The Washington Post

Joan Rivers: Remembering a kinder, gentler version — and one who paved the way for female comics

Comedian Joan Rivers speaks to reporters at the awards ceremony for the 11th Annual Mark Twain Prize on November 10, 2008 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Can we talk?

About Joan Rivers?

I have my own Joan Rivers story to share, one that shows a kinder, gentler side of the caustic-tongued comedienne.

In 1988 during a business trip to New York City, while walking back to my hotel room after seeing a now-forgotten show, I saw a crowd gathered outside of the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street.

As I got closer, I was surprised to see Rivers in the center of adoring fans. She had replaced Linda Lavin as Kate in “Broadway Bound,” the final show in Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy.

Unabashedly star-struck, I waited at the edge of the crowd, watching her smile and laugh and sign autographs. A tiny woman, she seemed tireless and relentlessly upbeat. She eventually noticed me, and I asked if she minded signing my Playbill, apologizing that it was from another show.

“I promise I’ll come see you,” I told her.

And she graciously signed my program. That’s not what impressed me, though. It was the fact that this woman, already a star, was taking the time each night after a couple of hours on a Broadway stage to come out and spend time with her fans.

I kept my promise and saw “Broadway Bound.” It wasn’t as funny as other Neil Simon comedies; Kate, played by Rivers, is almost a tragic figure, a woman whose husband has cheated on her. As Clive Barnes wrote about Kate in The New York Post: “It is the portrait of a woman who lost much in life.”

Looking back, that also describes Rivers at the time. It was just a year after her own life had fallen apart: Husband Edgar Rosenberg had overdosed on pills, her show on Fox had tanked, and she’d lost her long-time friendship with Johnny Carson.

Carson had told her during an appearance on “The Tonight Show” that she would become a star, and she was eventually designated his permanent guest host. Many thought she was the heiress apparent to replace Carson when he retired. Until the unfortunate decision to do a show that competed with him.

Otherwise, a woman might have finally broken into the late-night network-television boys’ club. (We’re still waiting, by the way.)

But she broke plenty of other ground for women, said Heidi Ewing, who interviewed Rivers for the PBS documentary,“MAKERS: Women in Comedy,” that she and Rachel Grady produced and directed.

Although Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabley were among the first female stand up comics, they played characters, Ewing told me. “Joan was herself,” Ewing said. “She wasn’t playing a character. The person you saw was actually the woman. She was completely fearless.”

Rivers spoke the truth — when she was allowed to. During her first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, she was eight months pregnant, Ewing said. But Rivers couldn’t say the word “pregnant.” Instead, she told Sullivan she would soon “be hearing the pitter patter of little feet.”

Even in some of the strip clubs where she performed, she was considered “outrageous” and rather than face the audiences when leaving, Rivers would grab her purse and climb out her dressing room window.

Yet she was too busy in those days, she told Ewing in the interview, to consider herself a feminist, turning it into a joke and saying she couldn’t spell the word.

She said what she thought. “Joan was dangerous” because of that, Ewing said. “You didn’t know what she was going to say next.”

No kidding. She caught flak for her comments in recent months, and I can’t say I agreed with her.

But I admire the respect she showed for her audience that night in 1988 outside of a Broadway theatre, and I admire the tenacity and perseverance she needed to get to where she was.

She’d reached icon status. “We use the word ‘icon’ too much,” Ewing said. “But she fit the bill in a major way.”

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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