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Thanks for the laughs, Ms Rivers

Richard Burnett
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Richard Burnett

I interviewed Joan Rivers several times over the years and she always gave me good quotes. Once, when I called Ms Rivers at her NYC home, her maid told me, “Ms Rivers no home, and all her personal assistants have left for the day.”

So I tracked Rivers down at the QVC green room in L.A. where she was having her nails done while waiting to go back on the air. 
 
“The last time I interviewed you,” I told her, “you were getting your nails done!”
 
“Well, I’m not going anywhere,” Rivers said. “You have all the time in the world.”
 
If there’s one thing Joan Rivers absolutely loved, it was fabulous nails. But while the iconic feminist role model adored fashion and glamour, she remained true to herself: Her multiple plastic surgeries turned her into “a piece of work” she said, not because she was trying to be beautiful, but because she was in control of her own body.
 
Yet in the hit 2010 documentary film Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, she admits on-camera, “No man has ever told me I’m beautiful.”
 
So when I called Ms. Rivers up when the film was released – she was at a studio in NYC getting her hair blow-dried, no less – I told her, “I like what you’ve done with your plastic surgery and I think you’re beautiful!”
 
“Well, thank you,” Ms Rivers laughed, “but you’re too late!”
 
Still, no one else in showbiz would dare do what Rivers did, and that’s appear without any make-up in the opening sequence of A Piece of Work. It’s unflinching, it’s mesmerizing and Rivers – all five-feet-two-inches of her – was every inch a gracious diva. 
 
“That was the filmmakers’ choice,” Rivers told me. “I thought it was a brilliant way to start the film. I didn’t freak out. I think one of the reasons this film has been so successful is no punches were pulled.”
 
Rivers never pulled her punches.
 
Like the time legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson had Rivers banned from NBC. In the 1980s she was the Tonight Show’s public heir-apparent, Johnny’s chosen one, but when she premiered her own late-night TV talk show on FOX in 1987, Carson took it as a personal betrayal.
 
A stream of Hollywood superstars paraded on the Tonight Show taking Johnny’s side, including Michael Landon who screened a video short of a new parody TV series called “Up Rivers.”
 
Except the truth of the matter was, it was NBC and Carson who betrayed Joan Rivers, and 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 Jamie Michaels got the internal memo and sent it to me,” Rivers told me. “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 Joan kept on walking: “I say what I think and I move on and I don’t hold grudges,” she said. “That’s why I don’t have an ulcer.” 
 
Recently comedian Chris Rock told Variety after Rivers died on Sept 4, “I met Joan Rivers on the worst day of her life. I did the very last ‘The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers’ on FOX. It was my first time on television. Her show had just gotten cancelled and her husband had just shot himself in the head. And for whatever reason, she decided to go and do the last show. Boy, did I learn about the show must go on that day. She had it together on camera. When we were on commercial, she was losing it a little bit. I can definitely say I saw her start to cry. She kept it together. That was the first time I met her.”
 
Then Rock added, “My family, we watched The Tonight Show for Rivers. We liked Johnny Carson, but we loved Joan Rivers.”
 
The Carson-Rivers feud exposed just how much Hollywood is still an old boys club. Yet when I asked Ms Rivers if women still have it rougher in comedy, she replied, “I don’t think it’s a woman’s field, or a man’s field – you just have to be funny. If you have to be in this business, then you should be in this business. It’s not a choice. It’s not like trying to be an engineer. This business is so devastating and so few people make it that you better want it with all your heart.”
 
Rivers also displayed that iron grit defending and supporting her most vocal fans, gay men. She famously said she always knew if there were gay men in the front row, it was going to be a great show. “I was one of the first to come out and say gay men are fabulous. And it’s true. They gave me a career.”
 
Many of the gay men in her life over the decades succumbed to AIDS. While Elizabeth Taylor was widely hailed as the first Hollywood star to host an AIDS benefit – in 1985 after her friend Rock Hudson died of the disease – it was 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,” Rivers told 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.” 
 
Just this past summer, my friend Puelo Deir was negotiating to bring Rivers back to Montreal to headline an AIDS Community Care Montreal fundraiser. Ms Rivers told me, “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.” 
 
One openly-gay Hollywood actor who played a big role in Rivers’ life was 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 the time Rivers had dinner with two other gay icons, Cher and Kathy Griffin. “We talk shorthand because we all know what we’re talking about,” explained Rivers, who said they even compared plastic surgeons. In fact, there was so much plastic in the dining room that Kathy Griffin once jokingly told me, “It was a girl’s night, just the three of us, and had we lit one more candle, we all would’ve melted!”
 
Rivers was also under fire for controversial comments right until the end, but she would always double-down and criticize the PC police. Like in April 2013 when she hosted RuPaul on her web series In Bed With Joan and RuPaul discussed being slammed by the transgender community for using the word ‘tranny.’
 
“The trannies should know that a nigger said it to a kike!” Rivers said when I explained the controversy to her. “Here we go again. Calm down, for chrissakes! Everybody take a deep breath.”
 
But my favourite Joan Rivers  stories are her Montreal stories. “The first time I played Montreal [in the early 1960s] it was awful,” she told about the time she stayed at the Y and worked in the coffee shop to pay her bill. “I can’t remember the club, but there was [just] one couple in the audience and they were making out and the owner said I had to continue. It was the worst night of my career!”
 
The last time I saw Ms Rivers, she hosted a 2013 Just For Laughs Festival Gala, and the festival hired Montreal actor and musician Chris Barillaro to be her piano player. When Rivers tried to climb onto the piano in a golden bit of slapstick, she had the audience in stitches.
 
“Oh my God,” openly-gay Chris told me happily, “I loved being the straight man to Joan Rivers!”
 
My favourite Joan Rivers anecdote, of course, is the time we (and her entourage) had dinner together at Schwartz’s deli on The Main, where Ms Rivers and my mom Diamond Lil talked about plastic surgery (Mom was thinking of getting an eye tuck at the time, but decided against it after speaking with Joan). I can still see a wide-eyed Ms Rivers telling me, “Richard! She looks too young to be your mother!” 
 
The next time we spoke, Rivers said, “I remember that night exactly! I remember your mother! And one of the people with me was director [Sean Foley] of my play [Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress that ran in London’s West End] and he’s a vegetarian! The man ate pickles all night!”
 
Ms Rivers laughed her head off.  
 
Now how Montreal is that?
 
 
Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for 
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at  bugsburnett.blogspot.com