The Kennedy Center’s inaugural District of Comedy Festival features such funny people as Judd Apatow, Jane Lynch, Jay Pharaoh, Dick Gregory and Reggie Watts, among others. But it starts this week with something a tad more somber — a tribute to Joan Rivers, the groundbreaking comedian, actress, author and talk show host who died in September 2014 at 81.
The Kennedy Center’s “Celebrating Joan: A Tribute to Joan Rivers” will be hosted by her daughter, Melissa Rivers, 48, and will include such presenters as Louie Anderson, Bob Saget, Dick Cavett and Margaret Cho. The tribute happens to be the same day that Christie’s auctions “The Private Collection of Joan Rivers,” with such items as a jeweled Fabergé leaf (estimated price: $200,000 to $300,000) and a Tiffany dog bowl ($800).
We spoke recently with Melissa Rivers from Los Angeles about her mother’s legacy, working with her on the red carpet, and what it was like to play Joan in the movie “Joy.”
Q: How did the Washington event come to be?
A: The people at the Kennedy Center approached me. They’re doing their big comedy festival, and it’s wonderful to be involved. It’s the Kennedy Center! It’s such an amazing place. And to have her being honored as part of this comedy festival is fantastic.
The funny thing is, my mother always wanted a Kennedy Center Honor — like, the big one — and she never got one. She was nominated a few times, but she never actually got one. So obviously this is about as close as we’re going to get. I think we’ll definitely have my mother’s voice resonating through it.
Q: How has the process been?
A: The thing is, when you go to start to do something like this, you don’t realize how enormous the body of work is, and also, I’m just doing this now. My mother hasn’t even been gone two years yet. We’re still culling through so much stuff. She was involved in so many different areas, not just of the entertainment levels, and she made such a big impact socially, it becomes very overwhelming when you try to touch on everything. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of honing it down, but it’s like Pandora’s box. Every time you think you have something, you go, “Oh, no, we should also do this!”
Q: Are there some people involved for whom you’re particularly excited?
A: Well, to have someone like Dick Cavett, who knew her from back in the Village, is phenomenal, and then you have someone all the way to Aubrey Plaza or Billy Eichner, who represents new media. And then Jordin Sparks, from “American Idol,” who came to the scene through TV as a young woman. To get that sense of how long her career was is really compelling.
Q: Had your mother even met all the people on the roster, such as Rachel Bloom of TV’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”?
A: I think they might have met once. My mom eventually met everybody. I’m thrilled about Rachel Bloom because I think she’s such a talent. And, again, to have someone whom my mother influenced like that participate and be able to touch on another love of my mother’s, which is theater and musicals, and do all that in one night, is amazing. She really made a show last year that changed sitcoms, that is so far out of the box, and won an Emmy for it.
Q: At what age did you become aware of what your mother did?
A: When it’s your parent and you’re living it day-to-day, it’s nothing that you suddenly wake up one morning and go, “Oh, this is what you do.” It’s such an integral part of your being or your life in your childhood. It’s just one of those things that is normal life to you.
My parents were so aware of private life versus public life. To the day that my mother died, I hate to use the word “staff,” but the people who worked for her referred to her as Mrs. Rosenberg. My mother’s career was always a separate entity and a separate being. And it’s so ironic that the sale at Christie’s is going on at the same time this is at the Kennedy Center. Which, by the way, was completely serendipitous. There was no discussion between the two entities whatsoever. They were both sides of her personality.
Q: How do you deal with planning both at once?
A: It’s been 19 months now. I step back and I say, “Wow, I got a lot done, professionally and personally.” It still hits me in waves. I think the Christie’s sale is difficult for me. It’s another goodbye. The fact that we’re celebrating at the Kennedy Center will emotionally be very helpful. Grief is a process. It’s the old saying — my mom used to say “cliches are cliches for a reason”: death and taxes!
Q: Her QVC line of fashion and jewelry is still being sold?
A: Absolutely. The president of our company is on air, and, knock on wood, it’s doing great. She was a style icon. And the level of taste continues, which is fantastic. What’s so funny is that she has fans [of her QVC line] who don’t even know she did “The Tonight Show.”
Q: What was it like for you to work with her professionally on the red carpet or in reality shows like “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best”?
A: We had a professional relationship that really does come around once in a lifetime. That doesn’t mean it was always easy. But there was a level of trust that makes for a great partnership that we had with each other that, unless I went into business with my son, I don’t think I’ll ever find again. She knew when my instincts were right, and I knew when her instincts were right, and we stayed in our lanes. We knew when to defer to each other. And we had this inherent comedic timing with each other.
Q: Yet the reality show involved a lot of arguing. Or was that reality?
A: You don’t really want to watch real life. It’s impossibly boring. The thing about reality shows is that it’s about things that are really happening, but time is often compressed. We’d argue all the time. That’s one of the things people related do. We were a real mother and daughter. There is something about the mother-daughter relationship where you love each other more than anybody else in the world, and you are more combative with each other more than anyone in the world. And you can push each other’s buttons faster than anybody in the world. And I think that’s what a lot of people related do.
People still come up to me and say, “My mother and I are just like you” or “My daughter and I are just like you and your mom.”
Q: It must have been strange to portray your mother in the film “Joy.”
A: I had a lot of trepidation at first. And then, I was literally lying in bed one night, mulling it over, and I swear I heard my mom’s voice saying, “You get to work with Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, David O. Russell, John Davis, who was a producer and friend of the family — Are you [expletive] stupid? Run! Don’t walk! You’ll never get to work with these people again! Go!”
They made it an extraordinarily safe place for me and an amazing experience. And my biggest worry was, if I didn’t do it, I didn’t want it to become a caricature. And I knew if I did it, I wouldn’t allow it to become a caricature.
Q: When you got in hair and makeup and looked at yourself, what was that like?
A: Well, by the time I got on set, we had already gone through all the hair and makeup tests. So for me, weeks and weeks before, when I had gone through that, I had gotten over the shock of it. But when I walked on set and everybody looked at me, people’s faces just fell. For me, luckily, I had already been looking through photos and showing them to my son. By the time I got on set, I was over that hurdle. It went well. It was received beautifully. It was a perfect little bow at the end of a tough year for me, and you just leave it like that.
Q: Your mother opened doors for women in comedy, was the first female talk show host and sort of invented modern red-carpet coverage. What do you want her to be remembered for the most?
A: That’s such a hard question. Of course I want her to be remembered for literally changing an industry for women, on a lot of levels. She was so kind and cared so much for other people and never did it for the attention.
Also, I was thinking about this the other day, about believing you could do whatever you want to do regardless of your gender or your race or your ethnic background, or your religion. I think that’s how my mother approached life. It was like, yes, she was a feminist, she never really talked about it. She’d say, “This would be easier if I was a man. If I was a man, they would love me because I’m tough. If I’m a woman, I’m a b----.” . . . She was always terribly troubled by ageism. She’d say, “Funny is funny, it doesn’t matter how old you are.” Because in Hollywood, it’s all about the young, hot writer, or they don’t want to hire somebody because they’re old. It’s like, funny is funny. “You can write a joke, I’ll hire you.”
Q: Her work on “Fashion Police” was so funny, none of the younger cast could touch her.
A: And to see her perform live, nobody could touch her stuff. Chris Rock put it best. He always said, “It didn’t matter where you were, you never wanted to follow her, no matter who you were.”
Q: People got to see another side of her when she won “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
A: Wicked smart.
Q: But with that whole relationship she had with Donald Trump on that show, I’m wondering what she would make of the presidential race this year.
A: I think about that quite often because everybody always asks me. I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. . . . Because on one hand, she always believed women are significantly smarter than men, which we are. But on the other hand, here’s someone who has always been really good to our family and has continued to be really good to me.
I think at this point she would just pull the covers over her head and say, “Please don’t ask me that question.”
Celebrating Joan: A Tribute to Joan Rivers June 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $59-$125. The Kennedy Center’s District of Comedy Festival runs through July 31. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org .