Before launching into a slew of brazen zingers, comedian Joan Rivers often used her signature catchphrase, “Can we talk?”
Nine months after Rivers’ death, her daughter, Melissa Rivers, is ready to talk in a new book that pays tribute to her mother’s unique brand of humor, revealing surprising insight into her character and keeping us laughing.
“The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation” is a collection of stories and essays about Joan Rivers, who died in August at 81. Her only child, Melissa, weaves together anecdotes, memories, speeches, lists and advice to create a sweet, personal narrative infused with Joan’s trademark wit.
Melissa often played the straight woman to Joan’s crazy antics, but here she shows she has a funny side. Her style is casual, conversational and loaded with punch lines. Like any great stand-up comedian’s act, the short chapters keep the audience wanting more, and her writing echoes her mother’s self-deprecating, saucy tone.
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The beginning pieces have the same rhythm and campy style of Joan’s books, and some of the jokes sound comfortably familiar. But in later chapters, when talking about their life together ruling the red carpet and on several TV shows, Melissa’s own modern, edgy voice emerges.
The book touches on familiar aspects of Joan’s life: her exhaustive work ethic (working six days a week on several shows, books, a jewelry line and her stand-up act); her indulgence in expensive things (designer handbags and shoes, first-class travel, a personal driver); and her preoccupation with looks that led to countless cosmetic procedures (“She changed noses the way Taylor Swift changes boyfriends.”).
But new details may enlighten fans. She was a stickler for manners, loved watching crime shows and reading about serial killers, hid cash all over her apartment for spending sprees and stitched needlepoint pillows to relax.
The most touching stories show Joan as a fiercely dedicated and loving mother and as a grandmother who lived to spoil Melissa’s only child, Cooper. Despite an intense work schedule, Joan always made Melissa a priority, bringing her on the road when she traveled, emphasizing the value of education and supporting her extracurricular activities.
A note in the book from Joan to teenage Melissa infers her parenting skills. “Sometimes it’s very hard to grow up, to learn to be independent, to become totally your own self,” she wrote. “I love and adore you. P.S. You’re still grounded!”
Melissa describes Joan as a bawdy, fearless comic but an old-fashioned, strict parent, scrutinizing every outfit Melissa wore and every man she dated. But the funny lady who picked on everyone in public was kind and generous in person, especially to her fans.
As the daughter of a celebrity, Melissa collected an arsenal of great Hollywood stories — from being held as a baby by Johnny Carson at a meeting to memorizing Barry Manilow’s Las Vegas act after seeing it every night for weeks.
Joan loved gossip, and the book provides plenty of celebrity dish. Melissa doesn’t hold back on fellow performers like Ben Stiller and Dane Cook, but she saves her harshest words for Jay Leno, citing his well-documented rift with Joan.
Critics may say it’s too soon for Melissa to cash in on her mother’s legacy. But true Joan fans know making a buck while keeping people laughing and getting the last word is exactly what she would want.
Although the book will solicit giggles, there are some tender moments when Melissa’s pain is heartbreakingly clear.
“I’m lost as a performer, but I’ll find my voice. I was taught by the best,” she writes.
Joan would be proud to know she has.
“The Book of Joan,” by Melissa Rivers (304 pages; Crown; $26)