NEW YORK — Melissa Rivers wanted to laugh, and she wants her readers to do the same.
Consider it mission accomplished on both counts, thanks to her best-selling memoir, “The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation” (Crown Archetype). It’s a touching, revealing and above all funny paean to her mother, Joan Rivers, who died last September at 81 after complications from minor throat surgery.
The book is free of a daughter’s grief, or her undeniable anger. (Rivers has filed a malpractice lawsuit against the Manhattan clinic where her mother suffered what she has called “shocking and, frankly, almost incomprehensible” incompetence.) Instead, the approach is light-hearted, affectionate, and funny.
“Writing it gave me permission to laugh and joke, and a safe place to do so,” says Rivers, who, still reeling from her loss last fall, set to work with her writing partner, Larry Amoros, a long-time family friend and writer for Joan who could add his own rich store of recollections.
“We wanted to call the book ‘Cheaper Than Therapy,'” says Rivers, “but we were afraid it would get mixed up in the Self-Help Therapy section of the bookstore.”
In the first pages, Rivers attempts to summarize this pint-sized, outspoken force of nature: “My mother was a comedian, actress, writer, producer, jewelry monger, tchotchke maker, spokesperson, hand model, ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ winner and a self-appointed somewhat-goodwill-ambassador to 27 Third World countries that were unaware they had a goodwill ambassador.”
The book nods at an early concept offered the publisher: a collection of Lessons I Learned From My Mother. It was an idea Rivers balked at. “I don’t know if people would want to take that advice,” she laughs.
Yes, there was a method to Joan’s madness, but it formed the logical underpinnings of someone who didn’t always cater to logic.
Joan on marriage: “Your father didn’t care if I went to bed mad. He cared if I went to Bergdorf mad.”
Joan on cosmetic surgery: “Better to have a new you coming out of an old car than an old you coming out of a new car.”
Rivers, now 47, grew up close to both her parents.
“People always said I was much more like my father (film and TV producer Edgar Rosenberg) than her, and they had a successful marriage. Maybe that’s why she and I were so bonded.”
One thing that tied them together: “Our love of the ironic and the absurd. Nothing was better than looking at each other when we were out somewhere” with a wordless exchange conveying, “Oh, have we got something to talk about when we get in the car. Can you believe what just happened?!”
No wonder Joan and Melissa were also bonded professionally. Together they blazed a new frontier of style and snark on the glitziest red carpets, while Joan became a connoisseur of couture catastrophes as host of “Fashion Police,” which Melissa produced.
That show, minus queen bee Joan, returned on E! in January and promptly suffered a meltdown with cast strife and the abrupt departures of panelist Kelly Osbourne and new host Kathy Griffin. It is off the air again until fall.
“We came back too fast. None of us was ready,” says Rivers. “It was extremely painful. I spent way too much time crying about the show and what it represents to me. But we learned. No, I don’t know who is going to be in the cast. But now I’m actually excited to figure it out.”
The pain of loss is ever-present in Rivers’ life. Her mother’s death is all too recent while, even after three decades, she says she still misses her father, who committed suicide in 1987.
But in her book, death rears its head in wryly humorous terms.
“I don’t know, or pretend to know, what happens to us after we die,” writes Rivers as she builds to one of her many laugh-lines. “Nobody really does, except the dead, and they’re not talking (at least not to me, but I have AT&T: I can barely get living people on the phone).”
Whistling past the graveyard? Joan Rivers wasn’t afraid of death, her daughter insists.
“It was an obsession: ‘This is gonna happen.’ But we would discuss it as calmly as you’d ask for a glass of water. She was very much at peace with the idea.”
Maybe so, but she held her own at bay for 81 unbridled years. And as readers of “The Book of Joan” will surely realize between the laughs, it still came too soon.