What It Was Like to Work With Joan Rivers

ALL-STAR CELEBRITY APPRENTICE -- Season: 13 -- Pictured: Joan Rivers -- (Photo by: Patrick Randak/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
Photo: NBC/2013 NBCUniversal Media, LLC

There’s a moment in the excellent documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, that has nothing to do with show business. Joan and her grandson Cooper are riding in the backseat of her town car on Thanksgiving morning, delivering a hot meal to a homebound woman with multiple sclerosis. Cooper tells his grandmother that he got his video-game console from a classmate who had three PSPs and gave him one. “Does he have a single grandfather?” Rivers jokes to the camera. In the small, warm silence that follows, Joan picks up her grandson’s hand and squeezes it. “I love your hands,” she tells him. “They’re good hands.” Cooper reaches over with his other hand and squeezes back. Joan soars.

It never once occurred to me that Joan Rivers could die. Like everyone else, I can’t remember a time in which she wasn’t around. Joan has always been in the cultural conversation; so much so that we took her for granted. She was always there, like Santa Claus or the New York Post, or the sun or the moon. The fact that she was 81 when she died seems irrelevant, even insulting to mention. Joan was ageless. She went out buzzing.

Before I met Joan Rivers, to interview for a writing position on a web series that would never materialize, I spent an afternoon researching her online, and, in the process of doing so, realized she was my idol. As I scrolled through her credits from the desk of my shitty day job, I remember thinking, the way you can suddenly fall in love with a longtime friend, Remember that woman I grew up with? Who was always on TV? Well, it turns out she’s awesome, and I want to be exactly like her. Typically, I was a couple of beats behind. We all were.

We called her a throwback when she was actually ahead of her time. We used the internet to call her mean. Everybody made fun of her face, as though any of us were ever given a choice to look like Angelina Jolie at birth but just checked the wrong box. She took jobs that weren’t cool, and her only reward was more work. She was never — EVER — given her due.

Years later, I wrote for Joan Rivers on two of her reality shows: How’d You Get So Rich? and Joan and Melissa: Mother Knows Best. Basically, I was paid to hang out with Joan all day and pitch her jokes when they occurred to me. Sometimes she’d use the good ones, but not before she’d say to me, “That’s very funny.” It was a thrill to hear her iconic voice deliver the stupid, dirty things I came up with at the time about Mackenzie Phillips’s sexual relationship with her dad, or about David Crosby’s sperm being delivered to Melissa Etheridge in a turkey baster, or whatever was in the news at the time. But as great as it was when she’d use my stuff, I really just loved hanging out with her for as much time as she’d let me.

Joan is — was, I guess, though I can’t yet refer to her in the past tense — not just funny, but fun. You felt like you were at a party when she was around, and a good one, with classy people who had great stories and wonderful food. Just talking to her, you felt more alive, more glamorous, sharper. You felt pressed to dazzle her; to make her laugh or to pique her interest in something you knew or had just read. And when you were around Joan, you were never bored. Do you know how hard that is, to never be boring? To Joan Rivers, it was like breathing.

When I worked for Joan, work felt like something I could do forever without a break. Energy is a feeble description for what she had. Sharp is a pathetic way to describe her recall, or the speed of her brilliant brain. And the word kind doesn’t even begin to do justice to her colossal heart.

Joan showed me by example that generosity only brings more into your own life.

After one of Joan’s stand-up shows at the Laurie Beechman, I took my parents backstage to meet her. After Joan was nice enough to tell them how proud they should be of me for writing those incredible Mackenzie Phillips incest jokes, my mother complimented her glittery watch (QVC, natch), which Joan promptly removed and forced us to take home. She loved giving gifts to everyone in her orbit; she would never permit anyone around her to be deprived of anything. I remember seeing Joan lock eyes with the cleaning lady working a shift in her office one evening. She made sure that woman went home with as many handbags as she could carry.

And I will never forget how, on the day before she returned to late-night television as a guest on Letterman’s Late Show after 27 years in the post-Johnny chill, Joan wouldn’t let the segment producer off the phone until she could tell him about a young comedian named Billy Eichner. “He’s absolutely brilliant. You have to have him on the show,” Joan insisted to a producer assigned to find out what jokes Dave would need to set up for her the following day. “Billy Eichner.” She repeated. “He’s hilarious. I’ll bring you a DVD.” And the next afternoon, in the middle of all of her frantic preparation for what would be her big, nerve-wracking, triumphant return to the Ed Sullivan Theater — where she debuted as a 33-year-old on a show that preceded Dave’s — she did bring a DVD of Billy’s YouTube clips to personally hand to that very producer. Billy, by the way, will be appearing on Letterman next week for his first time. Somewhere, she’s kvelling.

Joan was one of the first-ever guests on my podcast, How Was Your Week. She recorded with me in her library, wearing workout clothes, sweating through a perfect blowout. She was kind enough to talk shit about Peter Cook and Elizabeth Taylor, and we played Fuck, Marry, Kill with center squares (fuck Martin Mull, marry Paul Lynde, kill David Brenner). Joan got a lot of shit for having the nerve to say “yes” to opportunities that came her way, from cruises to lecture circuits to dinky podcasts like mine. But when the alternative is fading away, the possibility of burning out gets smaller every day you decide to participate in life instead of observing it from the sidelines.

The last time I saw Joan, she was doing a guest spot on Billy on the Street, the TV show I write for starring Eichner. I complimented her recent appearance on Louie and she asked me, point blank, “Is he funny?” I laughed and told her that, yeah, Louis C.K. was funny. She took me at my word. After she shot her bit, Billy got into her limo and they circled the block, catching up. When they hit a traffic jam, Joan got out and directed traffic. Everyone was thrilled to see her, and the feeling was mutual.

“If one more woman comedian comes up and says to me, ‘You opened the doors for me …’” Joan says in A Piece of Work, “… you wanna say, ‘go fuck yourself.’ I’m still opening the doors.” Even posthumously, I will not call Joan Rivers a legend or dare suggest that she was a pioneer for funny females because, at the very least, that would be some indefensible “Joan-splaining.” So instead of rotating in one of those tired phrases you’re adorned with moments before you’re buried, I’ll just call her a goddess, a mensch, and a friend. I will miss her terribly.