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R.I.P. Joan Rivers: June 8, 1933 to Sept. 4, 2014


@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Let it be said that she spoke her mind.

Joan Rivers was the Howard Cosell of comedians. People loved to hate her, hated to love her. Or teeter-tottered between the two extremes.

Unlike Cosell, though, she never let herself become an embittered recluse. Her vulnerability often showed, but the show must go on. Less than two weeks ago, on Tuesday, Aug. 26th, Rivers hosted a special 90-minute edition of the E! Network’s Fashion Police, which dressed down the gowns at both the Emmys and MTV’s Video Music Awards.

Now she’s suddenly gone, at age 81. And the world seems just a little drab at the moment.

Her 46-year-old daughter, Melissa, who was at her side Thursday, served as a co-executive producer of Fashion Police and occasionally appeared as an on-camera fill-in. The Rivers were best known on camera as red carpet fixtures, where Joan’s “Who are you wearing?” became an internationally famous tagline. More recently, mother and daughter co-starred in WE tv’s Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, a “reality” show of fanciful proportions built around their generational divide.

Joan’s storied affection for plastic surgery became a storyline, for instance.

“It’s a source of conflict. It really is,” Melissa said during a January 2011 interview tied to the show. “It bothers me. It really does.”

Joan gave an inch -- for a few seconds at least -- saying it dawned on her that she was “doing a lot of plastic surgery” when Melissa phoned to tell her that little grandson Cooper “ran to the TV and went ‘Grandma, Grandma’ “ while Return of the Mummy was on TV.

That got a sustained laugh, even if it probably didn’t happen quite that way -- if at all. But Joan and Melissa, her only child, clearly enjoyed each other’s company and the sprightly banter it provoked. Having a flesh-and-blood second banana can keep the juices flowing.

Joan to TV critics: “If you had a dollar for every stitch in the face of someone you’ve interviewed, you wouldn’t be sitting here. It’s part of our business.”

Melissa: “But you can go too far, right?”

Joan: “There’s no such thing.”

Melissa: “And I disagree.”

Joan: “Because your’e not my age.”

My first in-person brush with Joan Rivers came in early 1984. Melissa was just a teenager then, and Joan was in Dallas defending some of the jokes she had told a few months earlier as a co-host of the prime-time Emmy Awards on NBC. She also unintentionally let an expletive slip during the telecast. But Rivers was taking more heat for calling former Secretary of the Interior James Watt “an idiot” while also joking about herpes, homosexuals, prostitutes and Joan Crawford. Presenter Joan Collins came onstage after Rivers said her Dynasty character “has had more hands up her dress than the Muppets.”

NBC supposedly heard from thousands of outraged viewers while Rivers uncharacteristically went silent for a while. But in Dallas she let loose.

“There was a backlash to the backlash, and I just came out like the golden girl,” she contended. “NBC got 500 calls in my favor, which they have never gotten on anything. I’ll tell ya the truth. I was in shock the first few days. I said, ‘What did I do?’ The only thing that upset me is that everybody from NBC ran for the hills . . . They took me to task on a James Watt joke! Bob Hope -- Mr. America, who wears the American flag as a suit -- was doing James Watt jokes on his special. To take me to task on a Joan Crawford joke! Her daughter made two million dollars saying her mother was a bitch. Crazy!”

Once she got wound up, Rivers talked faster than a speeding bullet. And she rhetorically shot to kill anyone who bad-mouthed her. That included Chevy Chase, who said of Rivers during a Playboy Channel interview: “I don’t like her. She doesn’t read enough. She doesn’t know what’s going on in the world. She constantly insults the same people about weight problems. There’s nothing womanly about her. I think she’s offensive.”

Rivers began her rebuttal by ticking off her current reading list, which included John Mortimer’s Clinging to the Wreckage.” Then she strafed him.

“As far as comedy goes, I think we should look very closely at Chevy’s ‘major’ -- and this is a joke -- career. I know I do ‘fat jokes.’ Unfortunately, I can’t fall down to get my laughs. I mean, look at the source. He doesn’t think I’m bright enough. I mean, I ask you. I ask you. The world is insane! Look what’s knocking me -- a man who has made a living tripping, who has done four films, each one progressively worse, the last one beyond embarrassment.”


Joan and Johnny back when it was fun for both of them.

Chase and Rivers both went on to do short-lived late night talk shows for Fox. His was barely more than a blip. Hers came in the wake of one of TV’s most famous and enduring feuds.

Rivers had guest-hosted Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show many times after first coming to prominence as one of his favorite guests. But when Fox came calling in 1986 with a late night offer, she neglected to tell Carson that she could become his competitor. He never forgave her for that while also pounding Rivers in the late night ratings. Fox dropped The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers in May 1987, just seven months after its fall 1986 premiere. It had received dismal reviews from the very start.

“If the critics ever like me, I’m in trouble. I’ve never been the critics’ darling,” Rivers said during a January 1987 gaggle on the set of her ill-fated show. She was surrounded by many of those very same critics during Fox’s leg of the annual winter TV “press tour.”

By 1991, though, Rivers had a successful daytime talker, The Joan Rivers Show. She stopped in Dallas to promote it while also fanning the flames for her upcoming book, Still Talking.

“Oh, the anger’s there,” she said of the split-ups with both Carson and Fox. “And the more I look back at it, the more angry I become. And that’ll all come out.”

She spilled a little. Her first book, Enter Talking, was dedicated to Carson, who “made it all happen.” But beyond that they were never friends, Rivers contended during the stop in Dallas. “Nothing. Nothing. Never a Christmas card from him. So why should there be one now?”

The Fox late nighter made her stomach churn from the start, Rivers said. “I need to walk on a set and everybody’s happy. Otherwise I cannot deal with it. With Fox, there wasn’t one day when I didn’t wake up and say, ‘Oh God. Oh God, what’s gonna hit us today?’ “

On one of her daytime shows, she began by tossing Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan into a wastebasket after dismissing it as “trash.” There’s a difference, she said in our interview, between flat-out lies and fun gossip.

“When it’s absolutely, totally untrue, when it’s twisted beyond any recognition, when it’s a half-fact, that’s no longer gossip. That becomes malicious ,” Rivers tried to explain. “But if it’s a thing like who’s Madonna dating, then that’s fun. You have to walk that line. Our gossip hasn’t ever been malicious. It’s been just rumors and fun and who’s dating whom and who’s sleeping with whom. Things that we all talk about at the beauty shop. But the Nancy Reagan book was s-o-o-o untrue. It was s-o-o-o far-fetched. I mean, Nancy and (Frank) Sinatra having an affair in the White House? Yeah, right. C’mon. First of all, Frank wouldn’t even remember at his age. So it would have been a waste, anyhow.”


Joan and Melissa: It was always personal and also good for business.

Joan Rivers influenced and inspired many women to stand up and be acerbic on stage. Roseanne Barr, Sarah Silverman, Kathy Griffin and Chelsea Handler are among the many who took their cues from her.

But Melissa Rivers benefited most from her mom’s determination to shepherd her through show business as a junior partner who slowly grew into a larger role. They hit the red carpet -- and occasionally a national political convention -- as a team in which mom initially did most of the talking before daughter became adept at chiming in.

At the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, I witnessed Joan blocking the path of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger while Melissa exclaimed “Roll! Roll!” Kissinger then looked panic-stricken when Joan asked, “What is the brightest-colored tie you’ve ever worn to a state event?”

“Uh, I think it’s red,” he finally mumbled.

It was all for the greater glory of an E! network special. During a sit-down interview away from the camera’s eye, Joan played nice with First Lady Laura Bush after earlier describing her in a live CNN interview as being dressed “like a nice-looking Amish woman.”

But for a Texas correspondent’s consumption, “Laura looked good,” Joan said. “Remember, she started out in slacks. She was a librarian. She’s come a long way.”

“They didn’t jam her into something that said ‘First Lady,’ “ Melissa dared to add. “She looks like she actually owns and wears her clothes.”

By 2005, mom and daughter were much closer to verbal equals during a joint telephone interview. They’d been dropped by E! after an eight-year run and were trying to drum up interest for their new gig as the TV Guide Channel’s red carpet Oscar team.

“When we first went on the red carpet, it was a dirty place to be,” Joan recalled. It was paparazzi and dead stars.”

“You remember when Demi Moore wore the bicycle pants?” Melissa asked.

Joan: “And Celine Dion wore the Dior suit backwards.”

Melissa: “Kim Basinger with that one-shoulder thing she designed with Prince.”

Joan: “Lily Tomlin had a white, trailer-trash corsage on, which was great. Those were the good old days.”

Perhaps this is a sad commentary, but I could have listened to them all day. And Joan Rivers, of course, was never a slouch as a solo act when the occasion called for it.

A few years back, Bravo televised Joan Rivers: Before Melissa Pulls the Plug, a one-woman show during which she professed to hate -- in no particular order -- old people, the Olsen twins, vegans, kids, love, the Clintons (and their “ugly daughter, Celery”), the Bushes and, to some degree, herself.

“I use my left boob now as a stopper in my tub,” she told her audience.

In a telephone interview promoting the special, Rivers said her comedy had gotten even harsher because the times demanded it.

“I ratchet it up because comedy is ratcheted up,” she said. “The times are so rough.”

Rivers has always had a substantial following in the gay community, and figured she knew why.

“Without them, I’d probably be a dentist’s wife in New Jersey,” she said. “They just love strong, ugly women. They love Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Liza. I think they love us because we try harder and we’re not the stereotype of what we’re supposed to be.”

Joan Rivers never fit anyone’s mold. She was a bundle of insecurities who outwardly played rough and inwardly sought approval. Her jokes could be tasteless, but then she’d get one just right. Boorish at times, but never dull-edged. And always “good copy.”

I’ll miss Joan Rivers. And I feel bad for her daughter because she’s lost not only her mom but a close pal who taught her the ropes as best she could. While kvetching all the while, of course.

“It’s almost like a cocktail party with us” on the red carpet, Joan once said.

“We can talk to each other in a way that no other two people can,” Melissa agreed.

Joan: “Like, ‘You’re stupid, mother.’ “

Melissa: “And my mother can say, ‘Stop slouching and keep your hair out of your eyes.’ “

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