I was sad today to learn about the death of Joan Rivers. She was a legend, an icon, a trailblazer, and, perhaps most of all, a survivor--a savvy show biz veteran who knew how to reinvent herself and stay relevant. But even the most durable survivor can’t live forever. When I think about Joan Rivers, I recall a conversation I had decades ago with my buddy Gary, a friend of hers who was writing jokes for a radio show she hosted in the ‘90s. I was visiting him in New York just after Saturday Night Live had aired a sketch lampooning Joan’s new show on the E! network. In the sketch, a skeleton puppet stood in for Joan, its big, toothy mouth opening and closing while an offscreen cast member did a loud, braying imitation of her voice. The death mask puppet lamented that she never should have pissed off Johnny Carson and destroyed her career. It was a funny sketch but incredibly harsh, more so than usual for SNL. I asked Gary if Joan saw it and how she felt about it. “Are you kidding?” he replied, “She loved it! She always says, ‘If they’re talking about you, you’re still in the game.'”
I had the honor of meeting Joan a few times through Gary. We first met when she wanted to make a documentary about her daughter Melissa’s wedding. My filmmaking partner Webb and I had just finished our first documentary feature, and Gary had attended the premiere screening. He talked up the movie to Joan and gave her his VHS copy. He didn’t tell us that he’d done this, but a week or so later he called and said she wanted to meet with us about a film project. I thought it was ridiculous to even bother setting the meeting up. There was no way Joan Rivers was going to entrust her image to two 27-year-old nobodies with one 16mm documentary under our belts, and I thought our artistic sensibilities would never mesh with hers, but it was a chance to meet a legend, so we went.
I came out of the meeting with even more admiration for Joan than I had going in. We met in her impressive home on 5th Avenue. Sitting in her office, she explained to us her idea with tremendous excitement. She wanted to make a film about what she called “the worst year of your life: the year between your engagement and your wedding.” She envisioned a “warts-and-all” examination of how this major life event can disrupt and challenge the relationship dynamics in a family. She explained how she had yet to meet the soon-to-be in-laws, and how different they were from her and Melissa. “They’re WASPs, we’re Jews. They’re West Coast people, we’re New Yorkers. They’re horse show people, we’re in show business. Just think what the first getting-to-know-you dinner scene will be like!” The more she talked, the more I could see how well thought-out the idea was. This was long before the days of reality TV, but she was presciently describing the form, and without the abominable reality-TV trope of direct to camera testimonials. We talked about cinéma vérité, D.A. Pennebacker, Fred Wiseman, the Maysles Brothers; she knew them all, and had even met with Albert Maysles about this documentary idea. I was thrilled to be included in such company. Webb and I were swept up in her enthusiasm and it was immediately clear to us how hiring two hungry, young, and cheap filmmakers could work to her advantage because she could self-finance the picture and maintain control of it. We did our best to pitch ourselves and our approach, and it led to a wonderful, extended conversation.
In the end, Joan never made the movie. Her therapist convinced her that such a project might be detrimental to her relationship with Melisa at that stage in their lives, she opted instead to write a book of motherly advice on life, love, and marriage. When I met her casually a second time a couple of years later, she recalled the meeting and said there was a big part of her that still wished she’d made the film. She said she met with all kinds of people about it, but if she had made it, she would have made it with us. Who knows if she was just being nice (I suspect she was), but it was still an incredibly kind thing to say. Years later, I received an unexpected call from Joan telling me about an elderly woman she had just met down South whom she thought would be an amazing subject for a documentary. She had thought of Webb and me not because of the film we had discussed making with her, but because of the film we actually had made that she had watched on the VHS tape that Gary gave her before our meeting. It was an incredible honor that she remembered our little movie so many years later and thought we might be a good fit for this new idea she had. Nothing came of that project either, but I was still immensely flattered that she called us.
The third time I got to meet Joan, I was the one who came knocking. In 1999, I was producing a live multi-media stage show, Miss Folk America with my friend Faith Soloway. I thought it would be a fun idea if we had a bunch of celebrity video cameos at the end of the night. I figured, between myself, Faith, and the various members of the cast, we knew enough famous people to make a little ending montage that would give the audience a smile and raise the prestige of our tongue-in-cheek event. I called Joan’s assistant to see if I could get in touch with her, but I never heard back until about ten months later, when we were remounting Miss Folk America and releasing a video of the original performance. Just one day before I had to send off the master tape to be duplicated (this was before DVDs, and we were selling VHS copies), Joan called. “What do you need me to do?” she asked. “Just make fun of the six female singer-songwriters in our cast,” I said, “like what you do when you run down movie stars on the red carpet, only this will be shlubby Somerville Ma, not high end Hollywood.” Joan remembered Faith from her show The Real Live Brady Bunch, which Joan had seen when it played in New York in 1991, and she agreed to participate. “I’d have to film you tomorrow,” I said, “the show is in three days.” “I’ve got fifteen minutes at 5:45 if you can meet me at the theater where I’m doing a show downtown.”
Time was short. Faith and I wrote some jokes about our cast and put them on big cue cards. I grabbed my camera and lights and drove to New York on a hot summer Friday afternoon, in a car without air conditioning. I got stuck in a traffic jam on the way down; someone was threatening to jump off an overpass on the opposite side of the highway, and traffic was backed up for miles while people idled in their cars waiting to see how it turned out. I was flabbergasted. I had left two hours to spare in the hopes that I’d get to NYC, find a nice parking place, get cleaned up, set up my gear, and meet Joan backstage before the weekly cabaret show she was doing in the West Village. But by the time I got to the venue, I was late, panicked, and soaked in sweat. I double-parked on the sidewalk and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t get towed. Joan and her assistant pulled up right as I was unloading. I felt like such an amateur. I had planned to be all set up and ready for her when she arrived. Instead, she was asking me if she could help carry anything to speed things along.
I could tell she was not in the mood to do this video shoot and I tried to get set up as quickly as possible without over-apologizing for being so late. We taped a quick pass through each of the cue cards, but since she didn’t know the stars of my show at all, she didn’t connect well to the punch lines. She also mispronounced several of their names. (I made a mental note to always write cue cards phonetically from that point on.) Joan seemed quite ready to be done when she got through the last one, and said, “That’s it!” but I knew I couldn’t leave with what I had so I risked pressing her for another take. She gave me a quick, pitying look, then said, “All right, how do you say these girls' names?” We then did several takes of each card. Joan ad-libbed and changed the lines to better suit her delivery. “Are they all lesbians?” she asked. “Only half of them," I said, "but most of our audience is gay.” She brightened up. “OK,” she said, “let's do it one more time all the way through.” She did one last pass, adding little digs about style, sexual orientation, and the pretentiousness of singer-songwriters, ending with the line, “I love Ellen Degeneres!” I used a lot from that last take in the final cut of the bit.
When I got back to my car just twenty minutes later, it was still there--not even a parking ticket. I thanked the gods of film, raced home to Boston, cut the footage together, and showed Faith. She was over the moon, especially about the Ellen Degeneres line--it was the kind of random aside that was perfectly in sync with Faith’s style of comedy. I scrambled to shoehorn the piece into the video of the original show, sent it off to the duplicators, and then integrated it into the cameos we had set for the new performance. I imagined how cool the footage would be for people coming back to see the live show a second time. We had been looking for ways to add subtle changes and surprises in the remounted version, and this was a major score. But the most fun part of this little adventure was playing the piece to the cast at the dress rehearsal. Everyone was thrilled to be verbally eviscerated by the legendary comedian.
Those three meetings were the extent of my personal experience with Joan Rivers, but I remained a devoted fan. Over a decade later, when Ricki Stern’s and Anne Sundberg’s film Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work came out, I was thrilled to see that Joan finally got her warts-and-all documentary made. I almost got choked up during her episode of Louie, in which she gave Louis C.K. some tough love and strong career advice during a stint in Vegas. I could tell she had tweaked his superb script into her own voice, just as she had with Faith’s and my lame jokes, and I felt proud once again to be in such exceptional company.
Joan started her career in the 1950s and never stopped working until her death. No job was too big or too small for her to say yes to. I will always be in awe of her drive, her talent, her generosity, and her humility. She never forgot what it was like to be a struggling nobody, which is why I think she was so kind to people like me who were just starting out, and why she gave so much to those less fortunate then her. She made it into her eighties without ever slowing down or looking back. She was the definition of a great lady of show business, and though she will be tremendously missed, she will never be forgotten.
Here's Joan's cameo for Miss Folk America.
Thanks again, Joan.