Behind the Scenes, Joan Rivers was a Class Act (and Nice!)

by Heather Robinson


I had the good fortune to interview Joan Rivers three times, and to hang out with her once (as press, and then kinda informally). The first time, I had to fight for the interview, and the third (and only in-person) time, I had to fight Joan herself to get it (well, not exactly, but she did reprimand me. But it was worth it. I’ll explain).

In 2011, I was working as assistant editor and reporter for The New Jersey Jewish Standard under a tough editor who sent me (by mistake) an e-mail stating I was to interview Joan Rivers. I immediately confirmed with Judy Katz, Joan Rivers’ publicist, and mentioned to my boss how excited I was.

“But you aren’t supposed to interview Joan Rivers!” the boss exclaimed. Then she blurted something like,  “I wanted a better writer to do that!” (How ego-boosting!)

Turns out she had tapped a different writer. She clarified that the other writer was simply more experienced, but I wasn’t backing down. I stood up for my abilities and argued that since I’d already confirmed and given Judy Katz my name, it would look unprofessional to call back and start changing things.

I got the interview, which you can read here. What surprised me about Joan Rivers was her empathy. To be honest, I’d been a tad afraid that she would be blunt and harsh to the point of cruelty, but she was very nice to me. When I told her I’d had to fight to get the interview, she said, “Good for you!” Another thing that struck me was her solid and open support for Israel (something few celebrities, including Jewish ones, have the strength of character to demonstrate) and her joy in talking about her daughter Melissa and grandson, Cooper. The universality struck me: here was this world famous comedienne, who even in her late 70’s could capture headlines across the world, whose concerns sounded like those of many other smart Jewish 70-something women I knew. I asked her something my mother suggested: If you could do it all again, would you go into show business? She replied without hesitation, “I’d do it all again in a second.”

I encountered Joan next in the Pacific Northwest. Having moved there for a relationship, I was looking for freelance work, when I spotted her picture on the marquee of a local theater where she was coming to perform. It took some wrangling with Judy Katz, but I snagged another phone interview with Joan, which produced two stories for me, one that ran in, now The Jewish Sound (the Pacific Northwest’s main Jewish newspaper), the other in The Weekly Volcano, Tacoma’s Arts Weekly, and is reprinted here in A few things I learned about Joan: she’d dated military men, and she had a tricks for cultivating her youthful style. To excerpt, “I don’t discuss doctors or operations.” I asked her about being a grandmother, and she complimented me on the question, saying she had not been asked it before, and recalling that her two grandmothers were polar opposites when it came to style. (Read more here).

My final interview with Joan Rivers took place in person. After attending her show at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma with my then-boyfriend and several of his friends, we went to the VIP party. Herded out of a large elevator, we encountered a roomful of 50-and 60-somethings, many dressed in flannel shirts, waiting stoically in line behind a velvet rope for a chance to speak with the Queen of Comedy. Feeling high off my now-several published interviews with Joan and excited to meet her in person, I strode to the front of the line and introduced myself, saying something like, “Joan, this is Heather Robinson. We’ve spoken on the phone a couple of times; I’m press.”

She took my hand (I recall the firmness of her grasp and the generosity of spirit that emanated from it) and said clearly (if raspily), “Look at all these people. I’d speak with you, but these people paid, you didn’t.”

Shot down, I returned to my group, sipped some Chardonnay, and pondered whether to approach her again. I had just decided against it when one of her handlers came to inform me, “Ms. Rivers will see you now.” You can read about it here. What I remember most was her warmth and kindness. The cutting snark I had some fear of was strictly shtick, as far as I could tell. In person, she couldn’t have been more warm. And on reflection, the boundary she established with me (“fans first”) speaks to an integrity that I respect.

(One tidbit that didn’t make it into the story was, attempting to be funny myself, I said, “Joan, I’ve been single for years and I finally have a boyfriend.” She replied, “Thank G-d.” When I introduced her to Erik and I said, “Isn’t he cute?” she said, “Yes, and so are you!”)

Joan Rivers, thanks for taking the time to speak with a young reporter and for being, in contradiction to the harsh (but hysterical) on-stage persona you created, a really nice lady.

I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to interview you one last time.

This entry was written by and posted on September 5, 2014 at 12:46 am and filed under Blog.