Television personalities Joan Rivers, left, and daughter Melissa Rivers attend the 2013 Matrix New York ceremony.(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/Associated Press)
Melissa Rivers says that the year that followed her mother Joan Rivers’ unexpected death in September 2014 passed in a grief-tinged fog. There was the late comedian’s opulent Upper East Side penthouse to pack up and sell. “The Book of Joan,” a collection of fond and funny memories of mom to write. “Fashion Police,” the TV series that Joan Rivers launched and Melissa oversaw to manage.
And there was so very much fascinating stuff, the well-organized accumulation of Joan Rivers’ 50-plus years in show business, to sort through, from the comedian’s storied joke files to dozens of scrapbooks, transcripts of her many late-night TV appearances, newspaper clippings, photographs, and on and on and on.
“We had so much storage it was ridiculous,” Rivers says. “And as we started going through it, Scott (Currie, a longtime colleague and friend of Joan and Melissa both) kept saying, ‘You should do a book.’ I’m like, ‘No. No, no, no.’ But he kept working on me.”
When she finally agreed, and Currie worked up a proposal, it sold in a single day. “Then we actually had to do it!” Rivers says with a laugh.
“Joan Rivers Confidential: The Unseen Scrapbooks, Joke Cards, Personal Files, and Photos of a Very Funny Woman Who Kept Everything,” is the quite specifically titled coffee table book that arrived in stores last month, and brings Rivers to Barnes & Noble in Huntington Beach on Sunday, Dec. 3, for a talk and signing.
In it, Rivers and Currie present a narrative of Joan Rivers’ life and career through the artifacts she left behind.
“It’s really a history of pop culture from the late ’50s to 2014,” Rivers says. “My mother was so current and always wanted to stay current that she was talking about things as they were happening.”
Both her parents were meticulous record-keepers, Rivers says, so the childhood report cards and family photographs, letters and jokes, reviews and newspaper clippings – some with hand-written comments such as “Not true!” written in the margins – were easy to understand once Melissa Rivers and Currie had sorted through the sheer volume of material.
“Most of my mother’s career was in a non-digital age,” she says. “So you did save everything like that. You did save letters, you did save mementos. My mother didn’t want to be repetitive on the different shows so of course she kept records.
The work didn’t so much reveal new information for her, she says – “My mother was not big on secrets, she said whatever came to mind” – but all those transcripts of her appearances on various talk shows stuck a chord in her as she read them, Rivers says.
“It was the transcripts of ‘The Tonight Show’ and ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ that were so wonderful to go back through,” she says. “Because I can hear her voice so distinctly that when I would read through them it was her. So having to sit down and go through those was really, really meaningful.”
In the three years since Joan Rivers died after a botched out-patient surgery on her throat, Melissa Rivers says she has worked through her grief while also working to honor her mother’s legacy.
” ‘Book of Joan’ saved my life,” she says of the 2015 book she wrote to share her memories of growing up with her mother. “It saved my life because (my writing partner and I) would sit in our sessions and laugh. He was very, very close with my mother, so we would laugh and cry and tell silly stories and be as loose and not judged as anywhere else I could be in my life at that time.
“This (new book) was more of an emotional roller coaster and more difficult,” Rivers says. “One was telling stories and being funny and one was reliving a huge portion of my life. To have to go through this and read all of the things that were going on in the harder times. Or when my father passed. (Her father, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in 1987.)
Publication of the new book closes one chapter. Another ended Monday night when the E! network aired the final episode of “Fashion Police,” the comedic fashion commentary series Rivers hosted from its start in 1995 until her death in 2014, and on which Melissa Rivers also often appeared before and after her mother’s death.
“It was hard, it was difficult, and it wasn’t by choice,” says Rivers, who was also an executive producer on the show for most of its run. “That being said, who in God’s name gets a show and gets to be a creative force in a show that’s on the air for 22 years? As sad as I am I look back with such pride and such gratitude that I was fortunate enough to be a part of something that lived on television where things change so fast for 22 years.”
As for the legacy that the series, the books, and all of the other things Joan Rivers did in her life created?
“It’s funny because my mother never saw herself as someone who’s comedy was social commentary, but if you go and actually look back at it, just by the nature of how she performed and by being in the moment, she was one of the greatest social commentators that we’ve ever known.
“My mom was always annoyed. She’d say, ‘Nobody’s ever going to give me credit for anything until I’m dead,’ and boom, she’s dead, and everybody is going, “Oh, she was so great.’”
The final page of “Joan Rivers Confidential” shows the note of condolence President Barack Obama sent Melissa Rivers after her mother’s death, and it’s placed there, she says, because it, too, sums up Joan Rivers’ legacy in a way her daughter views as true.
“He said, ‘She made America laugh and she made America think,’” Rivers says. What greater legacy for my mom than laughter and making people think?”
Melissa Rivers book event
When: 2- 4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 3
Where: Barnes & Noble, Bella Terra shopping center, 7881 Edinger Ave., Huntington Beach
Information: Melissarivers.com or call the bookstore at 714-897-8781