Joy Ride

updated 10/20/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

EVEN FOUR WEEKS BEFORE GOING ON THE AIR, JOY Behar, cohost of ABC's new daily morning talk show, The View, could barely contain her delirium. It hardly mattered that she was working out of a nearly empty dressing room or that she'd been dubiously billed as "comedian/divorcée" in the promo ads for the live, one-hour show. After careers as a high school English teacher, receptionist and road-weary stand-up comic, Behar, 55, was about to hit the cushy big time. "I can't believe I got this job," she exclaimed from her barren dressing room last July. "I'm ready to jump out of my brassiere."

Behar has Barbara Walters to thank for her exuberance. The 20/20 über-host created the daily talkfest and two days a week leads the discussions with Meredith "journalist/mom" Vieira, Star "attorney/diva" Jones and Debbie "the young one" Matenopoulos. Walters tapped Behar to fill in for her the other three days, counting on her to punctuate with wry humor the show's celebrity interviews and freewheeling girl-talk sessions about news events. "She's funny, intelligent and well-informed," says Walters, whose program is gaining viewers weekly after a sluggish start. "I chose Joy because we wanted the show to be entertaining." Critics applaud. Behar "generally steals the show," raved USA Today. "They should acknowledge her as the resident Erma Bombeck and make her a daily presence."

Not bad for a late bloomer who dove into show business after nearly dying from an ectopic pregnancy in 1979. "The doctor told me I was almost gone," says Behar, who had been married for 14 years to college professor Joe Behar at the time. "I realized you can just be dead." Empowered by that epiphany, Behar, a Queens College graduate who began teaching junior high school English in 1968, quit to work as a receptionist at Good Morning America, where she hoped to be discovered. She also embraced psychotherapy to overcome performance anxiety. "I'd drive by comedy clubs and get nauseous," says Behar. "I was terrified of the humiliation if I failed."

The therapy paid off, and Behar hit the comedy nightclub circuit in 1980, still answering phones by day. A year later she and Joe Behar divorced. "We were going in different directions," she explains. "I was a dazzling urbanite, and he was Mr. Chips." He moved out of their Queens home, and Behar got custody of their daughter, Eve, now 26 and a ceramic artist. As Behar puts it in the act she still takes onstage a couple of times a month: "I want a man in my life. Not in my house."

In 1983, GMA fired Behar, who wasn't always so nice to callers, turning her into "a single 40-year-old mother with no money." Collecting $135 a week in unemployment, Behar performed stand-up sometimes six times a night, leaving Eve, then a preteen, with Behar's parents, Gino Occhiuto, a truck driver, and Rose, a seamstress, who died in 1992 and 1991, respectively. "She was a good mother, but in the morning I had to do everything," recalls Eve of her teenage years. "I felt bad," says Behar, who is very close to her only child these days. "When you're a comedian, you bite the bullet."

Her bullets hit their marks. "I had my eye on her in the '80s," says comedian Robert Klein. "I thought, 'This one is sharp.' " Good reviews paved the way for her own 1987 Lifetime television variety series, Way Off Broadway, which was canceled after one season. Undeterred, Behar supported herself comfortably for the next decade touring comedy clubs, appearing in bit parts in movies and speaking out on her New York City radio talk show.

As a child growing up in a Brooklyn tenement, Josephine (her grandfather Vincent called her Joy) sang and danced for aunts and uncles who lived in the same building. "There would be all these adoring people, and she'd say, 'Let me do one more song,' " recalls Behar's maternal aunt Julie Carbone, 67, a retired loan clerk. "When someone has that charismatic persona, you always want to be in their company."

Well, almost always. Behar and her steady, Steven Janowitz, 48, maintain separate New York City apartments after 15 years of dating. "I don't see the point of getting married," says Janowitz, a New York City junior high school math teacher. "Joy probably feels even stronger about that than I do." Yep. "I have a gorgeous apartment, then he has to stick his two cents in about what pictures to hang up?" says Behar, laughing. "I like my own place."

As she stares out at the barges drifting on the East River, Behar turns reflective. "I'm not nervous," she says about live TV. "Even though I could bomb, it's something I look forward to. After all, this is my big break."

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