(UPDATE: Very sad to see Joan passed away September 4, 2014, but I stick by the re-telling of this story as I know one tough and funny broad would appreciate.)
Originally posted June 1, 2010
Remember this letter in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section for June 17, 1984:
When is NBC going to wake up and give Joan Rivers her own late night talk show? They don’t have to get rid of Johnny Carson – just put him on after David Letterman. Then Joan could have the best laughs, Johnny the last one, and we’d all be happy.
I was moved to write the letter because Johnny Carson’s show had been getting a little stale of late, and every time you had guest hosted, the energy lifted, the gossip barbs flew out like cluster bombs, and I was entertained.
And I guess my letter entertained you, because the day after it ran in the paper I got a phone call from your assistant in Las Vegas, where you were currently performing. The assistant said you saw the letter, were very grateful, and you wanted to personally invite me to attend your next nightclub show when you were in L.A.
Was I being punked? It turns out not. I got another call soon after saying I had been put on the V.I.P. guest list for your appearance at Carlos ‘n Charlie’s nightclub on Sunset Strip. Did I have any guests I wanted to bring? Well, my girlfriend, Danette, of course. We had been dating for a little more than a year, and wow, this would surely impress her.
We dressed in our finest 80’s nightclub wear; me in skinny tie and a textured jacket of multi-colors with the narrow lapels; my girlfriend with shoulder pads and the hair teased big.
When we arrived we were escorted to the front row of the club, just like the scene in Goodfellas where Ray and his main squeeze get the V.I.P. treatment. And for the next hour or so we heard you call every famous woman on the planet a ‘bitch,’ with scathing tales of venom, spite, gossip, and frankly, hilarity. Kathy Griffin owes everything in her act to you. Donald Rickles, who also knocked celebrities down to size in his act, was tame by comparison. He only called them ‘hockey pucks.’ You wielded the “B” word like a light saber. And we laughed our asses off. Or maybe we just felt compelled, since we were so conspicuous in the front row.
The show ended and, sure enough, we were invited backstage to meet you. You didn’t even wait for us to get to your dressing room. You came charging out of the room with a big smile on your face and your hand extended in generous friendship.
And that’s when it happened.
My girlfriend fired the “B” word right back at you.
“There’s the BITCH,” Danette loudly announced as you approached. I guess I forgot to mention that she was an actress, had just watched your act for an hour and a half, and probably wanted in on the fun and was playing it back to you. Don’t they say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery?
But it was something you definitely didn’t expect, and you stopped cold in your tracks like a mime hitting an invisible wall. Your smile disappeared. Your extended hand drooped faster than a granny tit from an unhooked bra. There was what seemed like an eternity of awkward silence.
But you’re a professional, and it took you only a few more moments to recover, put the hand up again and address me with gratitude.
“I read you letter in the Calendar,” you said, “And you made this old broad very happy.”
I don’t remember much past that. I’m sure you looked at Danette and shook her hand and tried to say something pleasant. But the bloom was off the rose. It was obvious at this point we weren’t going to be invited to party on any further that night with you or your entourage at the Beverly Hills Jockey Club, or go for blintzes at Cantor’s Deli, or anywhere else, for that matter.
You had been bitch-blocked. You weren’t that hot on meeting us anymore.
And for that, I’m sorry. Once you got past being playfully called a ‘bitch,’ you might have found us a fun couple. We could have had a few laughs.
But I guess you didn’t have quite the sense of humor when you were given a taste of your own medicine. What’s that they say, “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it.”
So for possibly dampening your evening, and not being welcome to hang out longer, I’m sorry.
But there’s no way I’m sorry for my girlfriend calling you a ‘Bitch.”
That was classic.
I had to marry that girl.
Twenty-six years later, we’re still together, and we recently went to a Kathy Griffin concert and listened to her call every other more famous woman a ‘bitch’ for ninety minutes.
Despite the laughs, I won’t be writing a letter to the newspapers praising her anytime soon.
And as far as bitches go, you’ll always be our “Number One.”
— A. Wayne Carter
Postscript – It’s clear now that Joan River’s offstage persona was completely different from the one she used onstage or on camera. Stories abound of her humble demeanor, generosity and support for good causes and underdogs. But it’s also understandable how anyone attending her shows or watching her on the E! channel might confuse the two. Let’s not canonize her. God knows Hollywood is full of egos that need taken down by size, but it’s also a breeding ground for insecurity and damaged and fragile psyches, and she often fired indiscriminate of the potential harm to the target. She should know. But she would no doubt be gratified to see her ‘other side’ winning the media coverage, and for that, she can truly rest in peace.