Why I Love Joan Rivers
If there is one thing I have noticed about the remarkable outpouring of love both before and after Joan Rivers’ passing, is that not only was she adored by millions, but also that nearly everyone has a Joan Rivers story. She was, truly, a beloved friend to countless people. For me personally, I felt lucky to spend some time in her atmosphere, enjoy her company, and learn from her – not only about her work, but her life. Quite simply, I adored her. And the more you read, the more you understand that she made a lot of people feel the same way. Sure, Joan knew her way around a stinging barb when she was onstage, but anyone who knew her would tell you she was an absolutely lovely, nurturing woman.
Okay, so in my way, I like to think that Joan was sort of a casual friend of mine, started off by an introduction that came while I was a television news producer, and later an entertainment journalist. The TV producer who assigned my first television spot with Joan, Amy Rosenblum, said to me “I am giving you a gift.” What she meant was that Joan was a lovely, loyal, friend-to-the-end kind of person. I couldn’t begin to know just how right she was.
As a result of this work assignment, I was able to sit across from a legendary woman with lightning fast wit and the most incredible work ethic I had ever seen, and yet, it was more than that. Sure, she was a comedy legend, but she was also part mother to all who met her.
The work relationship then manifested into some fun outings, both with her, and often one of closest friends and associates at the time, Matt Stewart, who remains a cherished friend to this day. In looking back at my time working with and getting to know Joan, I recall a list of ‘pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming’ moments: One Thanksgiving dinner, two Passover Seders, dinner and a comedy show in Spokane, Washington, an evening in Atlantic City, two sit-down interviews, one phone interview, a few other work projects, and most recently, a lengthy conversation at a wedding we both attended. But what’s more interesting to me is that I am far from unique. You see, Joan Rivers truly brought everyone around her under her wing. She became a loyal friend who always asked about your life. She remembered the name of your partner, husband or wife. She asked for updates on your job. She took a genuine interest in you. She was, to those who got to know her, a truly lovely person that cared about other people.
I first met Joan in 2006. She was making news because she had put her photo on Match.com in search of a man. She did so without fanfare, but it didn’t take long for people to notice. (Joan was, after all, a PR genius. She simply knew how to get attention, and this was a brilliant move on her part. If she found a man, it was a win… if she got publicity, it was a win.) Soon enough, I was assigned to produce a taped profile on the story for the Today Show. I was in awe of her, and thought to myself at the time, “this interview would work so much better if she had someone to interact with. She needs someone to play off of.” And so, right then and there, I put myself in the story as the interviewer. I would like to say it was a spontaneous idea, but the fact that I had already booked an extra camera and had dressed up might indicate I had that intention from the beginning. Here’s the spot:
That day, like everyone else, I fell in love with Joan Rivers. She was sweet, funny, and a completely charming woman. Forget that saucy mouthed, take-no-prisoners comic you know… she was a delightfully sweet woman. People that are quick to judge her have no idea. She was kind, absolutely professional, and absolutely lovely.
From there, a friendship of sorts was born. I don’t want to create a false impression. Joan had far closer friends than me – but what’s truly notable was that she was always open to an email, (and always responded,) and always took an interest in my life when she saw me. She offered professional advice, relationship advice, and was truly a cheerleader to me. I think you will find a lot of people who would tell you that she did the same thing for them.
Soon after, she invited me to Thanksgiving at her home, as she did countless others over her years on the Upper East side. You see, for the holidays, Joan would take all her furniture out of her sitting room and replace it with a long dining table, inviting easily thirty people. The dinner was fairly formal. People dressed up. The table had a flower arrangement that spanned its entire length. If someone didn’t have plans to go somewhere, she invited them. She did the same during Passover. One year I sat next to Jo Anne Worley from the iconic TV show “Laugh In”. (I wanted to scream with delight inside, but I kept it to myself…until the next day, when I pretty much called everyone I knew and told them about it.) Another year I sat next to Joan’s sister and niece. (Caroline is amazing, and funny like her aunt.) Another year I sat next to her daughter Melissa, who was a fantastic, fun conversationalist who was clearly devoted to raising her son Cooper with good manners. It was beyond impressive. These dinners were endlessly entertaining, in part because the guest list was incredibly diverse. From TV and broadcasting types, to family, to her beloved neighbors, everyone had an interesting story, and truthfully, all of us were beyond thrilled to be there. (I don’t mind admitting I cancelled Thanksgiving dinner with my own family because the idea of coming to this party was simply too fascinating and bewildering to pass up. I was not disappointed, although my parents might have been! But in the end, who could turn up a dinner at Joan Rivers’ house? This was a bucket list item you couldn’t fathom even dreaming up!)
From then on, whenever Joan was invited on as a guest at the Today Show, I would produce the segment. We worked on a funny segment about parenting. For Katie Couric’s goodbye show, we did a retrospective of Couric’s best and worst outfits during her career. (Joan was predictably hilarious.) And when I was running the fourth hour of the Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda, we invited her to be on our Halloween Show.
One time, I happened to be in Spokane, Washington for a short vacation in the days before our segment was to air. I received a call from Joan, who by sheer coincidence, was ALSO in Spokane, to perform at the local casino. She invited me, my partner Dennis and his mother to have dinner with us that evening and attend the show.
At the dinner, something beautiful happened, and I tell the story often. A man came up to Joan at our table in the restaurant. He told Joan how much his wife loved her and her jewelry, which she sold on QVC. Joan thanked the man, then took the bracelet off her wrist, and gave it to him. He was thrilled, knowing he could go and tell his wife that the bracelet came directly from the wrist of Joan Rivers! I later learned that Joan often wore extra jewelry so she could give it away. It’s a great example of not only how thoughtful she was, but also how brilliant she was. No doubt, this man tells this story every time his wife wears the bracelet. I tell the story all the time. Sure, Joan knew how to get publicity, but what she really knew how to do was brighten someone’s day.
Joan was truly a giver, but she was also thankful. Whenever I sent her a gift (which is no small task… what do you buy the woman who has everything?) she ALWAYS sent a hand written thank you note. I have kept every single one. When you sent an email, she always responded. Knowing how busy she was, and how many friends she had, the idea of keeping up with it all seems daunting.
She was the hardest worker I have ever met. At one point, after I left the Today Show, I was had a brief stint as a guest selling home products on QVC, which Joan Rivers did regularly with her clothing and jewelry lines. (Joan, by the way, was the one who made it cool to have your own line on QVC.) For whatever reason, it would almost always turn out that when I was there, Joan was there – often at three in the morning. And let me tell, you, Joan would SELL her stuff – I’m talking HUGE sales – and do so effortlessly. Joan, nearly eighty years old at the time, would make the nearly two hour ride down to West Chester, Pennsylvania in the dead of night, sleep barely an hour, get up and sell for an hour or two, take a quick nap, and then she’d be at it again. Sometimes she would make three or four appearances in a matter of hours. Then she’d ride home and get back to work. She would not complain. Joan LOVED to work. Few people half her age work this hard.
Even when she had her successful reality show on WE, she was also doing “Fashion Police,” a digital show “In Bed With Joan,” selling her clothing, jewelry and fragrances on QVC, and pitching her next project. She loved her work.
And people love watching her do it. Joan Rivers reaches one of the most wide demographics of any celebrity. Her most popular viewers span from young women in their twenties right up to middle age and older. How many 81 year old women can say that they’re most watched demo is barely above drinking age? How many 81 year old entertainers are in the pop culture lexicon at all??
My last interview with Joan Rivers was just a few months ago, when I was at Aol. She was promoting the latest premiere of her reality show. Again, she was irreverent and entertaining. And again, before and after the interview, she asked me about my life. She asked me about my partner. My career. (Here it is.)
The last time I saw Joan was in early August when we both attended a Friday night wedding of our mutual friend, Liza Persky. I couldn’t help but notice that Joan stayed later than I did, she was wearing heels the whole night, and she barely sat down. Joan was not a ‘drop in and leave’ type of person. She wanted to make sure she stayed for most of the night. She spoke to everyone that came up to her. She was truly a class act.
It was easy to forget she was 80. She never slowed down. That’s probably why losing her seems like such a shock.
Just before taking a role as Co-Executive Producer at ‘The View,’ I confided to her privately that the position may be offered to me. If you’re going to ask for career advice, ask Joan. She said to me ‘take it.’ (I did. It wasn’t a difficult decision, but honestly, when you can run something by Joan, you do.) Joan Rivers has appeared on ‘The View’ 34 times. I only wish I could have invited her for her 35th. Joan took her TV appearances very seriously. If she did a joke on ‘Today,’ she refused to do the same joke on ‘The View,’ or Fallon, or anywhere else. She kept diligent notes on what she said where. she took her role as an entertainer very seriously. She didn’t want to let people down.
I think I share the same feelings a lot of people have about Joan. We’re just plain sad. We’re feeling empty. We’re feeling that world really lost something special. It was inconceivable that this powerhouse of a woman would ever leave us. This iconic woman who built a career against all odds, never taking no for an answer, and never giving up. She’s an inspiration for anyone who has a dream, and we have been the endlessly entertained beneficiaries of hers.
I once asked Joan if there was a time in her career that she finally felt like she had made it. Her answer, ‘never.’ She had never stopped pushing, never stopped working, never stopped trying to achieve more from her life.
Joan, we will miss you dearly. You have made us laugh, you have made us smile, and our hearts feel a little emptier without you here.
If that isn’t making it, I don’t know what is.
Brian this is a beautiful tribute. You were given a rare glimpse into her amazing life and I can tell she adored you.
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