Joan Rivers’ laugh-out-loud career revealed in book of her relevant, irreverent humor
A long time ago, when Las Vegas was a different kind of town, Joan Rivers mapped out the Strip’s entertainment echelon. She assigned performers to five classes: lounge acts, opening acts, co-stars, stars and superstars.
A performer who understood all of those levels, Rivers said she felt she had arrived when she was assigned a suite — a superstar suite — in a Vegas resort.
The rising stand-up comic was elated “until I moved in and then discovered they were repainting and decorating the entire suite while I was in it.” Still, the accommodations were better than what was offered a lounge act, which would be assigned “a sleeping bag under the catch net at Circus Circus.”
Rivers died in 2014, but selections from her musings and meticulously organized mementos have been curated by her daughter, Melissa, and longtime friend, producer and publicist Scott Currie in the new book, “Joan Rivers Confidential” (Harry N. Abrams, $40). The subtitle effectively reveals the material inside: “The Unseen Scrapbooks, Joke Cards, Personal Files and Photos of a Very Funny Woman Who Kept Everything.”
As in … everything. Rivers kept a veritable vault of transcripts, monologues and material in a large, windowless, brick storage unit in New Jersey. Fifty-six volumes just of scrapbook news clippings date back to 1959, a collection so daunting that Currie says when he walked in, “I was overwhelmed. It felt like the final scene of Citizen Kane,” referring to the sequence showing all of Kane’s belongings.
What to do with Rivers’ monument of memories, however, was clear.
“Scott and I were going through this and he said to me, ‘You have got to share this,’ ” Melissa Rivers says. “What really struck me, aside from the way she was able to organize her life long before there was any way to store this information digitally, was that it’s really a social commentary on pop culture.”
Assembled through Rivers’ handwritten notes, typed memos, letters and personal snapshots, the book recounts moments such as when Rivers appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when she was quite obviously pregnant with Melissa.
“On ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ you were not allowed to use the word pregnant. You had to say, ‘You would soon be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet,’ ” Rivers says. “Think about that today, and my mother marched through that time because she was so relevant and so funny.”
After the initial sorting-out phase, Rivers and Currie found that what was left behind was so funny it practically wrote itself. Rivers was particularly fond of “My Parents Hated Me” jokes, 564 in all — and Currie counted them all.
“We have, ‘They’d take me to the subway and throw candy bars on the tracks,’ ‘For bath toys, they gave me a toaster and a radio, ‘They’d give me advice, like, ask the guy in the trenchcoat if he owns a van,’ ” Currie says. “Boom-boom-boom, one after another. She was incredibly prolific.”
Many jokes stemmed from her days as a housewife early in her career. “If God wanted me to cook, he would have given me aluminum hands.” And, “The first rule in cooking is finding the kitchen. … If you’re Jewish, it’s the room without the kitchen.”
Rivers was unafraid to joke about such legends-of-the-moment as Liz Taylor, saying she’d seen a photo of Taylor on the cover of People magazine and noticed the superstar’s weight gain. That image sparked 850 jokes about Taylor, many of them typed on index cards: “That’s it! I will NOT do any more Liz Taylor jokes. I am leaving the poor woman alone! — I bet you’re all saying, ‘Yeah, right. FAT chance!’ ”
Naturally, Las Vegas memories are interwoven in the book’s 170 pages. The city was like a second hometown for the family.
“You know, back in the day, you played two-and-a-half or three weeks and everyone had kids, and we were all kind of the Strip brats,” Rivers says. “You’d have the dinner show and the late show, and there was a whole group of us ranging in age from Don Rickles’ kids to Bob Newhart’s kids to Abby Lane’s kids — Steve and Eydie’s boys, who were a little bit older and usually made sure we didn’t get into too much trouble.
“Our big hangout was the MGM, the game room there. In Vegas, that’s where I grew up.”
The Rivers family was around for the beginnings of some of the city’s more legendary acts.
“I remember when Siegfried and Roy were just part of the show in ‘Hallelujah Hollywood’ at MGM,” Rivers says. “It was really such an important part of my formative years. I could have done a whole mini-book just on the Vegas years.”
In “Confidential,” Joan Rivers shows she was adept at the tip-based friendships developed between performers and Strip service employees. From a mono
logue: “I always overtip in Las Vegas. I want them to wish me and my family well. And how well they wish me is in direct proportion to the size of the gift.”
Rivers opened for Charles Aznavour in 1966 at the Flamingo, launching her Strip performance career, and over the years she opened for Tony Bennett, Mac Davis, Robert Goulet, Shirley MacLaine, Helen Reddy, Neil Sedaka and Sergio Franchi, among many other celebrities of the time. She called herself the “Strip slut,” famously playing any hotel-casino where the check would clear.
She once said of the city, “Las Vegas is like a Russian beauty contest. There are no winners.” But the woman who saved all that stuff did win. And she’s still beating the house.