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This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Friends, family and former and current colleagues tell in their own words what they love about the iconic comic.
COMIC AND ACTRESS
Me in 2007: “Joan, it’s Kathy. I’m in New York on tour for a few days, and I have to ask you something really sensitive and embarrassing. I’m just going to come out with it. I started sleeping with this new guy. We’ve been going at it pretty hard. Anyway, the bottom line is, um, I know I’m 46 and I shouldn’t be a slut anymore and everything, but I’m really hurting, and this is your town, and I know you know every doctor in it, so, um, I need to know if you can send me to a doctor within two hours regarding a very painful urinary tract infection. I just want to tell you again, I’m very embarrassed about this, I apologize, and I can’t even imagine what you must think of me at 46 years old having a UTI from banging some guy four times in one night.” Joan to me: “Are you kidding? I think it’s fabulous.” Happy Birthday, Joan. You are a true friend!
COMIC AND CO-CREATOR OF CBS’ 2 BROKE GIRLS
The first person I was going to roast in person as a writer on the Comedy Central Roast was Joan Rivers. I was like, “Oh, no, no.” I don’t want to roast one of the best comedians ever — and like, my hero. I wrote the most vicious, nasty … I just went for it. Honestly, she was laughing so hard. She’s such a gangster that she’s not going to take any of this personally. I sit down, and I’m kind of feeling good about myself. Then she gets up there, and she was ripping it harder than anybody. She’s Joan f–ing Rivers — she just came out swinging. At the end, she was like, “That was amazing.” Those are the kinds of knightings as a comic that keep you going for a really long time. I love her — I truly f–ing love that woman.
PRESIDENT OF E!
Joan can find humor in anything — even Taylor Swift‘s genitalia. This came to light at last year’s E! upfront in front of 500 advertisers. Only Joan could turn a sales presentation into a callout to Swift’s private parts, but she brought down the house and made our event. So thanks, Joan, and you, too, Taylor.
CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER, SONY MUSIC
Joan and I became good friends just in the past few years. As she recently said, “Better late than never.” Yes, I always knew of her legendary sharp wit, but I also learned early that despite a staggering work drive, she carves out time for life. She had arrived for dinner with producer Arnold Stiefel and explained that I shouldn’t take it personally but she’d have to exit by 11 p.m. because she was leaving early in the morning for a four-day holiday with two of her girlfriends. I was curious. Where did Joan Rivers go on holiday? I got a shock when she said she was going to study the colonial village of Williamsburg, Va. Williamsburg! And who were her girlfriends? Cindy Adams and Judge Judy, of course. That’s Joanie for you!
HOST AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, HBO’S REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER
I really wanted to get on the phone because I caught her [Showtime] special the other night. And I was just blown away because I mean she’s 80, and she’s as good as ever, she’s all over the stage, she’s on the floor, she’s bent over the stool, she’s doing physical stuff. I’m telling you, I watched this thing mouth agape. She was never politically correct, but I love that at her age she totally doesn’t give a f–. There is a liberation about “Look, I’m an icon, I’m 80, what are you going to do? You don’t like it, turn it off.” I was just so impressed. I’ve always been a fan going way, way back to Johnny Carson, but this was something special. I do remember as a kid watching her on Carson and Ed Sullivan. This is the era before there were a million comics. So you’d get like one new comic a year, and Joan Rivers, I remember she was the new funny lady. And she was.
Her best quality as a comedian? Fearlessness.
COMEDIAN KNOWN FOR FICTIONAL CHARACTER PEE-WEE HERMAN
The best thing Joan told me — when I was telling her, early in my career, how odd it was to be recognized: “What’s really strange is if it stops.” I had a few little periods when it did stop … and she was right! It was noticeable. The other thing Joan told me was when she asked me to fill in for her after I was the first guest on her first show The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers: “My secret as a host of this show is that I really listen to these people. It’s their time, they’re the guests, you’re the host. You’re not going for the joke all the time — give them time to speak.” I carried it with me for so many years since then, it was so helpful in every facet in and outside my career. Joan gets so much grief for being abrasive, but she’s a wonderful, great, loyal friend. That’s why I never roast her. I can’t be funny or mean to her, I never feel it.
Joan is not only a very intelligent lady but extremely masterful at comedy timing. Sharing the stage with her has always been a joy for me.
DAUGHTER AND REALITY CO-STAR OF WE TV’S JOAN AND MELISSA: JOAN KNOWS BEST?
Just like any parent, my mom, once I got to a certain age, loved to embarrass me. I was 17 and applying to colleges, and we were seeing a bunch of schools on the East Coast. We flew in and didn’t realize the limo that picked us up was a big, white stretch one. It was myself, my father, godfather and my mom, and everyone was all dressed up in our college interview clothes. We drove to go see Williams College. As we pull in to the main drag, it was seriously a page out of the Preppy Handbook: women in espadrilles, men with whales on their pants, and here we come in this giant white limo. We get out of the car in front of the school, and every head is turning, and I’m at that age and dying of embarrassment. We’re walking up to the administration building, and I hear this noise and turn back to see my mother leading my father and godfather, all linking arms, singing as loud as they can “We Are What We Are” from La Cage Aux Folles. (Laughs.) My mom yells out, “Honey, don’t forget to ask if they have a fur vault!” At which point I realized I was not getting into Williams. I went to the interview and looked at the guy like, “I don’t even know why I’m bothering, there is no point to apply, why am I even here?” I ended up going to the University of Pennsylvania, and now we always request black limos.
Joan Rivers is an icon, no doubt, but “icon” makes it sound like we’re talking about a finished body of work, and Joan Rivers is so radically far from finished. She is hands down at the top of her game. Jesus Christ, they have to tape Fashion Police at zero o’clock in the morning so she can shoot her 7 million other shows. She’s also a professional doting grandma and meddling mother: Her last words when I left E! after doing Fashion Police: “Find someone for Melissa.”
JESSE TYLER FERGUSON
ACTOR, MODERN FAMILY
I had my first and only Passover seder with Joan Rivers. She passed out the Haggadah, which she admitted to heavily editing over a glass of chardonnay on her flight from New York City, and then she asked everyone to go around the table and introduce themselves. It was a small table of her nearest and dearest, most of whom worked in the entertainment business. When my boyfriend, Justin, introduced himself and announced that he had just passed the California State Bar, Joan started applauding and began shaking the table, exclaiming, “Elijah approves!”
COMIC AND FORMER HOST OF THE DICK CAVETT SHOW
Even when Joan and I were essentially kids, doing our acts for free at a little village club called the Duplex — where we were sometimes each other’s sole audience when nobody came — I admired Joan’s dogged professionalism. On that historic night when she knocked a homer on Carson, we all watched on a small black-and-white TV at the Duplex, clapping and trying to gulp down our jealousy. I don’t see Joan enough anymore, but over the years, whenever we meet we start laughing. We went through some rough early days together. And we never had an affair. If memory serves.
PRODUCER AND MANAGER
“Men are stupid and they like big boobs,” said Joan to me one day while we were discussing her views on plastic surgery. “No one ever reached up under a woman’s dress to look for her library card.” I said, “Joan, there’s a book here!” So, after a few pitches and a year later, Simon & Schuster published Joan’s definitive, everything-you-need-to-know-about-plastic-surgery book, Men Are Stupid… And They Like Big Boobs.
PRESIDENT AND GM, WE TV
We all know that Joan is funny, but I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing another side of her. She sends thank-you notes for everything; she even sent me flowers for Mother’s Day with a sweet card. Long before WE tv worked with Joan, colleagues and I met her at the airport in Cannes. She was gracious and funny and kept everyone in line laughing. We knew then that if we ever had the chance to work with her, we would jump at it.
FORMER CNN ANCHOR, HOST OF ORA.TV’S LARRY KING NOW
I was extremely sad over [her falling out] with Johnny Carson, that Carson held such a grudge against her. He never spoke to her again [after she got her own late-night show on Fox in 1986]. I was with Johnny once, we were both presenters at a TV Academy awards show, and they gave us the same dressing room. And I asked Johnny about it. And he said, “I just don’t want to talk about it.” So I think he took it as a terrible slight against him, and she took it as, why wasn’t she free to get a job on her own? Sort of like the Palestinians and the Jews; they’re both right. She’s very bitter over it.
CORRESPONDENT, ABC NEWS; CO-HOST, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, THE VIEW
I wouldn’t dare to try to be funny about Joan Rivers because she is the smartest, best-informed and funniest woman I know. How could I possibly compete? And besides, Joan is so many years older than I.
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