January 21, 2018

Rivers and a Bey

I interviewed JOAN RIVERS on live television, PEOPLE ARE TALKING, back in 1988. She was delightful, quick and had an easy access to that ability I always strove for, to punch through and actually make a real connection with the viewer on the other side of the screen. To turn live TV into LIVE TV! She was also, I think, the most insecure person I’ve ever interviewed. From the moment she arrived she nervously and repeatedly asked what questions I had, expressed concerns about the format and suggested topics for which she had jokes pre-planned (skiing was one!). By the time she was in make up I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and assured her I would set her up as the perfect straight man, that she was so good at this and that I wanted her to look her best. She also was an attractive woman in person back then, much more so than she appeared in photos or on TV and when I told her so, she nervously denied it and joked about that.

On air I mentioned that unlike many TV celebrities she was more than gracious and friendly with fans off air. I’d seen her spend time talking with on-lookers, signing autographs, answering questions from fans and in a way that was down to earth rather than self-aggrandizing. I turned to the camera and said to the viewers: “You should know, not everyone is like this. A lot of people seem friendly and gracious on air but they’re not so in real life…” Immediately Joan jumped on it and demanded to know who this was. “Name names. Say it? Who was mean to you?” When I demurred, she insisted. “Oh, come on, don’t be a wimp. The way to get famous if you’re a little fish is to attack the big fish.” I kept refusing. “Look, if you ever want to get out of Secaucus say it. Who was it? They want to know!”. And I blurted out “Regis Philbin!” Someone once introduced me to him at a buffet table and he kind of waved me off. Joan turned to the camera and declared: “Regis! He hates you!!! Why were you so mean to Richard!” Live. On the air. I tried to make excuses for Regis and he certainly deserved them but Joan just kept on: “Tell him the truth! You hate him now! Regis, he hates you!” The audience both in the studio and home loved it. And it was another example of Joan punching through the screen on live television. Afterwards, Regis’ producers called to find out what I was upset about and I apologized profusely and a few months later I ran into Regis again and he was as apologetic I was. He didn’t remember meeting me at all, which was understandable under the circumstances And over the years, he’s always been gracious and personable with me. Even helpful with advice.

Since her death, there have been a lot of reports about how Joan’s drive to work continuously was motivated by a fear that it would all stop at any moment, that she might suddenly lose a way to support herself with her talent. Joan was funny and self-deprecating but she was also fearlessly honest and unguarded. For someone so intrinsically insecure this was a feat of great bravery.

Twice we were competitors. Her radio show aired against the one I hosted with Steve Malzberg on WABC. Her TV show aired against THE RICHARD BEY SHOW on WWOR. And once, we had a row on THE HOWARD STERN SHOW where Joan promoted her show as #1 in the time period (It wasn’t. My show was #2 after the PRICE IS RIGHT and Joan was far behind both shows in the NYC ratings). Two hours later as I prepared to leave home, Howard was still on the radio and I heard him tease: “Richard Bey, Joan Rivers is #1. Do you hear me? She is #1, Richard Bey!” I smiled. Howard had millions of listeners but now he was talking just to me! And now, I’m just one out of the millions who will miss Joan.

Joan Rivers was NOT #1 in our time period. But in so many other ways Joan Rivers WAS #1.