in her comfortable but not very lavish Manhattan apartment. “And then they’re upset with me. I’m their favorite target over at Breitbart and Fox.”
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Just saying what she says gives her attackers plenty to work with. She suggested former Vice President Mike Pence might be mentally ill because he said Jesus spoke to him. She accused Republicans of being “against babies” over the formula shortage. She called GOP Representative Lauren Boebert’s Christmas photo (which featured children with guns) “obscene.”
But she also frequently says things that could rile her allies. She made a lewd joke when Carl Nassib became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. She made fun of a nurse for wearing a stethoscope. She even has her own blackface incident. In her youth Behar went to a Halloween party as what she calls “a beautiful African woman.”
“For me, it was like, ‘Look at how pretty I can look as a woman dressed like this,’” she says. “It wasn’t anything close to blackface. It was bronzer, which I used with my natural curly hair. And the Black community had my back because they understand what blackface is.” She adds that a Black producer was the first to put the photo on the air 20 years ago. “And then all of a sudden, that picture became verboten.”
After the interview, The View’s publicist, who earns every dollar just looking out for Behar (let alone co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg, Sunny Hostin, and Sara Haines), sent me a follow-up comment from Behar. “I would never do that now. I understand it’s offensive.”
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In all, there is more than enough material from both sides of the political fence to mount a campaign to banish Behar to the Hamptons for good. And yet she occupies the same catbird seat she has for almost 2½ decades. In May, she renewed her contract with The View, which leads the ratings for daytime talk shows, for another three years, for a reported $3 million a year. Goldberg had to sit out hosting The View for a couple of weeks for saying the Holocaust “was not about race,” but Behar has mostly remained immune to any punishment beyond offering regular apologies, some of which, she has openly admitted, she doesn’t mean.
Meghan McCain, the most recent conservative host, has cited Behar’s cutting remarks as one reason she left the show. (Following a long search, former Trump Administration spokesperson Alyssa Farah Griffin has reportedly been chosen as the new occupant of the rightmost chair, though a View spokesperson would not confirm this.) In an era when most women on TV still find their opportunities drying up after 45, Behar is She Who Cannot Be Canceled. “The View needs her more than she needs to do it,” says Ramin Setoodeh, co–editor in chief of Variety and author of a book about the show, Ladies Who Punch, “because she’s such an established brand. She has been a fixture on daytime television almost as long as Regis Philbin or Oprah Winfrey.”
To some conservatives, that Behar has not been canceled yet is evidence of hypocrisy. But it may actually be evidence of something else: that Behar plays a useful role in the current media ecosystem. Her age, willingness to offend, and impenetrable hide make her a sturdy dartboard in the rowdy dive bar political discourse has become. Conservatives throw sharp objects her way to whip up outrage (and traffic) among their audience, and progressives, including Behar, decline to award any points.
One of the reasons the darts don’t score is that Behar, unlike, for instance, Ronan Farrow or Anderson Cooper, took the hard way up. Born Josephine Occhiuto in Brooklyn, she grew up in a walk-up tenement building. In the summer, she would put her pillow in the fridge to cool it down. “And then in the winter,” she says, “you were freezing because the heat never made it up to the fifth floor.” Her mother operated a sewing machine in a local shop and her father drove a truck for Coca-Cola.
What the family lacked in resources, it made up for in affection—and eccentricity. “My mother used to say, ‘Make sure you sweep the house thoroughly or you’ll marry a bald man,’” says Behar. Her father was a gambler—a habit he couldn’t afford. (His daughter can and does, mostly playing blackjack and craps in Atlantic City, N.J.) Her grandmother and two unmarried aunts lived two floors down, and she was the adored only child of the clan, regularly called upon to entertain the adults. “I cannot say that I had a dysfunctional family,” she says. “I’m more like Mel Brooks, who basically said of his family that they were crazy about me, and I just wanted to get more of that.”
She was the first in her family to go to college; before long she was married with a daughter, and teaching high school English. What she enjoyed most was working with students who’d had an entanglement with law enforcement. “Kids would get out of prison after setting their parents on fire,” she would later joke, “and they would be sent to me to learn the difference between who and whom.”
A brush with mortality from an ectopic pregnancy brought her the realization that she had only one life to get what she wanted, and what she wanted was an audience. Newly divorced from Joseph Behar, she began to do stand-up in the early ’80s, when no venue would book more than one female comic per night. “Stand-up comedy, especially for a woman in those days, was a particularly suicidal occupation,” says Behar. “I did some garbage-y gigs for, you know, a hundred bucks, where I had to drive to the bowels of New Jersey. I’d get lost on the Jersey Turnpike.” She had inconsistent success, but it taught her a lot, including how to handle people who don’t like you and how to keep going when jokes don’t land. And it offered a reward she did not expect.
“You have a power when you have that microphone,” she says. “People don’t like it. They don’t like it that I’m a powerful person on The View, saying things that they don’t like, but I’m sorry, that is where I’m at. I’m a powerful person on The View; I was a powerful person as a comedian holding a microphone. Too bad.”
One of the less garbage-y gigs Behar scored was Milton Berle’s 89th birthday. She did a bit about how hard it was to attract men. Salman Rushdie was under a fatwa and had married three times, but women still couldn’t get guys. (Actually, Behar was dating middle-school math teacher Steve Janowitz, whom she eventually married, and who is, as her mother predicted, a little bit bald.) Barbara Walters, then plotting a new TV show made by and for intelligent women, was among the guests. She decided to give Behar, then 54, a shot.
Behar was hired to be the comic relief—she did Monica Lewinsky jokes—but during the Bush Administration, she started to develop a more articulated political position. “Her persona in our culture has evolved as politics have evolved,” says Setoodeh. “She didn’t start out as a polarizing figure or even a political figure. She was the comedian.”
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One of the keys to Behar’s longevity is that she takes nothing personally. She has had two of her own shows canceled and was even let go from The View in 2013. “I was glad to be fired,” she says. “I basically was sick of the show at that point for some reason, I don’t even remember why.” According to Setoodeh, while the also-fired Elisabeth Hasselbeck wept, Behar was blasé, and offered to leave that day.
“She doesn’t hold a grudge,” says Hostin, adding, “I think because she doesn’t remember what happened the day before.” Her co-hosts often remind her of a recent insult leveled against her and she just shrugs it off. “That’s how she’s been able to deal with this show. She just leaves it at the table and then moves on for another day.”
By 2015, The View’s ratings were slipping, Trump was running for President, and a new slate of producers were handed the reins. They asked Behar to come back. “I just knew that we needed to get back into the cultural conversation,” says Hilary Estey McLoughlin, the executive producer who championed her return. “And I knew she was going to be the person who could actually do that. She’s always been the person who says what the audience is thinking but is afraid to say.” Thus began the feud between Trump and Behar, who had been on good enough terms that in 2003, in one of his 18 pre-presidential appearances on The View, he let her pull his hair. (It was also the outlet on which he made his notorious quip about dating Ivanka.)
Behar had been to Trump’s second wedding; she’d had Melania on her HLN show to tout her line of jewelry (and echo her husband’s false claims about Barack Obama’s birth certificate). Goldberg too has said he was her friend. But Trump the candidate was not a man Goldberg and Behar recognized; they pulled out all the stops in their coverage. The ratings rose. So did the negative attention on Behar.
Goldberg took heat as well, but the attacks on her were perhaps softened by the fact she was an established celebrity. Despite her many years on the air, Behar seemed to come out of nowhere, yet had the nerve to deliver opinions as if they were worth something.
As Behar’s mockery of Trump gathered steam, so did her detractors. There are now a dozen anti-Behar pages on Facebook (most of them tiny). She is a constant presence in stories on Fox News’ digital outlet, and they sit atop a viper’s nest of comments. Kid Rock released a video in which he makes an obscene gesture at her face. Former White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany compared the President to her in May. “Biden sounds a lot like Joy Behar,” she said on the Fox News show Outnumbered. “It’s never a good thing to sound like Joyless Behar.”
Behar professes to be indifferent to the invective: “I don’t go looking to see what they say about what I say.” Mostly, she claims, she’s trying to land a joke. But humor can cut both ways. “Because she’s funny, she’s more threatening,” says Susie Essman, who came up on the New York City comedy circuit with Behar. “Not only can she give her opinion, but she can zing, and when you can zing, it’s more powerful.” Funny, moreover, is in the eye of the beholder: “If you don’t hear any laughter,” said right-leaning comedian Greg Gutfeld recently during a show with no studio audience, “just pretend you’re watching Joy Behar do stand-up.”
It probably doesn’t help her image among her male detractors that Behar fits the mold of other reputed scolds—mothers-in-law, ex-wives, librarians, grandmothers, grammar-correcting English teachers, female surgeons general. Her voice has been referred to as “a fine Italian whine,” but also “a decent paint remover.”
But ultimately, say Behar and her co-hosts, she’s untouchable, because she means well. “This whole idea of canceling people for what they say, I’d say the answer to that is, What was your intention?” says Behar. “Everything that I got into trouble for was not intentional.”
On the nurses: “I didn’t understand what I was saying, to tell you the truth, right? That’s the thing about the show, it could be an accident in the moment, you’re looking at something, you say something, and then it’s taken completely out of context.” Everybody, she contends, knows she’s pro-nurses. On Pence: “I had no intention of denigrating anyone’s religion. I was talking about—that was almost a joke.” After sponsors began to pull out of the show, she apologized to him, ex-Catholic to ex-Catholic. “He understood what I was doing,” she says.
It’s demonstrably true that Behar is unguarded. In the course of a post-show interview, she is happy to talk about having Botox and fillers, the fact that she’s started drooling, a weeklong diet that did nothing, that she has been in therapy since high school, and her hopes that her husband still “gropes me a little bit.” She’ll even talk money. Somebody stopped her on the street recently and accused her of being a socialist and hating the rich. “So, I’m not a socialist,” she says. “I own a couple of houses.”
One of the Facebook pages, Joy Behar the Worst Show on TV (with 85 followers), is run by Joshua Maroney, a 43-year-old oil-refinery worker from Smackover, Ark. Maroney, who has never voted for anyone, including Trump, is probably not The View’s key demographic, but he often works night shifts, so he’s home during the day and catches the show. Maroney doesn’t post much, but he says he gets “thousands” of messages from like-minded folks.
Behar first irked Maroney—and this may sound familiar—by running her mouth. “She straight said I was ignorant because of where I lived,” he says. “And she didn’t say it like once for a 30-second blip. She said it for months. I live [in the South] so I must not be educated.” But as he talks, it becomes clear his beef is not really with Behar. He estimates he’s lost 26 friends to suicide. He takes 16 or 17 pills a day after “getting rolled up twice in Afghanistan.” His memory is jumbled after three concussions. His right hand doesn’t work well, and he thinks “it would be nice if I can go less than 200 miles from my house to a psychiatrist, which I’ve asked for numerous times.”
Behar is the repository for Maroney’s frustration, because of the different returns their labor and skills have generated, not just in income—though there is that—but in their ability to get heard, to get people to care about the issues each considers important. He acknowledges that this is not Behar’s fault, but thinks she should care more. “It’s the out-of-touch part that bothers me.”
Being the scapegoat for America’s most pernicious difficulties is quite a lot for a comedian to carry. Being able to opine authoritatively on subjects as wide-ranging as how to fix America (abolish the Electoral College), who makes the best TV (the Brits), and how to appear on a talk show (don’t hog the ball) is quite a lot to expect of a woman on the cusp of her ninth decade. And being funny on live TV in an era when it’s possible to get slapped in the face for a misplaced joke is not for the faint-hearted.
But Behar doesn’t seem to mind. “I’m sort of on extra time now. I don’t have to work. I don’t have to be on television. I don’t have to have the microphone. They want to give it to me, I’ll take it.” She’s heard all the insults. She doesn’t care what you say about her looks or her jokes or her opinions. Behar is legitimately a bad driver—even her husband thinks so. It’s not that she doesn’t care about how people feel; she just doesn’t care about how they feel about her. As we leave the yard sale, I ask if she will miss the fame when inevitably she can’t be on The View anymore. “Not really,” she shrugs. “You know what they say—the show must go off.”
—With reporting by Julia Zorthian
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