09/05/2014 05:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Joan Rivers -- Farewell, My Funny Friend

For the past 48 hours, every time I've gone to that sad place about the unexpected -- unfathomable -- passing of my friend, Joan Rivers, I've found myself, just a few moments later, beginning to laugh.

I keep hearing the classically Joan lines she might have said, had she survived this awful tragedy.

"So they rush me to the hospital -- and the next morning, the headlines are all about naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence. Who cares!"

"I'm glad I didn't die, because what would I wear to my own funeral? The fashion magazines suggest that women wear clothes that are 'age appropriate.' In my case, that would be a shroud."

"I don't want to be cremated -- but my husband did. So I told him I'd scatter his ashes at Neiman Marcus. That way, I could visit him every day."

She was so outrageous.

Whether we were channel-surfing and suddenly hearing her hilarious wardrobe critiques on Fashion Police, or clicking the remote from our beds and catching her on some late-night talk show (her best and funniest forum), you never clicked off. You had to hear what she had to say.

Joan wanted us to remember her. And, boy, do we. Have you noticed how, in the past few days, everyone has been repeating their favorite Joan Rivers line? My friend Susie reminded me this morning about her Willie Nelson gag. "Has the man ever taken a bath?" Joan asked. "If you dragged a comb through his beard, the Lindbergh baby would fall out."

I laughed all over again.

Joan was a real craftsman, like the comedians I grew up with -- my father and his comic pals, "The Boys," they called themselves. For years, I watched these men build and hone and perfect their acts. Joan had that same passion for her work and for her audience.

And that, I think, is her greatest legacy: her commitment to her craft. Even after she debuted on The Tonight Show in 1965 -- becoming an overnight star -- she continued to return to the small clubs in the Village, toting her big, reel-to-reel Wollensak tape recorder so she could play the act over and over -- rewriting...reworking...refining. And that dogged work ethic continued for her entire career, up until her final days.

marlo thomas"Nothing has changed," she once told me. "Just the tape recorder got smaller.'

Earlier this year, I went to one of those small clubs in midtown where Joan was working out a new act. I brought along some of my comic pals -- Elaine May, comedian Vicky Kuperman -- and we laughed until our stomachs hurt. Afterwards, Joan confessed to us that she'd been nervous, knowing we were in the audience.

That floored and touched me. This tough cookie had a soft center. It just made you love her more.

So once again, we take a deep breath and bid farewell to someone who made our lives a little brighter and a lot more fun. I'll never forget, the last time we spoke, Joan told me that, beyond the new gigs, beyond the new material, her biggest mission these days was simply to "stay relevant."

You were more than just relevant, my funny friend. You showed the boys that a girl could be just as funny and just as tough. And you showed the rest of us that the greatest gift of laughter is being able to laugh at yourself.

* * *

In 2010, I interviewed Joan Rivers her for my memoir, Growing Up Laughing. As usual, she was was in top form. Here is the transcript from that interview.

joan rivers

Marlo: I've got to tell you, your book Enter Talking was the most honest and unsettling account of becoming a comedian I have ever read. What amazed me was that, with all the failure you went through, you knew you were as good as you later proved to be. How did you know?
Joan: I didn't know. I was one of the lucky ones who had no choice. And I don't mean that melodramatically. But at this age you can look back and get it. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to be in the business and I knew that's where I was going.
Marlo: But you were failing everywhere -- even your parents begged you to stop.
Joan: Yeah, I know, it's not rational. It was like drugs, and in my case, it's my drug of choice.
Marlo: When did you know you were funny?
Joan: I didn't know I was funny. I just knew I had to perform.
Marlo: Were your parents funny?
Joan: My whole family was funny. My father was very witty. He was a doctor, but he would tell great stories about his patients. I think it's all truly DNA. You don't just say, "Oh, gee, I'm going to become funny." You just see the world...differently.
Marlo: How about your mother?
Joan: She was the only one in my family who wasn't funny. She would always say -- and it was so sweet -- "I'm an appreciator."
Marlo: Did being an appreciator make her encourage you?
Joan: In comedy? Oh, God no! None of them did. They didn't want me in the business. They didn't want me to be an actress, and couldn't even say the word "comedian." To them it was the lowest rung on the show-biz ladder. Even when I was already hosting The Tonight Show, my mother would still say, "Joan is basically a writer."
Marlo: You often talk about comedy in such a violent way: Comedy is a medium for revenge, humor is a gun.
Joan: That's because comedy comes out of anger. Comedy comes out of "I'll show you." Comedy comes out of "You'll be sorry." The minute somebody is having a wonderful, soft life, they're not so funny anymore.
Marlo: You're still funny.
Joan: My life has always been rough.
Marlo: Even now?
Joan: Oh, absolutely. Always. Now I'm fighting the age barrier. They tell me, "You're great, but you're not the demographic." I think one of the reasons I did Celebrity Apprentice was to say, "I can still take you with one hand behind my back." And I was so glad to have won because of that. Literally to say, "Enough, stop writing people off!"
Marlo: You like to make fun of older women being with younger men.
Joan: Yeah, I do a lot of cougar jokes. I mean, what's with these older women? I don't want to wake up in the morning, look over and say, "Is this my date or did I give birth last night?" That's not what I'm looking for.
Marlo: You've referred to yourself as a lion tamer when you're on stage. More violence.
Joan: Absolutely. I think any actor or performer has to be in command. You have to be the strongest and they have to pay attention. You don't want an audience talking during you.
Marlo: I have this vision of you with a chair and a whip.
Joan: Just about. You have to say, "I'm here and we're all going to have a good time, but you will be quiet and listen to me."
Marlo: And why should we listen to you?
Joan: Because I'm the funniest, and because you paid your money to see me.
Marlo: Why do you say, "Never trust an audience"?
Joan: Because you can't. Bill Cosby told me this a long time ago. He said the audience decides collectively if they like you or don't like you, every time you walk on the stage. You must never think, Oh they adore me, so they'll adore me tonight. No, no, no, no. Bill said -- and it's so smart -- "If they don't know you, they give you three minutes. If they do know you, they give you five."
Marlo: How do you handle a heckler?
Joan: I saw Sinatra do something once, so I just copied him. Someone was heckling him -- and yelling and talking during him -- so he just walked over, gave the guy the microphone and said, "You think they'd rather hear you? Here -- go do it. I'll be back." And he walked off stage.
Marlo: That's brilliant. You're known for saying very funny but insulting Don Rickles kinds of things...
Joan: But it's never directed at the audience. I have great respect for my audience. Nobody got all dressed up to have a bad time. They came to have fun. So I would never hurt them or intimidate them in any way. I go after the big guns.
Marlo: Like Elizabeth Taylor. What did this woman ever do to you?
Joan: I truly feel that a comedian is the one who says that the emperor is not wearing clothes. I succeed by saying what everybody else is thinking. I was the first to say that Elizabeth Taylor is... huge! Remember that picture of her getting out of a limousine with David Geffen and she couldn't fit through the door? That was my first Elizabeth Taylor joke. Then I just kept going: "She has more chins than a Chinese phone book."
"I sit in McDonald's just to watch her eat and see the 'How Many Served' numbers change."
Marlo: And you never let up.
Joan: Oh, I let up. When she got in a wheelchair, I said, "Okay, let it go."
Marlo: I'm so impressed with your drive. You've never lost that, have you?
Joan: No, no, no, no, you don't. You can't.
Marlo: As harrowing as your survival stories are, they're also very touching. Like when you first appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, you were so frightened and felt so unsupported, that you wrote "Break a leg" on one knee and "Good luck" on the other. They were covered by your dress, so you could touch them while you were on the air. That was so moving to me.
Joan: Yeah, well, you've got to bolster yourself. I had been brought up so many times for The Tonight Show and was always turned down. And, you know, the humiliation of getting up in front of a secretary...
Marlo: You auditioned for a secretary?
Joan: ...who's eating a sandwich. And she rejects you! I wasn't brought on the show to anybody's expectations. I was just thrown on in the last ten minutes, the worst spot. And three weeks before, my agent had told me, "You're too old. If you were gonna make it, you'd have made it by now."
Marlo: That's nice -- and that's your agent. So how did he get you on the show?
Joan: He didn't. I went on because Bill Cosby had been on the show with a comedian who was so bad, he said to the bookers, "You might as well use Joan Rivers. She can't be worse than that guy." And that's why they finally put me on.
Marlo: What a recommendation.
Joan: No one had faith in me. They didn't even think I was good enough to do stand-up, so they brought me out as "a girl writer."
Marlo: And it went great, right?
Joan: Yeah, I was funny out there -- and Carson, right on the air, said, "You're going to be a star." But it wasn't until the next day, when every critic came out and said something wonderful, that the phones went off the hook. It was like an overnight sensation, really. Amazing.
Marlo: So you were on your way.
Joan: Not yet, because I knew one thing -- and no one told me this, I just knew it was true: that it wasn't the first shot, it wasn't the second shot, it was the third shot that establishes you and proves you weren't a fluke.
Marlo: So how far apart were your three shows?
Joan: About six weeks -- and, every night, I went to a club in the Village with my Wollensak tape recorder and continued to do exactly what I had been doing -- working on the shots, working on the shots. That's all I did -- I wanted to show them. Anyone can be funny once. We've all got seven good stories in us. But can you come up with 160 good stories?
Marlo: I love that you taped it. It's the craft.
Joan: Yeah, I still do that. Nothing has changed. I work in a place on Forty-second Street in New York every Wednesday night. I go in, ad-lib, and tape the whole thing.
Marlo: No kidding.
Joan: Nothing has changed -- just the tape recorder is smaller.
Marlo: Are you creating material to use on television?
Joan: To use on television, to use on a roast, to keep me relevant. Right now, I'm going over last night's transcript so I can pull stuff together for Vegas next week.
Marlo: What joke is in front of you right now?
Joan: My "Helen Keller Was My House Guest" routine.
Marlo: Tell it to me.
Joan: Oh, please.
Marlo: Come on, tell me!
Joan: It's still so new. Okay -- here's one joke: Barbara Walters wrote in her book The Art of Conversation that if you're a house guest you have to have one good story at every meal.
Marlo: Okay...
Joan: So Helen Keller has one story: "I put my hand under the water and I went wa-wa." Which is good for Friday night -- but come Sunday morning, it's like, "Okay, we heard it, Helen." You can't even tell her to shut up.
Marlo: You're vicious! Let's talk about marriage. I didn't realize that you were married before Edgar. How long did that last?
Joan: About seven months. As I've said, "Our marriage license turned out to be a learner's permit." It was all about I don't think I have the courage to go on and do what I want to do. I knew it was bad for me. While I was married to him, I wouldn't go to the theatre. I just couldn't bear to go and see live performing because I wanted it so much.
Marlo: How sad.
Joan: When it was finally over, it was truly like getting out of jail. Years later he called me up and wanted to meet me, and I took a vote. My entire body voted.
Marlo: And what was the verdict?
Joan: A hundred percent no way. "Come on, toes! Everyone's gotta vote here!"
Marlo: "Come on, toes" -- that's funny. It's what you said -- "Personal truth is the foundation of comedy."
Joan: Oh, it has to be. Comedy has got to come right from the gut. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Marlo: And what are you saying about age in your act now that's right from the gut?
Joan: How horrible it is. How I hate old people -- especially old people who buy in bulk. "What are you doing with eighteen jars of mayonnaise at Costco? You're not even going to make it through the checkout line!"
Marlo: You're so funny.
Joan: As long as you talk about what you really experience, audiences know you're telling the truth.
Marlo: And how did you deal with that when you were coming back from losing Edgar?
Joan: Oh, I talked about it immediately -- I had to. You can't come on stage with this elephant in the room and not mention that your husband has committed suicide.
Marlo: How did you?
Joan: I would come out and say, "I've had some year. You think you've had a year, don't start with me because I've had a worse year than you, okay? My husband committed suicide." My joke was "And it was my fault. While we were making love, I took the bag off my head."
Marlo: Oh, God...
Joan: But it gave them relief, you know what I'm saying? We all knew it. I knew they knew it. And we were able to go on from there. I work everything out on stage.
Marlo: Did your daughter, Melissa, ever get mad at you for making jokes about her in your act when she was younger?
Joan: She was never the butt of my jokes. Same with Edgar. I made myself the butt of their jokes.
Marlo: Like?
Joan: Like, "On my wedding night I came out of the bathroom and Edgar said, 'Let me help you with the buttons,' and I said, 'I'm naked.'" It always came back on me.
Marlo: Your whole career -- your life -- is about being a survivor.
Joan: It's mountain after mountain, Marlo. And the mountain at this moment is the age thing, and staying relevant.
Marlo: Do you think you'll do a book on aging now?
Joan: I don't know -- I still don't feel old. But people say to me, "You should really think about selling your apartment." I say, "Are you crazy?" And then I think, What would I tell a seventy-six-year-old woman? I would say, "Sell your apartment."
Marlo: Will you?
Joan: Probably, because my life has changed.
Marlo: And will that new life sit well with Joan Rivers, lion tamer?
Joan: It will be fine. Cindy Adams, Barbara Walters and I have talked about this. We want to live at the Pierre Hotel, have three apartments on the same floor -- and share one nurse. It's our dream.
Marlo: What a dream.
Joan: And we'll have one person to walk all of our dogs. We'll have a very good time.