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Joan Rivers Always Knew She Was Funny

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Rivers adored her mother. “She died in my mid-to-late forties,” she says. “She was so smart and funny. My friend Alice told me at her funeral that my mother once said to her, so proudly, ‘Joan isn’t just a star. She’s a superstar! And she did it all herself!’ It still makes me cry. Both of my parents got to see me host Carson, thank God. That’s all anyone wants: to have their parents see they’re going to be all right in life.”

Her relationship with her own daughter, however, has not gone as smoothly. Some of the more visceral scenes in the documentary are between Joan and Melissa. There is something in their body language, in the way they talk over each other, that gives you a glimpse into the dynamic: classic yenta behavior on Joan’s part; stuck in a sullen teenage gear on Melissa’s part.

Someone who knows both women well said to me recently, “The greatest thing about Joan is her bravado, her ability to just laugh at everything and push through. But her greatest weakness is that moment when she can’t push through and she really takes something in. She can become unreasonable and vindictive. And it usually has to do with Melissa, when she feels that Melissa has been wronged. When Melissa has an enemy it has to be Joan’s enemy. But Joan carries it to the level of a crusade.”

I ask Melissa if she thinks her mother is still reacting out of guilt over that terrible time in their lives. “I think she does have a lot of unresolved guilt.” But, she says, “as an adult I have such a clearer perspective and acceptance of who my mother is and why she does what she does.” She also concedes that she has plenty of baggage of her own. “I carry the burden of my father, in his note, saying to me, ‘You have to take care of your mother.’ I take that very, very seriously. I feel like she is my responsibility.” She pauses for a moment. “And yet! I feel like we have a really good relationship. And it’s very normal in abnormal circumstances.”

“All I want you to do, if we are sitting down and it’s after 6 p.m., is tell me the truth … Just tell me the truth and let me say to you, ‘Things are lousy and I’m sad.’ ”

Melissa was worried at first about the documentary. “Melissa is a very private person,” Joan says. “And she doesn’t understand show business. I will do anything on camera. You want me to do what?!?! … Hmmm. How much? … Okay!” When Ricki Stern showed Rivers a rough cut, she sent back three pages of notes. Most of her complaints were about what was not in the film: Where’s the red carpet? Nothing on QVC? You don’t show my triumph in Edinburgh! “And then there were certain things that you really shouldn’t put in, that Melissa objected to,” she says. “I talked about Edgar one night and it was very late and I was saying what I say very often, which is that I walk past his picture and give him the finger. Fuck you, what you did to us! Which is part of suicide. But it shouldn’t maybe be there. Melissa didn’t want to see that.”

But Melissa seems to be coming around: “The first time I saw the film it was very difficult to watch. She is showing parts of herself that I see and I understand and I was worried that other people wouldn’t understand. But from the response the film is getting, I think I was wrong. Because people do understand.”

This summer, the family begins filming a reality show for WE called Mother Knows Best. Rivers has rented out her house in Connecticut for the season and is moving in with Melissa and her 9-year-old son, Cooper, whom Joan is crazy about. “He is funny,” she says, handing out her highest praise. “And he gets that I’m funny. He recently told me that he knew that I was famous. And I said to him, ‘You know why Grandma is famous? Because I make people happy.’ ”

Rivers says she is nervous about the show. “I don’t know if it’s going to wreck our lives. I think it’s going to be very hard on us because I don’t want it to be one of these stupid reality shows. We want it real, with real mother-daughter conflict and real problems.” Like what? “I want her to get married to the boyfriend and they don’t want to get married. I’m sorry, I am not comfortable with somebody coming down the stairs in his jockey shorts who is not married to her.”

Melissa responds: “She’s, like, completely supportive of gay rights and everyone should be able to do whatever they want, live and let live, and whatever makes you happy. She has no problem with, like a rhino and a ferret living together, and yet she can’t believe that I don’t want to get married again!”


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