Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Joan Rivers: ‘Enough with the sensitivity about race’

Still ruffling feathers after 50 years, gay icon to host Just For Laughs gala

Joan Rivers passed away surrounded by family. Credit: Charles William Bush / Courtesy Joan Rivers

Hollywood myth has it that former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson was betrayed by his public heir-apparent, stand-up comic Joan Rivers, when she signed with FOX in 1986 for her own late-night TV talk show.

Except the little-known truth is it was NBC and Carson who betrayed Rivers: there was an internal NBC memo with a Top 10 list of candidates to replace Carson, and her name was not on the list.

“A friend of mine, [then] NBC vice-president Jame Michaels got the internal memo and sent it to me,” Rivers says today. “And he wrote on it, ‘Darling there is no place for you here.’ That’s why I walked away. And Carson never spoke to me again.”

But don’t fret for Joan: “I say what I think and I move on and I don’t hold grudges,” she says. “That’s why I don’t have an ulcer.”

In fact, the octogenarian comedian (she turned 80 on June 8) is in great health, and will host the July 27 Gala at Montreal’s Just For Laughs comedy festival.

Though Rivers is still kicking, many of the gay men in her life have died of AIDS. And while Elizabeth Taylor is widely hailed as the first Hollywood star to host an AIDS benefit, it was really Rivers who hosted the first-ever Hollywood AIDS benefit — except no Hollywood star at the time would be caught dead at the Rivers fundraiser.

“I was not only the first, but AIDS was still called gay pneumonia it was so early on and nobody wanted to come on the show with me. I got three drag queens from San Francisco to fly down to Los Angeles and we got so many death threats that we had many men on stage – literally guards – scanning the audience while I performed. Elizabeth Taylor did a lot but she got on [the bandwagon] when it was good to get on board. I continue to do AIDS benefits today to shake up the younger generation, to say, ‘Don’t be such smartasses. AIDS and HIV are still part of our culture.’”

Rivers’ Hollywood connections run deep: Legendary gay actor Roddy McDowall was her daughter Melissa’s godfather and McDowall used to host star-studded salons at his home. “The only negative was he went to his grave with a lot of secrets. That would have made a great book. At his salons you’d sit at his [dining room] table and there’d be Ava Gardner on your right and Bette Davis on your left. His table held 10 or 12, depending how tight they wanted to make it, and he’d never tell you who was coming. You’d end up having dinner with Laurence Olivier and John Gilbert. It was unbelievable.”

Like a recent dinner Rivers had with two other gay icons, Cher and Kathy Griffin. “We talk shorthand because we all know what we’re talking about. We compared plastic surgeons, who’s nice, who’s a bitch, who did you wrong, who did you right. Everything.”

Just don’t get Rivers started on the demonization of Paula Deen. “I don’t get it – she said ‘nigger’ and her life is over. Mel Gibson said ‘kike’ and he went to the Golden Globes. Again, give me the rules. As Lenny Bruce said, ‘You’re a kike, you’re a nigger, you’re a wop, you’re a chink, you’re a wetback. Everybody’s something, so relax.’”

On Rivers’ Internet TV series In Bed with Joan, RuPaul recently discussed being slammed by the transgendered community for using the word ‘tranny.’

“The trannies should know that a nigger said it to a kike,” says Rivers. “Here we go again. Calm down, for chrissakes! Everybody take a deep breath.”

To this day, Rivers is grateful for her diehard gay fans. “Gay men love me because I love them so much. I was one of the early ones,” Rivers says, citing her very first album,  Joan Rivers Presents Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories, from 1965 and named for her gay hairdresser. “I was one of the first to come out and say gay men are fabulous. And it’s true. They gave me a career.”

Joan Rivers hosts the July 27 Gala at Montreal's Just For Laughs Festival at Salle Wilfred Pelletier at Place des Arts. 

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