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The first time I met Joan Rivers, I almost peed my pants.
I had been invited to submit a writing sample for a cable pilot she was hosting and she’d asked to meet with me. The producers of the show were friends of mine and told me she’d said, “I want this guy,” indicating my submission. They laughed and told her that would be no problem, but that I wasn’t a guy.
So, now I had to come in for a face-to-facelift meeting and I was about to soil my brown corduroy culottes from TJ Maxx, right in front of the world’s fanciest, funniest fashion critic. I had worked with some pretty famous people before, but Joan Rivers was a stone cold legend, and I guess I expected her to be imperious and demanding and derisive toward discount culottes. But she wasn’t at all.
The first thing she said was, “I’m sorry I thought you were a man! I’ve been doing this a really long time and I can usually tell the difference. But you write like you don’t know you’re a girl, either. Don’t ever become self-conscious and ladylike. It’ll ruin everything!” I got the job and the pilot was made.
The night we taped, Joan threw an after party for us at Sardi’s and in her toast said, “May this show be picked up and run for seven years, until I die and you all have to find other jobs. But you will have been working for seven years, which is a lifetime in this business!” We laughed. The pilot was not picked up. I thought that was it. I am so lucky that it was not.
You probably think you know a lot about Joan Rivers, but trust me, she was so much more than the Chief of E!’s “Fashion Police” and purveyor of fine costume jewelry on QVC.
Joan Alexandra Molinksky was born in Brooklyn in 1933 to Russian Jewish immigrants. Her dad was a doctor and she graduated from Barnard College with a degree in English and Anthropology. Before becoming a showbiz icon, she had regular-person jobs such as tour guide at Rockefeller Plaza, a writer of advertising copy and a department store fashion consultant. She once told me that she worked as a receptionist at a button company. I don’t remember the name now and I can’t find anything online about it.
Anyway, she said she was reprimanded for answering the telephone, “Thank you for calling (XYZ) Button! A button’s a beautiful thing!” If there are any 80-100 year-old button customers out there who remember hearing this on the other end of the telephone, now you know you were talking to Joan freaking Rivers!
You might not know that Joan’s original intent was to be an actress. In the 50s she was in a play called Driftwood, portraying a lesbian with a crush on another young ingenue. Some girl named Barbra Streisand? Comedy was originally just a way for her to finance her acting dreams, performing in Greenwich Village at The Bitter End, where like, every male New York comedy legend of that era got his start. Woody Allen. Lenny Bruce! Even way back then she was a natural, able to run with the big boys and break through.
Clearly, comedy was Joan’s destiny and she kicked down every goddamn door that had been previously closed to women with jokes. She was on Sullivan. She was on Parr. She was on Carson so many times that she became his permanent guest host, which led to her being offered her own show on Fox, which would make her the first (and still only) woman ever to be given a late night talk show on a major network, and which she would have been crazy not to take, right? RIGHT???
She thought Johnny would be proud of her. Instead, he never spoke to her again. Not even when her husband, Edgar, whom Johnny had introduced her to, killed himself after the cancellation of that groundbreaking show. She not only survived all of it, she was somehow able to keep going.
And after years of carrying around a lot of pain over how things went down between her and Johnny, she eventually let it go, telling me, “He was hurt. He really thought I owed him something that was never made clear to me. I don’t know what. But I can’t hold grudges. I am so f-cking lucky.”
I am so lucky too. Because of something she saw in me, I’m still not sure what, I got to work with Joan and write material for her a number of times over the past several years. I got to write jokes for the Queen of Comedy to perform for the Queen of England. I got to go to her building on the Upper East Side and ask to be let up to Mrs. Rosenberg’s penthouse where we’d sit in her gorgeous study drinking iced coffee, talking about whatever performance she wanted some one-liners for while I tried to sneak in questions about everything she ever did. She was always thrilled to oblige. Crazy party where Phil Spector acted nuts? Check. Hot one night stand with Robert Mitchum? Check.
She had such a great respect for anyone who ever collaborated with her or wrote for her, because she was a writer too. (Do yourself a favor and track down two brilliant films she wrote, “The Girl Most Likely To,” and “Rabbit Test.”)
I adored writing for her because she was so much ballsier than anyone I’d ever met and so ready to say things I wish I had the brass ovaries to say. I got the chance to be more outspoken through her.
I know a lot of people found her humor to be mean. Could she be wildly politically incorrect? Sure. But I think she valued a comedian’s right to take a risk and let the audience decide whether or not it had paid off. And she took the piss out of herself harder than anyone else. You have to be pretty self-deprecating to do a bit about how you mistook your fallen vulva for a gray bunny slipper.
I was so thrilled when the documentary “A Piece of Work,” came out in 2010, because I think for the first time, people got to see at least a little bit of who she really was and that underneath all that couture beat the heart of a woman who wanted the same things we all want. To be loved. To be remembered. To be told she was beautiful. Why did nobody ever tell her that? She absolutely was so beautiful!
I have never known a person more in tune with what was important to her. Her family, particularly her more-brilliant-than-you’ll-probably-ever-realize daughter, Melissa, and her grandson, Cooper. Her dear friends, including Barbra Walters, Cindy Adams, Judge Judy and, before she died, the great Phyllis Diller.
She positively loved to work, making people laugh, and she was the hardest-working person I have ever had the privilege to watch busting her ass way past the time most other people her age would have collected their gold watch and retired. And you’d think a person who worked so damned hard wouldn’t have time to pause and be kind, but she was, in ways both great and small.
She wrote checks, yeah, but she delivered meals with her own impeccably manicured hands, too. When she spoke to you, she had a way of making you feel like you were a treasure that someday everyone would understand the value of.
“Do you need me to call your mother and tell her how proud she should be of how talented you are?” she’d ask. “They are so lucky to have you. You could be doing anything you want, anywhere you want to do it,” she’d say.
Once, I caught a show at a club where she happened to perform some stuff I’d sent her. When I went backstage she said, “Oh, thank God I didn’t know you’d be here. I would have been so nervous!”
Her, nervous because of me? Pshaw times a million! Then she gave me the necklace she was wearing because I said I liked it, and now I will probably sleep with it under my pillow for a while. I know she made millions of people feel the same way.
One of my all-time favorite stories about Joan was the afternoon she called my house and my husband answered the phone. He covered the receiver and said, “It’s Joan.” Then he whispered, “She sounds like she’s crying?”
I took the phone and sure enough, it was Joan, and sure enough, it sounded like she was crying. I immediately asked her what was wrong, and through tears she started telling me how one of her dogs, a beloved rescue with three legs, had fallen ill and had to be put to sleep just moments ago.
I immediately started rambling, trying to comfort her and she patiently let me go on for a minute before stopping me and saying, still through tears, “Thanks. Anyway, can you write up a bunch of dead dog jokes? Because I have a show tonight.”
I love that it was never too soon with her. This, though? This was too soon.