Harry Smith: Joan Rivers Never Stopped Swinging

Remembering Joan Rivers

Sept. 4, 201403:22

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Joan Rivers sometimes said outrageous things. She knew there was a reward that came with risk. Joan understood that from the beginning. When we watched her on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," she joked about her looks and her sex life. We were shocked of course. But, Carson was inevitably doubled over in laughter and that was the way the all-American arbiter of taste let us know it was more than okay to laugh at and laugh with the edgy comedienne from New York.

Soon she was filling in for Johnny. And when she sat in his chair it was as if our crazy, classy neighbor had somehow broken into the studio. She was trailblazing, and, like other pioneers, she was in dangerous territory — when Joan got her own late night show on another network Johnny never spoke with her again.

In the 1990s Joan taped her daytime TV show just down the hall from where I worked. Several times a season I’d get a call from her producers saying a guest had canceled and could I come over and fill the spot. Joan would ask me about the news and needle me in a way that always got laughs. It was a blast to do. And a friendship was born.

My own career had its ups and downs, and once, when it was sputtering, she asked if I would interview her at the 92nd Street Y. The place was packed and before we went on she asked how I was doing. I started to lament my state of affairs, and she stopped me cold. “Feeling sorry for yourself will get you nowhere Get up. Get back in the fight. What do you think I’ve done all my life?”

She was so right, of course. Joan never stopped swinging. She teased and joked, and we laughed and sometimes gasped. And when we did she would say, “Oh come on now.” Joan’s work had always been about standing convention on its head; poking through facades. She risked offense, and most often we were the ones rewarded for it.

Remembering Joan Rivers

Sept. 4, 201403:22