TV review

E!’s Final Goodbye: When Joan Rivers Died, So Did ‘Fashion Police’

The Daily Beast

November 27, 2017

I will always treasure the note I received from Joan Rivers after I interviewed her in 2014, just a few weeks before she died on September 4, aged 81. One rarely hears from subjects, especially very famous ones, after you have interviewed them.

It would be the last major interview Rivers did (and the third interview I had done with her). She had talked candidly about sex, mortality, legacy, the moment she had contemplated suicide, her love for daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper, and, more lightheartedly, the absurdity of the Kardashians, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Cruise.

“People are still talking about your wonderful article!” she wrote. “You’re a terrific writer and you knew exactly which points to pull out. My only regret is that you’re still not old enough to appreciate caviar.”

For Rivers, off stage and on, in person or by email, a perfect zinger was always nearby. Her funeral (to which I was invited) was, appropriately, one of tears, jokes, moving testimonials, stirring music, and fabulous profanities.

On Monday night, there is another memorial service of sorts: E!’s Fashion Police: The Farewell bids farewell to Rivers again, even if the show really died three years ago when she herself died.

Since then, her eloquent and devoted daughter Melissa Rivers has gamely led a panel most recently consisting of NeNe Leakes, Brad Goreski, Margaret Cho and Giuliana Rancic, the only surviving member of her mother’s original line-up.

But no matter the continued procession of red carpet horrors and other celebrity fashion misdemeanors, it has felt like an extended memorial, rather than a show cast anew. After being broadcast every Friday night, with Joan fizzing rudely at its helm, regardless of an awards ceremony, the show became, post-Joan’s death, an awards show staple only.

If the panel bitched and judged as best they could, the viewers’ hearts were not in it, and without Joan Rivers Fashion Police came to seem a little pointless: a party whose guest of honor is absent, and whose remaining guests are trying to parrot her best bon mots.

The best thing about the farewell is that it gives itself over mostly to Joan, her life force and comedy.

The lack of Joan was too blatant for the show to have a long-term future, because Fashion Police was moulded around her: an A-class comedy star finding a new vehicle for her talent. She wasn’t just being rotten about hemlines and crystal-coated decolletages. This was part of her bigger act that skewered the vanities and absurdities of Hollywood.

Fashion provided a new focus for Rivers’ wit, and by hanging out on red carpets and asking “Who are you wearing?” she bought the red carpet into the mainstream. It was a many-tiered relationship: Rivers was there to tell jokes and make savage fun, while fashion and celebrity take themselves very seriously. The collision of those cultures was central to Fashion Police‘s success.

That central question which Rivers popularized—what label is x-celebrity wearing—has become much criticized. Some actors see themselves being reduced to a fashion plate, and anchors on red carpets now visibility recoil from asking lest they be met with online shaming, an in-person eye roll or general scorn.

But, you could argue, that celebrity has chosen to attend an awards ceremony, employ a stylist, and accept a dress to wear: if this is sexism or reductive, there is a commercial quid pro quo at its heart which the celebrity has signed up to.

Rivers knew that, and was permanently ready to puncture celebrity pomposity. Just a few weeks before she died, she gave what would be her last major interview to me. We lunched at New York’s Russian Tea Room. It was the third time I had interviewed her. She was a brilliant, candid interviewee, and—unusually for a comedian—as funny off-stage as she was on.

“I think sometimes celebrities believe their own publicity—that they really were a pizza waitress rather than being ‘discovered’ on their knees in front of some producer,” Rivers said. “No one says no to them because they’re so spoilt. We have people on Fashion Police who come with lists of demands longer than Schindler’s List. I can’t say who.”

She was mean about the clothes worn on red carpets, but as a handy extension of her brand which was to be wickedly profane and rude about the business of Hollywood, and the vanities and vapidity of its denizens.

Without her, Fashion Police has rarely risen above squeals of “It slays!” or “Yasss!” Sometimes it’s like being locked in a room with two particularly dumb WeHo party boys with sunstroke.

Fashion Police: The Farewell is, in essence, another farewell to Rivers. The other presenters feature, but in supporting roles, and we don’t care what they think: the producers wisely pack the show with prime Rivers offcuts, with Melissa—both host and executive producer—the best custodian to oversee it.

Just months before she died, Joan had told me, “We’re very close. We have nobody else: She has me and I have her. I think it’s going to be very difficult when I die, very hard for her.”

Rivers knew the value of life. She told me over lunch that she had come close to ending hers after Edgar’s suicide in 1987.

“Melissa wasn’t talking to me, my career was in the toilet, I’d lost my Vegas contracts, I’d been fired from Fox [where she had a talk show]. Carson and NBC [she had appeared on the Tonight Show for years] had put out such bad publicity about me. I was a pariah. I wasn’t invited anywhere. I was a non-person. At one point I thought, ‘What’s the point? This is stupid.’

“What saved me was my dog jumped into my lap. I thought, “No one will take care of him.” It wasn’t a friendly dog—only to me. I adored this dog. He was theoretically a Yorkie, his mother cheated. His name was Spike. He was the way you want your dog to be, devoted only to you.

“I was sitting in this big empty house in Bel Air, with a phone with five extensions which we no longer needed. I had the gun in my lap, and the dog sat on the gun. I lecture on suicide because things turn around. I tell people this is a horrible, awful dark moment, but it will change and you must know it’s going to change and you push forward. I look back and think, ‘Life is great, life goes on. It changes.’”

If Joan was known for her openness, the hour-long Farewell show steers clear of clearing up the show’s outstanding mysteries and airing of dirty laundry: we hear nothing of why Kelly Osbourne and George Kotsiopoulos were asked to leave the show (though they appear, and are very diplomatic and sweet), or of the race and hair-related controversy involving Giuliana Rancic and Zendaya; and nothing about the decision to continue the show after Rivers’ death and the decision now to shut it down.

Kathy Griffin, who came and went as a host, doesn’t feature at all.

This is not a searching epitaph for the show and what it was for, and it doesn’t go for the jugular (as Rivers would have done); it is a much more basic celebration, which begins with Rivers herself shouting, “Let’s get this party started.”

Her fans, “the Joan Rangers” whose presence always welcomed with a salute, are cautioned to buckle their seatbelts.

There is no need, and very few surprises. As when she was alive, you wait for Rivers to speak. “Welcome to Fashion Police,” she said at the opening of one show. “I searched my heart and realized this set is where I belong. This is where I can truly make a difference in people’s lives.” What that boiled down to in practice, as she said, was judging “who looks OK and who looks like a fucking slut.”

That language and spirit would get Rivers in trouble for every variant of ‘shaming’ you can imagine today: body, sex, the whole gamut. She didn’t care for people’s objections, and she laughed at most criticism for what she said.

By contrast, you sense today’s Fashion Police‘s presenters do care: they variously want to be more famous, or work with the famous. If Fashion Police, post-Rivers, felt pallid it was because its panel was trying to walk around eggshells that Rivers herself would have gladly smashed under-Louboutin.

The stars, stylists, and designers would nervously await her judgment, we learn, and the best—if her tongue came to lash them—knew it was her own warped mark of affection. We see her messing her hair up and claiming not wanting to be a “guidette,” like Jersey Shore’s Snooki; there’s the moment Melissa presents her with an award for her one millionth vagina joke; and where she eats and spits out half-masticated hamburger into the mouths of her co-presenters.

Joan was an endless, loving tormentor of Melissa, “my munchkin from my muffin,” noting ruefully that what they don’t tell new parents is that “one day she’ll be your boss and make you live in the basement.”

Fans will know this referred to mother coming to live with daughter and beloved grandson Cooper), which, of course, Rivers made a reality show out of, Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best.

When I interviewed Joan for the London Times in her Versailles-like Upper East Side apartment in 2010 I walked in on her remonstrating with a producer of the show that an argument she and Melissa had just had hadn’t been good enough: they would have to refilm it.

That afternoon we had spoken about her life—including her husband Edgar’s suicide, and her remaining fury about it—in her library, which was lined with history books and biographies. Rivers had a sharp intellect, often concealed from fans who knew her most for her joke-telling.

Her talking about vaginas and breasts was not to be matched or emulated after her death; she could get away with it, she could say it, nobody else could.

The funniest moments of Fashion Police were less about what she might say about someone, but her own hysterics or corpsing as she would laugh hard at herself for devoting so much time to one celebrity or joke, or celebrity joke.

Few could give as they got from Rivers, but when she asked Miss Piggy how she felt about pig jokes, she got the pearl of a response (which she clearly loved): “What do you think of dinosaur jokes?”

In 2014, I asked Joan about her favored celebrity targets of the moment. “Gwyneth Paltrow, my little Gwennie-Wennie, and her two children, what is it… Apple and Sardine? Everything she says is wrong, and the arrogance… The Kardashians are the gift that keeps on giving. Just Kim’s wedding… I said I’d caught Kim’s bouquet, the first thing I ever caught from Kim that I didn’t have to get a shot of penicillin for.

“And Beyonce and Solange. Solaaannnggge. And Shia LaBeouf. I want to introduce him to Amanda Bynes… they’d get married but couldn’t hold hands during the vows because [Rivers was cackling at this moment] of the restraints in their jackets.”

I noted she made a lot of jokes about the alleged sexuality of Tom Cruise and John Travolta. “Tom Cruise’s tombstone is going to say, ‘Here lies Tom Cruise—allegedly,'” she said.

Anybody who knew her, and anybody who watched Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the phenomenal documentary about her—truly one of the best documentaries about a celebrity ever made—knows how concertedly, even desperately, Rivers worked.

She both loved work, and she was terrified of not doing it. Her furious pursuit of relevancy wasn’t for continued stardom; it was the old-school entertainer’s fear of what an end to entertaining might mean. Work had to beget more work. Not working, a slide into invisibility or being patronized as an aging grand dame, would have been the ultimate ignominy. Rivers wanted to age as fiercely as possible.

When we last met and I pooh-poohed her suggestion that she was not rich (at her Versailles-like apartment, delicious chocolate brownies had been served on a silver platter by a butler), Rivers replied, dead-seriously, “No, I’ve always been salaried, I’ve never owned anything. I’ve done very well, lived very well. Sweetheart, I’m still working at Indian casinos in Omaha.”

You seem terrified of not working, I said.

“With comedians, you’re as good as your last joke,” Rivers said.

Where did the fear come from?

“It being over, and I can’t get a job in Macy’s selling hats.”

This was a consummate performer with a dresser of rigorously ordered, alphabetized jokes. I saw this amazing piece of furniture when I interviewed her at her penthouse. It was a sturdy symbol of how seriously Rivers took comedy and her job.

On Monday, the panel recalls what happened when Rivers suffered the health emergency that led to her death. No one could believe it, it seemed improbable. Cho’s tribute is the most eloquent; there is no way to fully explain what Rivers meant, Cho says, not only to her but other female comedians, providing a space “to be and to exist.”

Those who Rivers mocked paid tribute to her after her death, including Katy Perry who wondered what the point of wearing her outrageous outfits was if Rivers wasn’t around to rip it apart; Demi Lovato, noting that Rivers had just made fun of her breasts, said, “it was an honor.”

Nothing was sacred for Rivers: sex, race, and sexuality was all fed into the same demented joke blender. They were there in the games the panel played: ‘Starlet or Streetwalker,’ ‘Bitch Stole My Look.’ She had slept with a black man in the 1980s, Rivers said, winking at the camera, and lightly growling: “Morgan Freeman.”

In an unseen flashback episode of the show, with the panel dressed in the fashions of 1985, a picture of Joan Collins in one of her Dynasty-era outfits flashes up. “If I want to see something old and pink with fur around it, I get naked and look down,” said Rivers.

As for rock star Tommy Lee, photographed with then-wife Heather Locklear, Rivers said that anyone who had seen the well-endowed rock star’s sex tape with Pamela Anderson knows why, after he broke up with Locklear, she had to enter “a 12-inch program.”

Rivers also recited a profane poem about Madonna, welcoming her supplanting as queen of pop by Rihanna, and got ex-MTV VJ ‘Downtown Julie Brown’ to speak about her fling with Billy Idol.

They got together after he asked her, Brown said, what she was doing after an interview they had just done. “I’m doing you,” she told him. She called her mother and said “I think I’m going to bonk Billy Idol.” He did, Brown told Rivers, make a good cup of tea the next morning.

After she had dished, Brown looked to Rivers: “Why do you make people talk? How do you do it?”

That, of course, is the golden question. Perhaps it had to do with Rivers’ performance of no-filter that was so powerful it emboldened others to try and match her. Her candor elicited others’.

The farewell ends with Melissa and Cooper, her son and Rivers’ grandson, facing the camera, thanking the crew who had worked together for 20 years on the show, through various off-camera “sickness, health, births and deaths.” No matter what was going on, Melissa said, recording the show every week made for two hours of “joy, laughter and love.”

She also thanks the viewers, and hoped they had enjoyed watching the show as much as the team had enjoyed making it and then, with that familiar salute, Melissa bids us all: “Goodnight, Joan Rangers.”

Watching Melissa’s grace reminded me of something else I had seen that day at the Russian Tea Room in 2014. Before our interview began, Joan checked that every one of her team was fed, watered and comfortable. They had been running around for hours, Joan told me. It wasn’t to show her in the best light, it was genuine concern.

Later, she told me of awards season, “I’m never going to win anything. I’m too abrasive. I’ve not been invited to the Vanity Fair [Oscars night] party. The woman who cleans my toilets gets invited to the Vanity Fair party. It’s hilarious. But I think comics should be on the outside. If you’re on the inside, it’s over.”

Fashion Police worked because Joan saw herself, like the viewers looking in on this world of red carpets and silly frocks, as an outsider. No matter her wealth, celebrity and connections to power, that same perspective informed her comedy and work ethic.

Her outsider status is what made her so sharp, and it’s what made insiders, and people so desperate to be on the inside, so nervous when she spoke about them. It is also what made Fashion Police so funny, and the innocuous “Who are you wearing?” such a loaded question. It won’t ever be asked quite so dangerously again.