Can we talk? Joan Rivers’s onstage persona was caustic, bitchy, offensive and gut-bustingly hilarious, but offstage and behind the scenes was another story.
The Joan I’ll remember is the one who made a difference in people’s lives. Chip Duckett, the New York producer who did more than 700 shows with Joan, told me, “You want to talk about her generosity? She donated the proceeds of those shows to God’s Love We Deliver [providing daily meals for the homebound and seriously ill] and Guide Dogs for the Blind.” When Duckett’s mother died, he received a phone call en route to the funeral: “She took a deep breath and said, ‘Chip, I’m sorry about your mother, but this is very important. I need you to get me as many celebrity impersonator drag queens in Manhattan as you can by 4pm.’ I laughed so hard I thought I would pass out. She took me out of the worst place in the world and transported me right where I belonged: looking for drag queens to run around with her in NYC.”
Because of her frequent gigs here, she was in Toronto a lot. Quietly, Joan touched a lot of people right here in the GTA.
One of those people was me. I was 17, an arts-school nerd who desperately wanted to be onstage. After meeting Joan at a taping for The Shopping Channel and telling her my ambitions, she took a few hours out of her time to give me advice, share stories from her struggling years and let me ask questions. An assistant took my name and address, and a few weeks later I was the thrilled recipient of a number of theatre history books, acting tomes and Joan’s two autobiographies. She inscribed her first one, Enter Talking, to me, saying, “This one has everything you will ever need to know about making it. The other one? Eh.”
One of those people was Carla Collins. The Canuck comedy star opened for Rivers at one of her many Toronto shows. “Offstage she was kind, warm, hilarious, supportive and lovely. After the show, she made a point of finding me and invited me — well, demanded — to walk with her. My friend Paul and I joined Joan and her assistant in the elevator and out onto Front Street, where she doled out advice, cracked several killer one-liners, and told me she would play the goofy neighbour once I got my own sitcom.” Collins also credits Joan as a generous teacher: “Joan taught me that no subject was too taboo if it resonated with you, that it’s imperative to reinvent yourself and always remain current, that controversy is a good thing, and that fear is for pussies. She had bigger balls than a sumo wrestler, and I’ve been working on growing mine ever since I worked with her.”
One of those people was the late Brian Linehan, the legendary Canadian broadcaster with whom Joan shared an equally legendary friendship. Joan’s idea of fun was getting dressed up and riding with Brian to . . . Denny’s. In Mississauga. They’d order “hors d’oeuvres” and white wine and address their server by the name on the server’s nametag about whether dessert was imported, then leave a tip that was bigger than that server’s yearly take-home. As Linehan slowly succumbed to lymphoma, she would stand with him in convenience stores on Queen Street, flipping through the latest issue of National Enquirer. Through Brian, she became involved with Humber College in Etobicoke and took to conducting regular master classes with the students in the Comedy: Writing and Performance program. For years, students would get a surprise afternoon of wisdom and writing, riffing one on one with a legend.
One of those people was Frieda Creighton. Frieda was an Air Canada concierge, one of many who had looked after Joan when she flew. After she left her job and lay dying of cancer, Joan sent her orchids, special deliveries, gifts and made phone calls.
I’m sad to see such a compassionate and generous being pass away. I’m not a star-struck 17-year-old anymore. I grew up to host a talk show, do red-carpet celebrity interviews, award-show commentary and live the life of an itinerant performer — all of that is totally Joan’s fault. Like Carla, Chip, Frieda, Brian, students at Humber and countless others, I’m going to miss the bitch like Elizabeth Taylor misses dessert. The queen is dead. Long live the queen.