WITH RIVERS, YOU ACCEPTED THE GOOD WITH THE BAD
By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, Sept. 5, 2014 — I once bailed on a radio interview with Joan Rivers because the comments I heard her making on the air while I awaited our interview were so appalling.
Her remarks had nothing do with me. I was scheduled to do a phone interview with her from my desk at the New York Post. As is customary for such things, I was placed on hold by a producer for a few minutes before Joan would get around to announcing me and then beginning our interview. While I was on hold, I could hear Joan talking.
This was back in the 1990s, on an early evening talk show that Joan hosted on WOR-AM in New York, starting in 1997. I was invited to come on the show to talk about some TV-related topic that was then in the news, but I have no idea today what the topic was.
All I remember is, I was on hold at around 7:45 in the evening, listening in while Joan and someone else (possibly a producer or some other sort of sidekick) riffed on some other forgotten subject. At some point, their free-wheeling exchange led to Joan vividly describing a scenario in which — sorry about this — bloody fetuses were being thrown off a cruise ship.
I was not then, nor now, particularly prudish about such things, but on that particular evening, I guess I just wasn’t in the mood. Moreover, I was struck by the juxtaposition I was about to experience as Joan would shortly segue to me, following this graphic diatribe she had just issued. So, not wishing to be the act that followed this particular material, I then did something that surprised even me, because I had never done this before (nor ever done it since): I took the phone receiver from my ear, stared at it for a few seconds, and then gently hung up.
A few seconds later, the phone rang but I didn’t pick it up. It was Joan’s producer, who left a voice-mail message mentioning something about our having been cut off, and then asking if I would please call back since our scheduled interview was seconds away. Instead of calling back, I locked up my desk drawers and went home, leaving Joan and her producer to wonder what had happened to me. I heard later that Joan was miffed, or at least mystified, by my sudden withdrawal, which left her having to fill airtime lasting about five minutes or so.
I remembered this incident the other day, while we all awaited the news on her condition, which unfortunately ended in her death yesterday.
I was vaguely acquainted with Joan Rivers because when one spends 30 years on the TV beat, you inevitably come into contact with her. She was adept (if not obsessive) at maintaining a very visible public profile, which meant that, as a journalist, you could get her on the phone for an interview at the drop of a hat. And since this cannot be said for many celebrities, Joan’s availability had the effect of endearing her to you, her occasional appalling comments on the radio notwithstanding.
Joan Rivers was the subject of the first bylined story I ever wrote about television — the first of more than 6,000. It was in July 1983, and the reporter who would have ordinarily conducted this interview with Joan must have been on vacation because it was suddenly assigned to me. I was then the radio reporter for this particular publication (the long defunct Broadcast Week).
The occasion was the announcement that day that Joan had signed a contract to be Johnny Carson’s sole guest host on the evenings he took off from “The Tonight Show” during the upcoming 1983-84 TV season.
So I found myself on the phone with Joan Rivers. “How has your career benefited from television?” I asked her.
“It’s given me my whole career,” she answered. “After my first appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’ in 1965, Johnny turned to me and said on the air, ‘You’re going to be a star.’ And suddenly I was. I found myself booked into all the top spots in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. It literally changed my life. Before that, nobody cared.”
Some time in the 1990s, I saw her perform for the first and only time. She was touring with Don Rickles (billed as “Rivers and Rickles”) and we caught up with them on Long Island, at the Westbury Music Fair. She opened for Rickles and put on a performance that had to be seen to be believed. It was a theater-in-the-round and she worked that stage like a whirling dervish, always in motion, wearing a gown and teetering on high heels, and cradling a small dog in the crook of one elbow while holding a microphone in her other hand.
Her act was so electrifying that it was more like performance art than a stand-up act. Afterwards, we went backstage to meet her and she was understandably tired — so much so that she seemed dazed, though she gamely chatted with us, along with other well-wishers who had been allowed into her dressing room.
I last interviewed Joan Rivers in 2010, about “Fashion Police,” her TV show on E!; and the documentary titled “A Piece of Work” that had come out that year about her life. (Read the interview here: http://xfin.tv/1ptVliM.)
“Do you consider yourself particularly fashionable?” I asked her.
“No, I consider myself very smart,” she said. “I do it all with jackets and jewelry.”
“What are your criteria?” I pressed on. “What are you looking for when you pass judgment on what other people are wearing?”
“You should wear the dress, the dress shouldn’t wear you,” she answered.
“Well, explain this to us: How does it get to the point where a celebrity shows up at an event [wearing something that is so inappropriate that they get ridiculed for it]?”
Answered Rivers: “Six gay friends said, ‘You look good!’ ”
Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org