The Joan Rivers I Knew and Loved
By Michael Musto
Joan Rivers is an icon I’ve been privileged to get to know—someone who’s invited me to her luscious townhouse, granted me a succession of hilarious interviews, and even cohosted a party for me, turning the whole room upside down with her accessibility and charm. When I handed her an envelope with cash to cover her transportation that night, Joan handed it right back and said, “Get your mother flowers with it.” I’ve been buying bouquets ever since.
Joan is one of our society’s true fighters. The news that she died at 81 after she battled the life threatening results of a throat surgery scare, left us saddened.
Can you imagine the guts, talent, and drive it took to create Joan Rivers in the male-dominated comedy world? A self-made, feisty groundbreaker, Joan rose to the top with her saucy combination of bitchiness and self deprecation, along with her refusal to rest on her laurels or settle for anything easy. Working tirelessly as she honed her craft and kicked ass with the big boys, Joan paved the way for Sandra Bernhard, Kathy Griffin, and every other female with a mic and a mouth. In the ‘80s, she rose higher than ever as a substitute Tonight Show host whenever Johnny Carson couldn’t make it. Her snappy barbs and lacerating celebrity observations made eyes and ears pop around the nation, but when she inevitably landed her own show, Carson became furious and the NBC ban dogged her for decades.
More disappointment came in 1987, when Joan’s husband and manager Edgar Rosenberg killed himself and she was left with the horror and debts. Again, she pulled herself out of the morass and rose back up the ranks of the biz, amazingly relying on humor and outrage to restore dignity and self respect to her life. A woman with a mortal fear of down time, she’s said yes to scores of opportunities, all while making sure to work out new material in smaller clubs, where her offensive, outrageous comments are side splittingly target. (Her recent remarks about the Obamas proved that she could still horrify people—and make them laugh—at 81.)
I recently reported that Joan was planning to bring back her 1994 Broadway vehicle, Sally Marr...and Her Escorts, in which she played another innovative funny lady, comic Lenny Bruce’s multifaceted mother. Yes, it turned out the standup comic was also a writer and brilliant actress, always willing to go to the dark side as she explored artistic pursuit without pretentions or limits.
To prove my undying love for this woman, I’ll leave you with some snippets of a 2012 interview I did with my two favorite yentas, her and daughter Melissa.
Me: Joan, you live in Melissa’s basement. Isn’t that even worse than Anne Frank?
Joan: I have total sympathy with the Chilean miners.
Melissa: It is not a basement. It is a lovely guest room.
Joan: It happens to be below sea level.
Melissa: It is not. It has a patio.
Joan: It’s great if you wanna fish. I can reach out and get dinner. Anne Frank had a terrace!
Me: But it’s only five days a week, right?
Melissa: Only four now. She’s just staying with me, no longer living with me. I’ve not found the subtle difference.
Me: I’m sure she contributes to the rent.
Joan: No way! I’ve turned her staff upside down. I’ll chip in when the first person that works for her has a green card.
Joan was the ultimate pro, a real show biz trouper who never missed her mark. She'd never want to be in the vulnerable state she ended up in. She wanted to go, move, do, perform, and live. And she had a hell of a life, carving out her own legend while roasting the biggies, mocking herself, and becoming the world's most unlikely (and funniest) style arbiter, one who redefined red carpet antics and challenged the very nature of celebrity. One thing I always loved about her was that she was a great audience. When you were talking to her, she'd laugh uproariously at mildly amusing things you said, knowing just how to stroke and flatter her playmates. She was not only the master—the funniest person alive, bar none—but extremely generous too. She is irreplaceable.
We'll miss you, Joan.