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Joan Rivers, dead at 81

Matt Hays reflects on his encounters with the comedy legend

Comedy legend and LGBT supporter Joan Rivers is dead at age 81.

Joan Rivers is gone.

Joan Rivers is gone. She was hospitalized on Thursday, Aug 28, after suffering from cardiac arrest during a medical procedure, and died Thursday, Sept 4, in New York.

It’s almost impossible to believe, and like many deaths of celebrities we hold especially dear, it’s hard to imagine our world without them in it.

I was an especially lucky fan because as a journalist, I got to meet and interview Rivers on several occasions. She really was pretty much everything everyone is saying she was and had earned her place as one of the greatest gay icons ever: she was caustically funny but also seemed to have a heart; she was a survivor who had been to hell and back (at least a few times); she was an outsider; she excelled at self-deprecation; and, like so many gay men we know, she fought the idea that she would ever be over the hill, still working up to a week before her death.

It’s one thing to watch a really amazing standup comic. But Rivers was something else, and you could tell that when you were talking to her. She was so quick on her feet, she could make you laugh with anything and everything you brought up. In journalism, when someone gives great, thoughtful quotes, it’s called a generous interview. Sitting down with Rivers felt like Christmas in a household with a small army of children.

Rivers was famous for trashing others. When I spoke to her in 2002, she had been hit with some criticism from Rosie O’Donnell, who was not happy with some cracks Rivers had made at her expense. O’Donnell had just finally publicly come out. Rivers shot back, “She finally came out on her show and said, ‘I’m gay!’ No shit. I thought you were going to surprise me and say you were straight. A woman with 185 pantsuits in her wardrobe. I’d had my suspicions.”

That quote, of course, would go viral when I included it in a Globe and Mail profile.

Naturally, I wondered if Rivers had thought about why so many gay men felt such a powerful connection with her. “Because I’m a strong woman; because I didn’t get there easily. They were my first audience. They were the first ones to get it. Whatever ‘it’ was. And they’ve still been there for me. They’ve been there for the ups, there for the downs. They’ve been there for everything. It’s all strong women — it’s Liza, it’s me, it’s Bette Midler. You know that.”

She continued: “It’s mutual. I connect with them first. Automatically when I see someone who’s gay, I think they’re going to be smarter, brighter, have more taste and more fun. And then sometimes you go, ‘I’ve seen his apartment — not so wonderful.’ I think I connect with gay men first. Gay men often have the characteristics of both men and women — but the best of both. They have the loyalty of men; they have the sensitivity and heart of a woman.”

Rivers’s routine was unapologetically sharp, one of the things that kept her gay audiences hooked. She would joke about fuzzy slippers that she didn’t recognize that turned out to be her aging, sagging vagina. She would quip that she could plug the bath drain with her breast, it hung so low.

But she was mainly renowned for the way she went after others. In the 1980s, she unleashed her Liz Taylor shtick, slamming the middle-aged actress’s weight gain.

Rivers used to say that Taylor had more chins than a phone book in China and suggested that when Taylor had a headache, she spread mayonnaise on her Aspirin.

This, Rivers said, was the one time she worried she had gone too far. “Liz Taylor, as a matter of fact, I did contact through Roddy McDowall. He was a very close friend of hers and was godfather to Melissa [Rivers, Joan’s daughter]. I said if it’s too much, I’ll stop. He came back and said that Liz had said, ‘Tell her it doesn’t hurt me where I live.’ I thought that was amazing, that she was secure enough in herself and her beauty that it didn’t matter.”

I then asked her about her friendship with McDowall. He was a famous actor who was always obviously gay, I noted, even in the Planet of the Apes movies, when he was acting through inches of makeup. “He liked the makeup,” she whispered, without pause.

But there were times when she altered her act, if it felt it was doing real harm. “Willie Nelson’s daughter complained that she was getting a hard time at school — I used to joke that [Willie] was so dirty he wore a roach motel around his neck. So I took it right out. If a child is going to school and getting teased, of course you take it out.”

But hilariously, another gay icon complained to Rivers when she was dropped from her routine: “Cher was upset with me because I took her out of the act. I used to do a routine on her; I used to knock over a cardboard cutout of Cher, and then when it was on the floor I’d say, ‘That’s your favourite position!’ When I stopped, she called me and demanded to know why I’d left her out. She’s smart enough to know that it’s better if she’s being talked about than not.”

One of the things I’m extremely happy about is that someone had the smarts to make a documentary about Rivers and her life and work routine in 2010. The result, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, is a remarkable film, full of revelations about a life in show biz. She doesn’t always look happy, but that’s part of the point.

She knew people thought of a life in show business as glamorous. When I asked her if she ever felt like walking away from the grind, her response reflected much of the pain she’s experienced: “Walking away from the business, never. Ups and downs, every single fucking day. It’s tough; it’s a mean business. It’s not a friendly business to anyone, unless you’ve made the connections. I never made the connections, because I think comedians have to be outsiders. I have one friend who’s a very famous comedian, and he told me one day that he was going riding this weekend with Jackie Onassis. And I thought, ‘Honey, you’re finished.’ And indeed, his career took a nose dive. You’re always an outsider — so there’s no one there to help you. It’s all about numbers. When you’re hot, everybody loves you.”

One incident that continues to be talked about — and I’m hearing it right now as I compose this obituary — is the story about her rift with Johnny Carson. People think he lost it with her when she signed a deal with Fox to start her own talk show. But it’s more complicated than that. Rivers was the permanent co-host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He was a conservative man, so he asked that the crazier guests be bumped to her six-week annual stint. That meant people like Pee-wee Herman, Elton John, Cher and Grace Jones ended up on her watch. That also meant her ratings began to exceed Carson’s, and he reportedly didn’t like that one bit.

When Carson was pondering his exit from The Tonight Show, a shortlist of possible replacements was circulated. While it was supposed to be hush-hush, it soon went public, and her name was not on it. This, obviously, was a huge insult. And that’s when she took up Fox’s offer of a late-night show.

I brought this up with Rivers when she was promoting the documentary in 2010. “You’re so right. And you know what? When I die I hope you’ll talk about that. Because so many people get that wrong and think that I stepped out on Carson or stabbed him in the back. Nothing is further from the truth.”

The other surprising thing about Rivers was her politics. Despite all her hugely loyal gay fans, she tended to support the Republican Party. She was close friends with the Reagans. Not long after 9/11, I questioned her about supporting the GOP: “How can you not be? How can anyone not be? How can you live in a country when you cannot say the Pledge of Allegiance anymore? Insane people have taken over the Democratic Party. They’re mad. They’ve taken over the asylum. To be worried about what the terrorists were eating at Camp X-ray, I think you’re beyond insane. They’ve just blown up New York.”

I’ll never forget her last few words to me, when I interviewed her by phone about her reality TV show (with daughter Melissa), as she was having her hair bleached. Knowing she’d have something to say, I asked her what she thought of Britney Spears. “I can’t wait for her career to be over so she can serve me coffee at 7-Eleven!” (Thanks, Joan — that quote went viral too.)

And she explained why she felt a special affinity for Canada: “I do the shopping channel stuff out of Mississauga. I go there every few weeks for that. I feel very connected to Canada. I was Tim Horton’s mistress. I was driving the car.”