The night Whitney Houston died, Joan Rivers ripped her apart on Fashion Police. Whitney was the #1 Must-See Look of the Week on Joan’s Friday-night E! bitchfest, but not for the right reasons. They showed a papparazzi photo of Whitney looking rough in a T-shirt and jeans, escorted by R&B stud/reality-TV star Ray J. “What a chic way to come off a bender,” Joan said. “She is living the American dream. Whitney Houston has gone from fucking crazy to fucking Ray J.” Then she did a joke about asking Whitney if she’d really blown her voice. Joan croaked and wheezed: “‘It’s not true, Joan! And I will always love you!'”
A few hours later, Whitney drowned in her hotel bathtub, so E! wisely yanked the episode—it only aired once. (It lives on in my DVR — I was a hardcore Joan fan and Fashion Police junkie.) But it sums up Joan at her nastiest — she’d kick you when you were down, all the way to death’s door. She was gloriously mean — so mean that she would have responded to all the sentimental deathbed tributes with one of her oh, grow up. She died the way she lived — making a scene, complicating other people’s holiday weekends, generally being a pain in the ass. She was the Morrissey of her generation. I miss her already.
Joan was most famous for her Oscar-night red carpet shows, which will always stand as her landmark achievement. The annual live events were a technical shambles — Joan was badly prepared, missing cues, unable to hear the frantic director (even when viewers could hear him). She always seemed to be winging it, especially in those first couple of hours, when the real bottom-feeders showed up. Most stars tried to play along and make nice; others didn’t. Tom Cruise would practically pole vault over Nicole to avoid eye contact with Joan.
Her Oscar red-carpet interviews had to be seen to be believed. She committed gaffes that would have made anyone else crawl off in shame. I once saw her ask Jon Voight, “Are you a good father?” He stammered, “Yes, I think so.” (As 99 percent of the E! audience could have told her at the time, he and Angelina weren’t on speaking terms.) I saw her ask poor Roddy MacDowall if he’d ever won an Oscar. “Heavens no,” he said. “Never nominated.” I saw her ask William H. Macy who his date was. Macy, with truly valiant poise, explained that his date was his wife, the fairly-well-known actress Felicity Huffman. Did Joan apologize for not recognizing Huffman? Oh, grow up — she mocked Huffman for wearing such a tiny ring, then asked Macy why he didn’t spring for a nicer one. This happened on live TV.
If you or I made faux pas like that in public, we’d dig ourselves a hole and crawl in it. For Joan, it was just another day at the office. She made “Who are you wearing?” sound like a threat. One year, Geena Davis hosted a competing red-carpet special, vowing to ask the actors about important things like their artistry, not mere fashion. Joan’s response was to stand on the carpet holding a sign: “Last Shallow Question Before Geena Davis.”
She had a long career before she landed on E!, of course — so long, it’s hard to believe she was only 81. Seventies kids knew her voice from The Adventures of Letterman. Her 1983 comedy album What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most? earned her some new wave cred — after U.K. groups like ABC and Duran Duran, the rock audience was primed for the charms of camp satire from Hollywood’s queen bitch. Joan obligingly made ads for MTV where she cracked, “That Mick Jagger — he’s got lips, he could give Ohio a hickey!” She also showed up at the Grammys once to give Boy George an award — maybe the only time she ever looked shocked on camera.
She had moments where she took herself seriously, but they usually passed quickly. She made the 1994 Lifetime movie Tears and Laughter, with her and daughter Melissa playing themselves. I’m not going to suggest you should actually watch it — I’m merely going to cite it as a an extremely rare moment when Joan decided she was human and she needed to be loved. Well, she got over that.
But as far as this fan is concerned, Joan did her most brilliant work as the madwoman in E!’s attic. She spent her golden years on Fashion Police, a very strange show where Joan sat in a cheap-looking studio with three minions paid to laugh at the boss’ jokes. (Watching these sad ducks compete to laugh loudest was a sadistic kick—the closest we’ll ever get to seeing one of Stalin’s Politburo meetings.) In weekly bits like “Bitch Stole My Look” or “Guess Me From Behind,” she trashed celebs she’d clearly never heard of before. Showing a picture of Florence and the Machine, Joan cracked, “I hope the machine is a vibrator.”
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Once in a blue moon she’d aim at the truly high and mighty — on Election Night 1996, she predicted Elizabeth Dole would title her autobiography One Lucky Stewardess. But for the most part, she stuck to show biz, mocking the looks of celebs who were (almost without exception) more attractive than she was. That was the point, really. Joan constantly made cruel jokes about her own looks. She titled one of her books I Hate Everyone…Starting With Me. When Rolling Stone put her on the “Most Overrated” list in 1983, they had the ultimate insult: “Everything she says about herself is true.” Even past 80, on Fashion Police, she was still doing gags about how she couldn’t get laid. (One young man offered to pity-hump her from behind, but then couldn’t tell which side was behind.)
Before the “Don’t read the comments” era, Joan Rivers was there as a constant reminder not to worry what people say about you — it’s probably as bad as you fear, and so what? She was there to teach us not to take strangers’ opinions so seriously. Week after week, she gave living proof that the world is a shallow, stupid place, throwing bitch-fits all the time for no reason — so why take it personally? That was Joan’s gift to humanity: She helped us lower our expectations for the world, which made it more fun to live there. Thanks for the memories, Joan. Viva hate.