First off, she was not a singer.
Second, she wasn't really my friend. I just felt like she was, which is part of a star's charisma. I met her several times, interviewed her for an hour, photographed her, worked with her for a charity, and even saw her on Broadway in the "Sally Marr" show (in which she played Lenny Bruce's mother).
But as much as Joan made you feel like you were her friend, no. If you mentioned my name, it wouldn't have instantly registered with her. That's because she did so, so very much in her life and her vast and powerful circle of true friends included Barbara Walters, Howard Stern and those types.
So how to at least mention this legendary lady here? Ah...
I remembered one musical moment, and a triumphant one: Joan Rivers singing (?) with Elton John and Cher.
Joan's career had many ups and downs (to put it mildly) but let's get on the roller coaster and set the Wayback Machine for 1986.
Joan had gotten her own talk show on Fox. It had become painfully obvious that Johnny Carson and his producers had absolutely NO intention of giving her "The Tonight Show" when he retired. The two most reliable substitute hosts knew it...David Brenner and Joan Rivers.
David got his own (short-lived) talk show, and Joan followed. The difference? Brenner asked Johnny if it would be all right. Johnny said yes. Joan? She wasn't sure if she had a deal. When she did, she had to sign instantly. When she called Johnny to let him know...he'd already heard about it and hung up on her in a paranoid rage. He was often cynical and suspicious, and had previously disposed of producers, directors and even wives...so instantly adding Joan to his backstabber list was no surprise.
Even so, Joan was heartbroken that she'd offended Johnny. She was preparing for a new TV show, and was under intense pressure, and much of it came from the negative publicity surrounding her "betrayal" of the great Carson. She kept apologizing in the press...hoping to reconcile with Carson...but when it obviously wasn't going to happen, she got pissed off and concentrated on creating the best debut show possible.
The night of the big "confrontation" (Joan Rivers' hour at 11pm vs Johnny's hour starting at 11:30pm) there was a big question: who'd dare take Joan's side in a "talk show war." Who'd risk NEVER being invited to EVER be on "The Tonight Show" again?
The answer, on the premiere show, was Elton John and Cher. The joyous highlight was when Elton belted out the bluntly obvious "Bitch is Back," with Joan sitting nearby. Despite having a less than melodious voice, she couldn't help but join in...and out came Cher, to add her own voice to the mix. It was a great, if short-lived triumph for Joan Rivers.
If you've ever wondered if Joan Rivers could sing…the answer here is an emphatic NO. Her voice in 1986 was already in permanent rasp. It was this rasp that ultimately did her in, when she arrived at the Yorkville Endoscopy clinic a few weeks ago for a vocal cord check-up. She suffered a heart attack that had her on life-support for a week, and the plug was pulled. Joan hadn't thought the procedure would have a freakish ending...her daughter was in California, and a stand-up gig was scheduled for the following night.
Back to 1986. Joan had delivered a message to Johnny: "I can BITCH I can BITCH…BETTER THAN YOU!" And yes, he got that message. Joan, as a guest host, had put up numbers equal to Carson. He had every reason to be concerned that a chatty, bitchy talk-show could be a serious rival.
Having three gay icons (not that there's anything wrong with that…) helped make Joan's debut a solid success in the ratings. Johnny of course masterfully countered, all that first week, with the biggest and most loyal stars he could find. There was even the rather incredible "visual joke" when superstar Michael Landon turned up. Landon said he wanted to show a scene from a new nature movie he was making. The clip rolled: there were scenes of placid forestry, and then someone in a canoe on a rolling stream…with the super-imposed words: "Up Rivers."
Joan's show disappeared after seven months. Ratings weren't bad, but amid the chaos, Fox executives kept dictating frantic orders. They blamed Joan's producer-husband Edgar, and Edgar tried to find a direction amid all the conflicting orders he was getting. They told Joan that he was incompetent and inexperienced and had to go. She said, "If he goes, I go." It was a bluff...but Fox let her go.
Edgar took the blame, sank into a depressed state, and the marriage suffered. He eventually killed himself. Joan managed to find her way back from all of it, including a business manager who ran her into near bankruptcy. She bounced back with renewed stand-up concerts, with books, and with a mail order jewelry line geared to her new audience, which was mostly housewives. Rather than be a cult item like Lenny Bruce or Woody Allen, Joan went for the higher profile...the celeb jokes, the "red carpet" gags, the solid one-liners aimed at catty-chatty housewives and gays. Yet, there was still enough going on that veteran Joan fans who appreciated iconoclastic, truthful comedy could watch and be amused...and that's why she was always welcome on Howard Stern's radio show...and eventually worked her way back to being a guest on Letterman and on Fallon's version of "The Tonight Show."
Groucho used to say, "I tell the truth and people break up." Joan did the same thing, whether it was "Mick Jagger has child-bearing lips!" or "Liz Taylor has more chins than a Chinese phone book." If anything, despite the "Fashion Police" tv show (which she said was more of a loss leader...the real money being in her jewelry business, which needed her star power for sales), Joan remained controversial to the end. In fact in her last year, she was in the tabloids for daring to joke about a wide variety of hot-button topics. When she died, various pro-Palestinians took to the "comments" section of crap newspaper websites to bellow about "karma."
I'll tell you this: "karma" is dying rich and wealthy at 81, after a hugely successful documentary, a brilliantly successful cable stand-up special, and two best-selling books (added to ten previous ones). She was hot as ever, which made her sudden death front page news. She went out without feeling a thing. That's karma? What's the "karma" of some 4 year-old kid in Gaza who got killed because his stupid parents sided with Hamas terrorists and allowed him to be in the same building as the cowardly leaders who thought they'd be safe if they hid among ordinary citizens? Karma? "Oh grow up..." PS, Joan was also attacked by the ADL, the Jewish "Anti-Defamation League," because she did some tasteless Holocaust jokes, too. Joan was "an equal opportunity offender." PS, although she never ever apologized for jokes, or for a failed ad-lib (which was what the Palestinian quote was), she did make sure to let people know that the deaths of innocent people aren't funny...no matter what religion or race they are.
There were other female stand-ups before Joan Rivers. Moms Mabley, Phyllis Diller and Jean Carroll were all talented ladies...but Joan is the real pioneer. From being a female Woody Allen with witty self-deprecation and oddball one-liners, to turning into a female Lenny Bruce/Don Rickles, to ultimately being 100% unique Joan Rivers...she had a passion, drive and dedication to her art that was an inspiration for every female comic who followed, and probably some men, too. Because at the core of what Joan Rivers was about, was the truth. That's what makes the great comics great. They are bold enough to tell truths and get those shock laughs of recognition. Joan was hot-wired to write jokes, buy jokes, memorize jokes, and work harder at 81 than she did at 31...endless interviews, concerts, jewelry promotions, "red carpet" events and those "cameras all over the place" reality shows that documented her unique personality. No, unlike Rickles, Joan was rarely given the benefit of "it's only an act." People believed she meant every insult and was a meanie. But anyone who ever worked with her would tell you, she was a lady. She was polite, concerned, and very easy to work with. Unlike Rickles, Rivers never ended a show with a sappy "just kidding" benediction. "Oh grow up" was more her style. She was a realist! She was a gem. She was one of a kind. I didn't watch her reality shows, frankly, or pay attention to the "who are you wearing" red carpet shit, but I sure watched her whenever she was on a talk show, and enjoyed her books, too. To suddenly realize there would be no more...was a deep, sad shock.
Joan's funeral was on a beautiful day, perfect sky, pleasant temperature. The "karma" clowns had to be disappointed that it wasn't rainy. It was just about the best weather possible to make you feel alive. The event was star-studded and loaded with both laughter and tears. She could've had a few more prime years, but at 81, she even joked on stage that she could keel over at any time. The heart attack may have been inevitable. She died at peace. Let's wish peace for the world...and not toss around stupid shit about "karma," and about differences among idiots who live in a corrupt sandbox in the Middle East with the sun toasting their brains.
At 81, Joan Rivers was as current as any comedian, as funny as any comedian, and more compelling than most talk show hosts and reality show personalities. She was vibrant. Sarah Silverman said her heart was "torn in half," because Joan wasn't done. But what Joan Rivers did for over 50 years...she done good. She was amazing. But even a force of nature must go silent sometime. Not here, though. Here, you can enjoy Elton John singing "The Bitch is Batch," and you surely will recognize when Joan Rivers adds her voice to the mix...and when Cher arrives to make it one weird threesome.
Howard Stern gave the eulogy on Sunday. He did a great job, and opened with one of Joan's favorite "vagina jokes." But today he said something that I felt, too: "I'm really, really, really rocked by her death. It was a very upsetting time when I'd heard that she died."
Elton John, Joan Rivers and Cher The Bitch is Back