Billy Eichner remembers Joan Rivers: 'A friend, and my greatest champion'
Can we talk?
Whenever Joan Rivers asked that question, she wasn’t really seeking permission. Right up until the moment she died on Sept. 4 at age 81 in New York City, following complications during throat surgery, it was clear that she was going to talk, loudly and often, and you were going to listen. And love it. One of the first truly transgressive female comedians, both on the stand-up circuit and in her countless TV appearances (from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to Fashion Police), she was famous for bringing her whip-smart wit to any subject, no matter how taboo. (Even her own plastic surgery was fair game.) We asked her good friend, comedian Billy Eichner—host of Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street—to share his thoughts about her life and lasting legacy.
When I was around 8 years old, my father snuck me into an adults-only, Saturday-afternoon stand-up-comedy show at the Shorehaven Beach Club in the Bronx, where my parents and I would spend our summer weekends when I was growing up. My dad let me sit on his shoulders so I could see the stage. I don’t remember a single thing the comic said. All I can remember is that we were all in bathing suits and that she was wearing a long, heavy sequined gown in the middle of a sweltering summer day in New York City. It was Joan Rivers, and it was the first live stand-up show I ever saw.
Twenty years later I would meet Joan in person when we ended up working together on a Bravo talk-show pilot, and I told her that story. She knew exactly the performance I was talking about and said, “Oh, yes…Shorehaven. I remember that dress.” The pilot didn’t get picked up, but Joan became a friend, and my greatest champion. And although Joan was Queen of the Red Carpet, I’ll remember so much more than who she was wearing.
I’ll remember that after our Bravo pilot shoot we had a party at Sardi’s, where Joan—the quintessence of hard-won New York fabulousness—looked out the windows at all the Broadway-goers flooding Shubert Alley and said with such joy, “Look at all the people! Theater people!” Yes, she was an international star, but she was, first and foremost, a New Yorker. I’m not sure anyone embodied New York City more than Joan. The glamour, the ruthlessness, the persistence, the resilience, the lust for life, the tireless energy, the confidence, the loneliness, the hustle, the love of fashion, of money, of theater, of gay culture, the love of the game. Joan loved New York. Joan was New York.
I’ll remember that earlier this year Joan and I bumped into each other on a flight from L.A. to NYC while I was on my way to do The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon for the first time. She told me she was going to take a picture of me and tweet it and tell all her followers that now that I was famous I was ignoring her. We laughed. Then, while Joan and I were walking toward baggage claim after the flight, I realized I had left my garment bag on the plane. She refused to let me deal with it myself. She said, “Come with me, I know everyone at this airport.”
Then Joan—dripping in jewelry, her fur coat sweeping the floor—led me to the Admirals Club, where we stormed in together like some insane mix of Absolutely Fabulous, Harold and Maude, and a slightly more glamorous Rocky and Bullwinkle. The ladies at the front desk said to Joan, “Oh, hi! We love you!” She didn’t really pay attention to that, just responding, “He left his bag on the plane. You have to help him.” The ladies said they would try. I told Joan that she should go meet her car and I’d be fine on my own. So Joan, who insisted on wheeling her own luggage, said goodbye and blazed toward the automatic doors. And then, just as she was about to exit, she turned around with a flourish and yelled back at everyone in the lounge, “Oh—and he’s on The Tonight Show on Thursday!”
I’ll remember going to Joan and Melissa’s Passover seder at Melissa’s house in L.A. last year. As she led us through the traditional Passover rituals, Joan sprinkled in a few jokes about Lady Gaga amid the Hebrew prayers. It’s important to note that this was the only seder I’d ever been to where waiters in black tie served you the matzo, and certainly the only one I’d ever been to where I was seated between Rod Stewart’s manager and Lesley Ann Warren.
I’ll remember that years ago when I was struggling for work, Joan insisted on dropping off DVDs of my YouTube videos with producers at Late Show With David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel Live! Coincidentally, a week before Joan died I was booked on Letterman for the first time. Would Joan be proud? I think so. Would Joan find it amusing that I’m doing the show on 9/11? Absolutely.
I’ll remember that at the wedding of our mutual friend Liza just four weeks ago, Andy Cohen and I stood rapt and riveted as Joan regaled us with tales about her visits with the Reagans, Barbra Streisand, and Prince Charles. Then, during dinner, Joan reached out her finger toward me as the people around us watched. I panicked. I knew she was trying to do some sort of bit with me, but I couldn’t hear her over the din of the wedding and I didn’t know what the bit was or what she wanted me to do. I kept saying, “What? I can’t hear you! I’m sorry—what is that finger? I don’t know what you want me to do!”
In my head I was freaking out, thinking, “Oh, God, Joan Rivers is trying to do a bit with me and I don’t know what it is and I’m so embarrassed and all these people are watching!” But she wouldn’t give up the bit—she just held her finger out toward me in midair. Finally, she yelled out with raspy might, “Michelangelo! Sistine Chapel!” I finally understood. I reached out my finger across the table and I touched the tip of hers. She smiled. We laughed. Then she whispered to me some fat jokes about a person at the wedding, we had coffee, and we shared a limo home.
I’ll remember that Joan and her wonderful longtime assistant Jocelyn were two of the first people to email me after the Emmys a few weeks ago to congratulate me on the success of my Billy on the Street bit with host Seth Meyers. I wrote back and thanked them, and—caught up in a moment of elated morning-after-Emmys buzz—I added, “Joan is my hero.” Those would turn out to be my final words to Joan. She was.
I have more stories, and I could go on and on about my love for her. But in the grand tradition of Joan Rivers, I’ll save the rest of it for my book.
This article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s Sept. 19/26 issue.