“Losing your first parent is a comma; losing your second parent is a period.”
Before a packed auditorium at the 92Y, Melissa Rivers gracefully described the difference between experiencing the death of her father when she was 18 and the death of her mother, legendary comedian Joan Rivers, last September. She was responding to the first of many emotionally tense questions from Today anchor Hoda Kotb, who sensitively but unreservedly asked Rivers to divulge what her life has been like since this latest loss.
Sunday was Rivers’ first Mother’s Day without Joan, but, she explained, it was the anxiety of the night before that was far worse than the actual holiday.
“It was harder for me on Saturday,” she recalled. “Saturday night I fell apart.”
Sunday, however, was spent mostly at a lacrosse game in which her 14-year-old son, Cooper, was playing.
There was a mutual adoration between Cooper and his grandmother, of course, and Rivers revealed that whenever she’d say no to her son, Cooper would immediately go to Joan in hopes of reversing the decision. In one case, this led to what Rivers calls “the world’s most expensive parakeet.”
“Cooper wanted a bird—this was a couple years ago—and I was like, ‘No birds, no birds, no birds, no birds, no birds,’” she recalled, “and my mother’s like, ‘Oh, just get him a bird,” and she goes up to him: ‘I’m gonna get you a bird.’”
After making Cooper do a Powerpoint presentation on why he should have a bird, Rivers found herself host to two parakeets, one of which got sick in the middle of the night.
“So we put her in a little cage and we take her to the emergency vet and they put her on a little bird oxygen tank,” she told the concerned but amused audience. “And they have you sign an advanced directive!” Ultimately, she ended up spending thousands of dollars on a parakeet that originally cost $35.
This story isn’t in Rivers’ new book, The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief, and Manipulation, an intimate, humorous and loving first-person look at their celebrated mother-daughter relationship. And at first, Rivers wasn’t sure if she was ready to write a book, “But then they told me how much they’d pay me, and I was like, I can do this,” because she could hear her mother’s voice screaming at her for even considering passing up that check.
“My mom always wanted to write a book called Comedienne Dearest,” Rivers explained, giving those in the audience who may not know a little background information on the Mommie Dearest reference, “and put it in a safe deposit box so that, she would say, as soon as her head hit the floor, I would have a manuscript ready to sell.”
As the The Book of Joan was coming together, however, Rivers’ other big project, E!’s Fashion Police, was falling apart. Kathy Griffin was brought in as the comedic anchor after host Joan Rivers’ death, but she left after seven episodes, one of which featured Giuliana Rancic’s now-infamous “patchouli and weed” comments about singer Zendaya’s dreadlocked hair that outraged Kelly Osbourne enough to leave the show.
“I did everything I could do,” Rivers said, explaining that, while she’s the executive producer, the network ultimately makes the final decisions. “We went back too fast. And it’s just like a family, when the matriarch dies; the sisters started fighting, and someone tried to married in—not a great match, live and learn. It was extremely frustrating because I had to keep my eye on the franchise and the legacy of it and not get involved in the personal.”
Joan’s absence has been felt far more deeply and widely than just on the set of Fashion Police. Those who knew her personally, met her once, or saw her only on television miss her terribly, and Rivers has been overwhelmed with the outpouring of sympathy and love.
“She touched people. When I get down, that’s what I think about. She made a legitimate difference on a personal level with so many people.”