Joan Rivers

Can We Talk?

Richard Burnett
Commentaires

In the Hollywood story of legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, another showbiz legend, stand-up comic Joan Rivers, is always made out to be the bad guy. In the 1980s she was publicly named the Tonight Show’s heir-apparent, Johnny’s chosen one, so when she signed on with FOX in 1986 for her own late-night TV talk show, Carson took it as a personal betrayal and never spoke to Rivers again. A stream of Hollywood superstars paraded on the Tonight Show taking Johnny’s side, including Michael Landon who even screened a video short of a new parody TV series called “Up Rivers.” Except the truth of the matter is, it was NBC and Carson who betrayed Joan Rivers, not the other way around.

There was an internal NBC memo with a Top 10 list of candidates to replace Carson, and Rivers’ name was not on the list.

“A friend of mine, [then] NBC vice-president Jame Michaels got the internal memo and sent it to me,” Rivers say today. “And he wrote on it, ‘Darling there is no place for you here.’ That’s why I walked away. And Carson never spoke to me again.”

But don’t fret for Joan: “I say what I think and I move on and I don’t hold grudges,” she says. “That’s why I don’t have an ulcer.”
In fact, the octogenarian comedian (the Gemini turned 80 on June 8) is in great health, and will host the July 27 Gala at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival.

“Everything is still working with me. I go onstage and do an hour, I’m running up stairs, I’m jumping around. So getting older means nothing to me. I am no age.”

While Ms. Rivers is still kicking, many of the gay men in her life over the decades have succumbed to AIDS. And while Elizabeth Taylor is widely hailed as the first Hollywood star to host an AIDS benefit, in 1985 after her friend Rock Hudson died of the disease, it is really Rivers who hosted the first-ever Hollywood AIDS benefit – except no Hollywood star at the time would be caught dead at the Rivers fundraiser.

“I was not only the first, but AIDS was still called gay pneumonia it was so early on and nobody wanted to come on the show with me. I got three drag queens from San Francisco to fly down to Los Angeles and we got so many death threats that we had many men on stage – literally guards – scanning the audience while I performed. Elizabeth Taylor did a lot but she got on [the bandwagon] when it was good to get on board.”

Rivers is a New Yorker through-and-through, and continues to support her favourite charity God’s Love We Deliver (which delivers meals to AIDS patients in NYC) when she performs at the 100-seater West Bank nightclub to work in new material every Wednesday night she’s in town.

“I continue to do AIDS benefits today to shake up the younger generation, to say, ‘Don’t be such smartasses. AIDS and HIV are still part of our culture.’ But when I started, when you had AIDS, you were going to die. It was a death sentence. Now it’s become a chronic disease and that’s an improvement.”

Another seismic change in the Hollywood landscape during Rivers’ career has been more and more queer performers living their lives proudly out. When it comes to older celebrities like John Travolta, Rivers says, “I think it’s sad. Again, if you’re a leading man, you have to be “straight,” in quotes. You know that. And I just think, ‘Who cares?’ In this day and age, who cares? This is what I am, everybody calm down.”

Another gay man played a big role in Rivers’ life, the late Hollywood legend Roddy McDowall who used to host star-studded salons at his home. “Roddy was [my daughter] Melissa’s godfather. The only negative was he went to his grave with a lot of secrets. That would have made a great book. At his salons you’d sit at his [dining room] table and there’d be Ava Gardner on your right and Bette Davis on your left. His table held 10 or 12, depending how tight they wanted to make it, and he’d never tell you who was coming. You’d end up having dinner with Laurence Olivier and John Gilbert. It was unbelievable.”

Like a recent dinner Rivers had with two other gay icons, Cher and Kathy Griffin. “We talk shorthand because we all know what we’re talking about,” Rivers explains.

Did they compare plastic surgeons?

“Among other things! Who’s nice, who’s a bitch, who did you wrong, who did you right. Everything.”

Just don’t get Rivers started on the demonization of Paula Deen. “I don’t get it – she said ‘nigger’ and her life is over. Mel Gibson said ‘kike’ and he went to the Golden Globes. Again, give me the rules. As Lenny Bruce said, ‘You’re a kike, you’re a nigger, you’re a wop, you’re a chink, you’re a wetback. Everybody’s something, so relax.’”

I bring up how RuPaul on Rivers’ Internet TV series In Bed with Joan discussed being slammed by the transgendered community for using the word ‘tranny.’

“The trannies should know that a nigger said it to a kike,” Ms. Rivers tells me. “Here we go again. Calm down, for chrissakes! Everybody take a deep breath. I find all of this ridiculous. Instead we should be talking about why our kids are not being educated. This is all so stupid.”

As for her diehard gay-male fanbase and her upcoming July 27 Gala at Just For Laughs, Rivers cracks, “They better fucking come out!”Then Ms. Rivers gets serious for a moment. “Gay men love me because I love them so much. I was one of the early ones,” she says, citing her very first album, Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories, from 1965 and named for her gay hairdresser. “I was one of the first to come out and say gay men are fabulous. And it’s true. They gave me a career.”
6 Richard Burnett

Joan Rivers hosts the July 27 Just For Laughs Gala at Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Montreal’s Place des Arts. Surf to www.hahaha.com

Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at http://blogs.montrealgazette.com

Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.