May 8, 1933 – Joan Alexandra Molinsky:
“I Might Like Parisians More if They Named Their Streets Only for Gay Icons, Like Rue Liza Minnelli or Rue Bette Midler or, My Favorite, Rue McClanahan.”
In 1990, when he was in the middle of a very public divorce from Ivana Trump and having an affair with the much younger Marla Maples, a certain mango-hued gangster from Queens appeared on The Joan Rivers Show in an hour-long episode. He told Rivers that he was done with marriage, yet like everything else with his life, however, the truth was more elusive than he made it sound: Three years later, he and Maples had a daughter that they named Tiffany, and they got married. In 1997 they separated, and the next year Trump met Melania Knauss, a second-rate model with a trumped up academic record from Slovenia who would become wife number three.
Rivers relished ribbing this supposedly brilliant businessman about his legendary womanizing during this interview, a quarter of a century before the leaked Access Hollywood recording where he told Billy Bush that he could ”… grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
In his 1990 interview, Rivers jokingly says to the future twice impeached president: ”If you had slept with every woman the media claimed you slept with…”
He interrupted: ”I’d be dead. One way or the other, from whatever or from whatever”.
Rivers: ”You have a big smile on your face.”
Trump: ”Happy but dead.”
Rivers: ”But you did fool around, seriously.”
They dished about his political aspirations, with Diaper Donny telling Rivers:
“I don’t think I’ll be running for public office.“
During the show, mother Mary Trump called in and Rivers asked her what kind of child little Donnie was. Mother Mary Trump:
“Always very aggressive. Always.“
The Joan Rivers Show ran for four seasons and ended in 1993. The show was nominated for several Emmy Awards, with Rivers winning Outstanding Talk Show Host in 1990. Rivers had previously hosted a late-night talk show entitled The Late Show With Joan Rivers, an attempt at competing against NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where Rivers had been Carson’s permanent guest host since 1983.
In 1986, top executives at NBC, thought it was possible that Johnny Carson would retire after reaching his 25th anniversary on October 1, 1987. A confidential memo listing about 10 possible successors in the event of Carson’s retirement the next year was leaked. Rivers was shocked to see that she was not on the list.
Rivers said that NBC offered her only a one-year contract in 1985 as permanent guest host while Carson’s contract had been renewed for two years, which signaled to her that her future was uncertain because her previous contracts had run the same length as Carson’s. Rivers noted numerous snubs from NBC over the years, such as not being invited to the annual Carson party, and taking the fall for a controversial joke that was approved during rehearsals. Rivers received higher-paying offers from other networks in prior years but declined them out of her loyalty to Carson, but in 1986, NBC was unwilling to give her assurances about the future.
A new network called Fox was looking for a host for a late-night talk show for the network’s launch in October 1986 and offered Rivers the job at a salary higher than what NBC was paying. She accepted, and Carson felt blindsided by the news when he saw the press conference on television. When Rivers called him at home, he refused to take the call.
Carson was furious. He stated that he felt betrayed by Rivers, not because she dared to compete with him, but because she had not been honest with him about her intentions and did not ask him for advice and/or his blessing. Rivers was adamant that her problem was with NBC and not with Carson, who was like a father figure to her. She stated that she didn’t want to tell Carson before the announcement was made because she was afraid Fox would cancel the deal if word leaked out. She had been ordered by Carson’s producers and lawyers not to go to him with her problems, as they kept Carson completely insulated since he was a major source of NBC profits, and that is why Carson had been completely unaware of Rivers’ problems with NBC.
Rivers did not appear on The Tonight Show again during the remainder of Carson’s tenure or during the Jay Leno years or Conan O’Brien’s until 2014, when she appeared briefly on Jimmy Fallon‘s first show.
Rivers spoke highly of Carson the night he died in 2005, but revealed that he never spoke to her again.
Joan Rivers (as if she needs explaining) was the raspy voiced comic who skewered America’s obsessions with celebrities, flab, face-lifts, fake hair and the other blemishes of our neurotic lives, especially her own, in five decades of caustic quips that took her from nightclubs to television to international stardom.
Rivers was one of the first successful female stand-up comics in a tradition that had been almost exclusively the province of men. She opened the door for and inspired tough-talking female comics like Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Kathy Griffin.
She won an Emmy Award, a Grammy, and was nominated for a Tony Award.
There is a terrific and very moving documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work that came out in 2010. It is streaming currently on Netflix.
Before she left us, Rivers had 50 years in showbiz, appeared on hundreds of television shows, and more than a dozen films, did more than a thousand club dates, and published 12 books, all bestsellers.
River’s death, sudden and unnecessary, continues to shock me years later. I have been a fan for 55 years and I must admit, I miss her very much. A true comedy pioneer, Rivers was transgressive and transporting, brash and bold. The first time I saw her was on The Tonight Show in 1965 and her shtick was the message that I needed to hear as a little gay child:
“Life is very tough. If you don’t laugh, it’s even tougher. I’m in nobody’s circle. I’ve always been an outsider.“
Rivers was never afraid of controversy in the service of her comedy. That is just one of the many reasons that I love her. I am not going to write about that current comedienne who brought down the wrath of the masses on social media, but, for me, speaking a truth, saying out-loud what most other people are thinking, is the very essence of what is funny. There is a gasp… and then there is the laugh. Rivers:
“I am thrilled that Anderson Cooper finally came out of the closet, because this explains why he never tried to date me. I saw him as the perfect package. I would have loved Gloria Vanderbilt as a mother-in-law. This explains everything.“
Rivers embraced the LGBTQ community and supported HIV/AIDS activism early in the plague. In 1985, she performed at a Comic Relief benefit for the new AIDS Medical Foundation in New York City, where tickets at the Shubert Theatre event sold for $1000. She was on the board of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and God’s Love We Deliver, where she actually delivered meals to people with HIV. The HIV/AIDS community called her their “Joan of Arc”.
Additionally, she served as Director of the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, and supported Guide Dogs For The Blind, the non-profit organization that provides guide dogs to blind people. She donated to various Jewish charities, animal welfare groups, Rosie’s Theater Kids, Habitat For Humanity, and Human Rights Campaign.
Rivers continued to cook up controversy in the last year of her life. She stormed out of a CNN interview after being asked whether there should be boundaries on her jokes, particularly when it affects public figures. But, maybe she tore down women to help them grow thicker skin. She was a complicated feminist.
“Life is very tough and if you can tell a joke to make something easier and funny, do it.”
Rivers ignored the whole notion of “too soon”. Days after her the funeral of husband Edgar, who had committed suicide, she claimed that she’d scattered his ashes at Neiman Marcus, so she could visit five times a week.
Rivers always wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. She stated that comedy was her fall-back profession when she had trouble finding work on the stage. In 1959, at the very start of career, she was cast opposite a then unknown Barbra Streisand in an Off-Off-Broadway play in which the pair of future Gay Icons played lesbians and had a kissing scene.
“This was before she was singing, before anything. I knew she was talented, but you never know what someone will be. She was a fabulous kisser, that’s what I knew.“