The Story of Joan Rivers: 24 Famous Friends From Dick Cavett to Donald Trump Construct Stunning Oral History for THR
First she broke ground in 1965 as a 'Tonight Show' guest. "Women were the butt of the joke. They didn't do the joke," says George Schlatter. Later, she hosted her own show, mourned her husband's suicide and shook up the red carpet. From the touching (delivering meals to those with AIDS) to the outrageous (she yelled into the ear of a coma patient, "Wake up, you stupid bitch!"), Rivers' life is reconstructed in never-told detail
This story first appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Trailblazing comedian. Feminist icon. The inspiration for a thousand drag acts. Joan Rivers was many things during the course of her 50-year career on stage, screen and especially TV, where she first exploded onto the scene with a single, pop culture-shaking appearance on The Tonight Show in 1965. ("You're going to be a star," Johnny Carson correctly predicted on the air.) Brazen, shocking and always hilariously unfiltered, Rivers -- born Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn and raised in Larchmont, N.Y., by a housewife mother and physician father -- didn't merely push the envelope for female comics, she rocked the whole world of comedy.
Above all else, Rivers was a survivor, as feisty and relevant on the day of her death at age 81 -- on Sept. 4 in New York of a heart attack after what was supposed to be a routine in-clinic endoscopy procedure -- as the night she first took a seat on Carson's set. "She was Mount Rushmore," says Chris Rock, one of many friends and colleagues from various eras of Rivers' life who, on the following pages, share their memories of the woman who once bragged that she had so much plastic surgery, her body would be "donated to Tupperware."
Below, THR presents an oral history of one of the most outrageously outspoken women ever to step in front of a microphone.
➻ JAKE HOLMES on singing with Joan in the folk-comedy trio Jim, Jake & Joan in 1963 and '64, early in her career
We weren't really a folk act. We were more of a cabaret act based in a folk world. We played at upscale folk clubs. We did a lot of Playboy clubs. We didn't last very long. We were supposed to do this rally for Bobby Kennedy, who was running for New York senator in 1964. We were going to play at the rally. Joan showed up with a [Republican Senate nominee Kenneth] Keating button on. And Jim said take that off. She said no -- she was sticking to her political guns. And Jim said, "Who needs you, anyway?" That was the end [of Jim, Jake & Joan]. … I didn't know she was going to be a big star. I had no idea.
➻ DICK CAVETT, who started out as a stand-up comedian before becoming a talk-show host, on watching with other wannabe comics as Rivers made her breakthrough on The Tonight Show in 1965
A bunch of us as-yet-unknowns sat huddled breathlessly on a staircase in a tiny club in Greenwich Village where we'd all been appearing. A small black-and-white TV on an extension cord was tuned to The Tonight Show. Johnny introduced Joan, she walked out, and we all held our breath until the moment she got that first big laugh. And many, many more. She was a smash, and the rest of her colorful professional life began right then and there. We were all so happy for her as Johnny made it clear that she would be a star. And we were all a deep shade of green with envy.
➻ DON RICKLES, the legendary stand-up comedian, on first sharing the stage with Rivers in Las Vegas in 1966
Vegas was very different then. The good guys ran Vegas. And they made it very comfortable for comedians. We both did our thing [onstage], but it wasn't as perfected or as good as it is today. It was a struggle at first, especially since we were trying to do something different. When you do something different, it takes time. She was doing something different for women. She was talking to women differently, just as I was talking to men differently. But she counted her steps, and she got there.
➻ GEORGE SCHLATTER, TV producer (Laugh-In, American Comedy Awards), on casting Rivers in a TV pilot with Phyllis Diller in 1973
I produced one of Joan's first singing appearances, on a pilot for a TV show called Shape of Things. Phyllis and Joan did a duet. But I met Joan in the Village. Joan was there with Richard Pryor and that whole group. That was before women really emerged. Phyllis was in San Francisco, and Joan was in New York. The idea of funny women wasn't an idea at all. Women were the butt of the joke. They didn't do the joke. And Phyllis and Joan came in and just changed everything. … Joan paid her dues before they knew what dues were.
➻ DORIS ROBERTS on playing Billy Crystal's mom in Rivers' lone directorial effort, Rabbit Test, a 1978 film about a man who gets pregnant
She wasn't funny on the set. It was all business. It was the first time [directing] for her, and you didn't have time to fool around. Every minute counted. But what was so interesting is that she had the strength to be very clear and very focused. A lot of men on the set were annoyed with her, annoyed with her clarity and her focus. The way [the men] treated her, you saw that they were not pleased to take comments from a woman. But she kept on going and doing it. One man was so furious he told her to get off the set. "Get off this set!" She just ignored him.
➻ COURTNEY CONTE, Fox Broadcasting's executive in charge of production in 1986, on meeting with Rivers before she left her permanent guest hosting job on The Tonight Show (infuriating Johnny Carson, who never spoke to Rivers again) to start her own Late Show on Fox
I met with Joan at her house in Bel-Air. She had just had dermo-abrasion, and her face was kind of raw. Edgar said, "Do not make her laugh." And of course we were cracking up, and she started bleeding at the corners of her mouth. … She could cut you to ribbons, but then she showed so much love. She wasn't a screamer. Edgar was tough. Edgar was the bad cop. He was all about protecting her. Talk about loyalty. He brought new meaning to the word.
➻ GARTH ANCIER, top Fox executive during The Late Show years, on making Rivers comfortable
There's been a lot of arguments about whether Johnny Carson would have ever spoken to her again if she had gone to Carson first for permission. He found out before Joan could tell him. Johnny kept a tight rein on all of NBC late night, so I heard from the bookers and producers that [Joan] was having a very hard time booking guests. I think Joan incorrectly believed that executives at Fox, including Barry [Diller], would lean on their relationships with talent to be on the show. But it's difficult to get someone of Barry's stature to call up Warren Beatty and say, "I want you to do Joan's show." But we did try to make Joan comfortable in her new home. We literally built a luxury condominium under Stage Four at the old Fox television center, with seven rooms, including a bedroom, a gym, a bar, a jewel room. And we built the stage and the rake of the [seating] to be as close to The Tonight Show as possible, so she would feel comfortable. … She was involved at a granular level. She wanted her close-up camera to be slightly out of focus so you didn't see any wrinkles. It was kind of funny. You would be in the control room and look at all the cameras, and they would all be sharp as a tack except for her close-up camera.
➻ KEVIN WENDLE, former Fox exec, on acting as a liaison between the network and The Late Show
I was a kid in the middle of it, trying to get her to do what we wanted her to do -- or not do what we didn't want her to do. One time we had a problem because Joan was saying the word "shit" on the air on live television. So I was dispatched to fly to Las Vegas, where she was doing a show, to meet with her and let her know that when she came back to L.A. the S-word was forbidden. The next day Joan got back and went on the air live, and in her opening monologue she said, "I had a visit from one of the executives at Fox, and he told me that I can't say 'shit' on the air anymore. So I'm not going to say 'shit' anymore after tonight." She just loved to twist the knife and make people crazy -- but in a way that was funny and without venom.
➻ CHRIS ROCK on doing the last Late Show in 1987
I met Joan when I did the very last Joan Rivers show on Fox. It was me, Pee-wee Herman and Howie Mandel. When Robin Williams died, people said, "He was one of the best stand-up comedians of all time." But when Joan died, it’s like "She was one of the best female comedians of all time." F— you! People are always saying, "Joan Rivers broke down all these barriers for women, blah, blah, blah." I think that’s a disservice. Joan Rivers is one of the greatest stand-up comedians ever to live. No man ever said, "Yeah, I want to go on after Joan." No. Joan closed the show every night. What I loved about Joan was one year she was hosting The Tonight Show, the next she’s on QVC. She was 81 years old. In the history of comedy, no comedian has ever been that old and still hip. She was the hippest comedian from the day she started to the day she died. Don’t put her in a box; Joan is like Mount Rushmore.
➻ LONNY PRICE on co-writing and directing Rivers' 1994 Broadway show Sally Marr … and Her Escorts
We worked for two years at least on it, between her QVC work and her concerts, and she had the [daytime] talk show at that time. We'd have these little sessions at her house. She knew Sally Marr -- who was, of course, Lenny Bruce's mother -- so it was a very good fit for Joan. We wrote at her house. We used to call it Versailles. It was very shmancy. She had a butler and a cook and used to bring us turkey sandwiches on silver platters -- it was all very grand and elegant and fun. We once went to her living room, where there was a lovely grand piano, and the musical director was like, "Oh, Joan, how cool -- it's a Steinway." She said, "No, it's actually a Yamaha; I just had them stencil 'Steinway' on it." We first started rehearsals in a little studio on 72nd Street, and she'd come in and throw the mink on the floor, and Spike [her dog] would hop on the mink and go to sleep. We would work for two to three hours, and she'd wake up Spike, he'd jump off the coat, she'd put it back on, and off she went! … Joan wanted legitimacy very much in the theater. She had grown up going to the theater -- she wanted to be an actress -- so I think it was very meaningful to her, getting that Tony Award nomination. She was very proud of that. She knew pain and knew how to access it.
➻ OZ SCOTT , director of 1994’s Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story, which chronicled Rosenberg’s suicide and its aftermath
Joan and Melissa had gone through a lot, and there were a lot of things that they put into this film. I think it was cathartic in a lot of ways. They thought, "Let’s just get this out of us, it’s not about hiding." I remember the scene when [Edgar’s] suitcase was delivered back to Joan’s house [after he had died]. When we were putting it together, the prop man said, "You want me to mock up a driver’s license for Edgar to put in the wallet?" And I just said, "Yeah, yeah, that’s a good idea, let’s do it." So Melissa and Joan open up the suitcase and they were like, "No, no, no, with Edgar, everything was in the right place. Even when we got the suitcase, everything was all folded up and pristine." The two of them were fixing up the suitcase the way it should be, and they saw this wallet. The camera is all ready to go, we’re just waiting for them to fix the suitcase, and they open the wallet and they see his driver’s license. They both just froze, and then they started to cry. Not that I’m a mercenary, but I closed the suitcase up and I said, "Roll camera." They’re doing the scene now, and Melissa is crying, and Joan is crying. They’re just stunned. And at the end of the scene, Joan walked away and left Melissa over the suitcase crying. When the scene was over, I said, "Joan, you can’t leave your daughter like that." Joan looked at me and she said, "Oz, that’s the way it happened. ... We were both [grieving] in our separate worlds. But, if you want me to do it your way, I’ll do it." Joan was a realist. Many of the reviews asked, "Why is Joan doing this movie?" Joan would answer the question by saying,"I’m an actress. Why would I give a good part to someone else?"
➻ BLAINE TRUMP , vice chair of God's Love We Deliver, which brings meals to people with illnesses, on Rivers' two decades of volunteering
You know, she just showed up the first Thanksgiving and made a delivery, and as you can imagine, opening the door and seeing Joan Rivers there was really something. She always made it special. She always had on a fur or her jewelry, and she always looked like a million bucks. When we would knock on someone's door, they were so excited. She was so glamorous and warm and caring. I remember one delivery we went on -- it was in SoHo, and there was no elevator in the building. Joan was dressed to the nines. We had to walk up like seven flights of stairs. When we got to the door, she fell in the apartment and said: "I've gotta sit down. Here's your meal." She was hilarious about it: "Can't you live on a lower floor?" Read the full tribute here.
➻ DONALD TRUMP on Rivers winning Celebrity Apprentice in 2009
When Melissa got fired from Celebrity Apprentice, Joan was extremely upset. And Melissa’s firing was one of the wildest in the history of The Apprentice because Melissa did not take it well. Joan left with Melissa [after Melissa was fired], and I figured that was the last we were going to see of Joan. But then the next morning when the next episode started, the elevator opens and there’s Joan ready to go. She was 76 years old the day she won Celebrity Apprentice, and she had more energy than these athletes and actors that were less than half her age. Her energy was just unbelievable, and she was stronger at the end than she was at the beginning. She was really a hard worker.
➻ RICKI STERN on making Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the 2010 documentary that followed Rivers for 14 months
We road-tripped with her from Palm Beach to Key West in Florida -- five people in the car, three hours there, three hours back. When we got to Key West, she leaned out of the car saying: "Where are the gays? Where are all the gays?" She was a very early gay-rights supporter. Everywhere we went people were hugging her. She had more stamina than any of us: She'd sleep two hours, work the next day, two hours' book signing, 15 minutes to scarf a pizza. The whole misconception is that she was her facade, an angry or uncensored comic. I was scared to meet her, but she was always so gracious and would deflect attention away from her and onto you. When I'd go over to her house, she was so vulnerable, so open and innocent and youthful, not at all with a mask on. She'd say: "Ask me; ask me anything. I'm this girl from Larchmont." She didn't think she was pretty -- I thought she was quite pretty -- but she had no problem being without makeup in the movie.
➻ BILLY EICHNER on how Rivers convinced him to not to give up on his stand-up comedy dreams (sage advice, considering Eichner is scheduled to make his Letterman debut Sept. 11)
In 2010, right before I went to Funny or Die and was trying to sell [TV show] Billy on the Street, I was really down on my luck. I had no money, I had credit card debt and no health insurance. I was turning 30, so it wasn't that cute anymore. It was the first time I thought, "What am I doing? I'm going to keep doing YouTube videos until I'm 40 years old for no money?" I emailed Joan -- it was right before she started Fashion Police -- and told her I was stuck. She was doing her stand-up gig in midtown Manhattan, and she set me up with tickets, and we sat upstairs and had martinis. She told me, "I came up with all of them, I saw Billy Crystal, Robin Williams when he was starting out and Howie Mandel, and you can run with those guys -- but you have to stick with it." I went home and called my dad, who was a big fan of hers. He knew I was starting to panic, and I told him what Joan said. He said, "If Joan is saying that, I think that too."
➻ JOEL MCHALE on having Rivers on his E! show Talk Soup
If you spoke to any crewmember or security guard, anybody at E!, they would all say, "She was the finest." She was so kind. I think she got this rep of, "Oh, she said something so controversial" and things like that, but she was always so good to people. … She came on the Soup and she was game for anything and so energetic. It was like, "We're going to tie a live badger to you in this sketch. Is that cool? It hasn't been fed in a while." She goes, "Sounds good to me." Just four months ago, TMZ walked up to her and said, "Lindsay Lohan had a miscarriage," and before the person could finish, she goes, "Did she keep it?" And then she goes, "Because my mother did." And then, "I was born with a coat hanger coming out of my ear." And that all took place in five seconds.
➻ NICK KROLL, star of the Kroll Show on Comedy Central, on sitting next to Rivers on a flight
All the flight attendants knew her. She brought presents for all the flight attendants because she took that flight often, and literally every week she brought them gifts for their kids. They all loved her. And we get on the flight, and Bradley Cooper also was on the plane, and she was like, "Watch this, the plane is going to crash and they're going to be like, 'Bradley Cooper and two comedians died in a plane crash.' " But that's how she saw herself. She just saw herself as a comedian, and she was really, really nice to me. It just felt very cool that she liked me.
➻ TED HARBERT, NBC Broadcasting chairman and former president of E!, on hiring Rivers for Fashion Police
When [the E! development team] suggested Joan to me [in 2002], I really wasn't sure. I was worried because she doesn't mince words, and at the time, we were trying to repair the bad relationships that E! had with Hollywood because of shows like Celebrities Uncensored. So the celebrity world was basically feeling dissed by E! I just thought she would get us in trouble. But I brought her in, and we had this wonderful conversation about how she felt about fashion. And I was just taken with what a genuine, authentic, kind decent individual she was. And so I said, "OK, let's try this." To me, [Fashion Police] was kind of an experiment.
➻ SUZANNE KOLB, president of E!
Before Joan, the [red carpet] had no entertainment value for the audience. If you look at anybody doing the red carpet before her — and it was mostly not done live — it was: What are you nominated for? Did you enjoy the project? Joan turned it into a show. For generations of viewers that seems obvious now. But back then it wasn’t.
➻ BONNIE HAMMER, chairman of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, on Rivers' talent for promotion
She had the gift of wanting to surprise. At the [NBCUniversal Cable upfront in May], she was wearing this huge fur wrap that she looked very Joan in. And before she left the stage, she did this little pirouette, opened up her cape and inside was the E! logo that she had specially embroidered inside her fur for that event. There's nobody I have come across who worked as hard and was so deeply involved in everything she did and just didn't say no. You could ask her to do anything and she wouldn't just say, "I'll think about it." It was, "Sure, when do you want me there?"
➻ SUE CAMERON, former THR columnist and longtime Rivers friend, on the comedian's final days
Thanks to Melissa, Joan's last days in the hospital were spent in a beautiful, huge room, decorated by event planner Preston Bailey, who did Melissa's wedding. Things from her own bedroom were brought there so it looked like home. There were dusty pink roses in vases all over. She had her own lace comforter and all of her European linens. It was Joan's boudoir, and it was fit for a queen. She looked beautiful and peaceful. I held her hand and talked to her repeatedly. For me, she will never die. I think I'll probably never laugh again, but if I really can't, I'll remember back to the time when another friend of mine was in a coma and I thought if maybe Joan spoke to her, it might help. Joan called and I held the phone close to my friend's ear, so I heard Joan's words of encouragement: "Wake up, you stupid bitch!"
➻ CAMILLE PAGLIA, author and critic
Joan had a huge influence on me for over four decades. She was one of my primary role models as a public figure. Not since Dorothy Parker had an American woman been so shockingly fearless in her aggressive speech and gleeful violation of taboos. Joan slew the last ghost of sentimentality and propriety that had hung over middle-class white women since the Victorian period. Read the full tribute here.
➻ DEBORAH NORVILLE, Inside Edition anchor, from her eulogy
I remember the time we were in France, ballooning. Our landing was not exactly textbook. We crash-landed in a field in which the local cows had spent a great deal of time. As we slid through the cow droppings ... Joan had exactly the right words for the moment: "Oh my God — I think I lost the baby!"
➻ MELISSA RIVERS, in her funny eulogy to her mother
I received the note that you slipped under my bedroom door last night. I was very excited to read it, thinking that it would contain amazing, loving advice that you wanted to share with me. Imagine my surprise when I opened it and saw that it began with the salutation, "Dear Landlord." I have reviewed your complaints and address them below. Read eulogy in full here.
Reported by Tim Appelo, Alex Ben Block, Scott Feinberg, Lesley Goldberg, Marisa Guthrie, Andy Lewis, Lacey Rose, Bryn Elise Sandberg, Michael Walker and Stacey Wilson