The early years of producing the red carpet and fashion specials with Joan Rivers at E! felt like a loud, ribald and bizarre art experiment. The clash of Joan’s low humor and haute couture. The Borscht Belt ambush of horrified stars straining so hard to be proper and dignified. It was all very punk rock. Gradually, some of the stars “got it” – Jack Nicholson and J. Lo to name-drop. And soon enough, to not grin along with Joan’s riffs was a mark of terminal squareness.
The audience came along, too: shocked, outraged and loving every searing second of it. After a Golden Globes special, I took a complaint call. For two minutes, an earnest woman from the Midwest complained about Joan’s brash’n’bash style. Then came the kicker: “That Joan Rivers was out of line for the whole show .. and I watched the entire four hours!”
There was nothing to do but smile and say, “Well, ma’am, thank you for enduring it. We’ll have another special soon, so be sure to tune in and see if Joan behaves any better.”
From launch to pop culture staple, the E! edition of Joan didn’t change. She always wanted the shows to be funnier. Tighter. Tougher. She was demanding, often generous, unerringly gracious and always, always laughing. The gags, the asides, the mugging – they were the fuel that kept her motor purring. After trying out a particularly brutal zinger, Joan would hold up her hand and shout over the guffaws of the writers’ room, “Remember, I say all this with love. Always with love!”
Together, the team cooked up pages and pages of jokes for every show, only airing about a 12th of them. I wish we could unearth all those lost gems now – alas, only the Queen of Zing could deliver them with that one-of-a-kind, Brooklyn-honed brand of tough love.
Once, when the lights suddenly went down in our tiny E! studio, Joan shook her head and sighed, “I should’ve never pissed off Johnny Carson.” It was a keen bit of self-deprecation murmured just loud enough for those within a couple feet to hear. She looked up, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh. But, of course, she did. She laughed and slashed through one of the most unlikely and glorious careers in show biz.
Billy Warden of Raleigh worked with Joan Rivers as a writer/producer at E! from 1995 to 2000.