first person

My Summer in Joan Rivers’s Magical Joke Factory

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 07: American personality Joan Rivers participates during the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade on Oxford Street on March 7, 2009 in Sydney, Australia. The annual parade, which has been going since June 1978, has a 2009 theme of
Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

In the summer of 2008, between my sophomore and junior years of college, I was a production intern for a Broadway musical called Passing Strange. One of the perks of the job was free tickets to the show, so one Thursday in June, I gathered a group of friends to join me. After the curtain fell, we exited the theater and found Joan Rivers waiting for her ride. Believing that this would be the only time we’d ever get to meet the one and only, we asked for a photo. She happily obliged and then started asking us questions.

“Are you guys still at school?”

“Yes,” we replied. “At Brown.”

“Ooh, smartasses! I’m a Barnard girl myself,” she responded. “And what are you doing in New York City?”

“Internships for theater,” I said. “I work for the show you just saw.”

“That’s fabulous. Well, when your internship is over, would you like to be my intern?”

Stunned silence.

“Here,” she said, grabbing my Playbill and removing a pen from her Hermès bag, “this is my assistant Jocelyn’s number. Call her tomorrow.”

She handed the program back to me, waved good-bye, and got in her car.

The next day, I nervously picked up the phone to call Jocelyn. “Um … yes, this is Matt. I know this sounds weird, but I met your boss, um, Joan Rivers, last night on the street …”
“Yes,” Jocelyn said matter-of-factly, “She told me she met you on the street.” Jocelyn’s skepticism was either due in part to the fact that Joan literally found me in an alley (Shubert Alley, but still), or she was just hardened from years of working with someone like Joan. Regardless, she asked simply, “Can you start Monday?”

My first day started at Joan’s penthouse apartment on 62nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Now, I’ve seen a lot of cool apartments since becoming a real-estate broker three years ago, but I never have and probably never will again see something as majestic as Joan Rivers’s penthouse. If Louis XIV had been drugged, ripped through time, and awoken in Joan’s bed, he wouldn’t miss a beat.

Upon climbing two grand staircases, I was ushered into Joan’s private office. Jocelyn sat me down at the computer desk and gestured to a wall covered in small filing cabinets, the ones you’d see at libraries. Except instead of “Fiction” or “Sci-Fi” or Dewey decimals, these files were labeled from A to Z with titles like “Alzheimer’s” and “Proctol Exams.” 

“These are all of Joan’s jokes,” Jocelyn said. “We need you to digitally catalogue all of them. Start with ‘A.’ Good luck.”

Like a svelte Augustus Gloop in Joan Rivers’s Joke Factory, I could not wait to dive in. I pulled out the first card, labeled “Abortions,” and began to type: “Everyone talks about Roman Catholics and abortion, but the Jewish religion has strict rules, too. For instance, when does a Jewish fetus become a viable human being? At the end of medical or law school.” I started laughing uncontrollably and didn’t stop until Jocelyn came in at 5 p.m. to release me. That first day, I had spent a good seven hours typing jokes, but only got as far as “Advice my mother gave me” — that’s how many there were. “Don’t worry,” Jocelyn said, “you can start on ‘Advice for Melissa’ first thing tomorrow. Joan will be back from L.A., too. We’ll see you then!”

The next day, I arrived early and powered through more joke cataloguing — my fingers feverishly typing quips about Alan Alda, anorexics, annoying habits, and Arabs (to name a few). I was in the middle of writing the last joke on Julie Andrews (“Julie Andrews keeps asking me, ‘Joan, how do I sound?’  What am I supposed to say?  ‘As if you gargled with glass!?’) when Joan’s other assistant, Graham, came to the door. He introduced himself and told me to mark my place in the filing cabinet, as I was going to put the cataloguing on hold for a while.

Graham ushered me down several halls to Joan’s master bathroom, where — voilà — Joan was getting her makeup done. We exchanged niceties and she told me to make myself at home … and I comfortably, albeit awkwardly, settled myself on the only seat available in the bathroom: the toilet. Joan then handed me a black binder. “You like theatre, so you’ll like this. I’m working on a new autobiographical show that we’re taking to Scotland for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I have to remember a ton of lines, so you’re going to help me. Let’s go!” I opened up the script while Adele, Joan’s makeup artist, busied herself painting Joan’s face. I followed along in the binder as Joan, in her signature raspy voice, yelled her first line: “OH! Would someone shut that stupid bitch up?!” Magical. We continued reading through the script; I mustered up all of my “classical” training to deliver the silliest of caricatures of the other characters in the play while Joan gave a full-out performance wearing only a robe and bunny slippers.

The play itself was amazing. It was hilarious and raunchy, but it was also sweet and heartfelt and dove into some really personal issues in Joan’s life. At some point during our line-memorization session, Jocelyn peeked her head in to remind Joan that she had to be at QVC in a half-hour. When we finished reading the script together, Joan insisted I walk her down to the QVC offices while rehearsing the lines. Balancing the open script in my hand, Joan and I started walking down Fifth Avenue. A cab swerved a little too close for comfort, prompting her to grab my arm and not let go. Cue the paparazzi taking pictures of Joan and her “new baby-faced beau.” And while all this is happening, Joan is rattling off her lines from the play, specifically, the part of the play where Joan describes how her dry vagina caused all of the forest fires in California that summer.

Listen, if someone ever said to me, “Hey, at 20 years old, you will walk down Fifth Avenue arm-in-arm with Joan Rivers, the paparazzi will take pictures of you, and she will scream about her vagina in your ear,” I would have checked that person into a mental hospital, stat. But there I was with Joan, dry vagina and all, and the craziness was only beginning.

As the days went on, Joan and I became increasingly more comfortable with each other. She could tell I was a dedicated worker, and I could tell she wasn’t going to harvest my blood for her old-age-reversal serum. But at some point, our relationship became more familial than occupational. I’ll never forget sitting in her kitchen one day after reading through the script, eating some takeout from a local diner for lunch. Who knows what caused her to do this — maybe it was instinctive; maybe she was just missing her grandson Cooper — but without me even asking, Joan started cutting up my chicken into smaller pieces. “Eat up, my little Chickadee,” she said. From that moment on, Joan became a third grandmother to me. Some days it was unclear who was hired to be helping whom. As the date of Joan’s departure for Scotland loomed, I could sense my internship would be coming to an end. But a few days before leaving, Joan turned to me and said, “Do you want to come to Scotland with us? I’ll make you an assistant stage manager for the show. All expenses paid.” And just like that, I was off to Edinburgh. While there, my main job was to run lines with her every morning to keep her focused on the show. Then, during the actual performances, I would sit in front of the stage with my script to be her safety net if she ever forgot her lines. She didn’t really need my help. She was sharp as a tack.

Outside of the show, we shared haggis, deep-fried Mars bars, and Pimm’s cup pitchers, saw drag queens and sideshow circus freaks, and gave Melissa and Cooper a grand tour of Edinburgh. As my time with Joan came to an end, I said the only thing I could think of: “Thank you.” She responded the only way she knew how: “Get out of here before my mascara starts to run.”

Over the next few years, Joan and I kept in touch. I saw her perform in New York several times. We sent each other emails for birthdays, Rosh Hashanas, and New Years — each beginning with the same familiar “Hello, my little/mama Chickadee!” greeting. When I finally had the courage to come out, Joan was one of the first people to know. Her response? “I’ve always wanted a gay grandson.”

As I reflect on her passing, this monologue Joan performed from the show embodies her perfectly:

JOAN: Keep your fork. It’s an old Shalom Aleichem story. Don’t you know it? A young woman was dying of cancer and she turned to her Rabbi and said, “Rabbi, when I die, bury me with a fork in one hand. Whenever my family was at home eating dinner and they came to clear off the main course, my grandmother, who survived six pogroms, said, ‘No, no, children. Give me your plates, but keep your forks.  You haven’t had dessert yet. The best is yet to come. I think that’s so wonderful. Keep your fork. The best is yet to come.”

My Summer in Joan Rivers’s Magical Joke Factory