Editorial

The Days of Joan and Roses

Two years ago today (September 4, 2014), we lost a legend. At the beginning of that summer, three months prior to Joan Rivers’ death, I received a phone call that changed my life, pitching an opportunity to work for a comedy icon I had admired since her days guest hosting The Tonight Show.

David Dangle, Joan’s partner and CEO since 1990, reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in managing Joan’s social media presence. Everyone in Joan’s company had their main jobs to do, and David, Joan et al realized that running an effective social media plan for “Joan Inc.” was a full-time job in itself. David liked my tone and the way I wrote and created content on Facebook and thought I’d be a good fit with Joan. The gig would be a “create the job as we go” kind of thing that required a working knowledge of how social media worked, good writing skills and a sense of humor that could rhyme with Joan’s. “Would you be interested in something like that?” he asked. Ummm… Yes.

At the start of the summer of 2014, Joan was really doing well and things were really happening, as Joan liked it. At 81, she had a full schedule of stand-up comedy performances as well as a full plate on QVC with her jewelry and fashion line; she had a new book coming out (Diary of a Mad Diva); she had a sold-out month-long comedy tour in the U.K. coming in October; and Fashion Police was bigger than ever, churning along as the hottest show on E! It was an exciting time at Joan Rivers Worldwide.

My job was to pitch post and content ideas and then create most of that content, re-design and manage her website, manage the Facebook page and Instagram account among other things. Between me, David, the VP of Marketing, Joan’s assistants Graham and Jocelyn, we were all kind of creating this job making it all happen as we went along, seeing what worked and what didn’t. For the most part, it was really working well and, as I said, it was a very exciting time on Team Joan.

I have to mention here that I was beyond giddy with the idea of working for Joan Rivers. This was a huge honor and privilege for me, and I was determined to please Madame. The pay was very fair and the work was challenging and fun. I was doing backflips in my head because I was so over the moon about this opportunity. The job came completely out of the blue at a time when I was really low and doubting everything about myself. I was scared. It changed everything and put a huge and rewarding responsibility in my lap, and I was happy to do it.

People often asked if I spent a lot of time with her. Truthfully, I was only in a room with her on two occasions that summer. Perhaps the best way to describe my proximity to Joan is to say that I was on the outer circle of her inner circle. But it was made very clear to me that she was happy with the work I was doing, which made me feel pretty damn good. While it was not technically part of my job, I wrote about a dozen short one-liners for Twitter in Joan’s voice. (Joan liked to do her own Twitter, and most of her followers on Twitter were really there for her comedy.) I emailed the jokes to Jocelyn, her assistant, saying that I had no idea if Joan would like them, but if she did, I’d be happy to write more. Jocelyn liked them and said she’d share them with Joan the next time she had the Queen’s ear.

When I started the job, I had set up my iPhone to alert me whenever Joan tweeted in case the tweet might also be appropriate to cross-post to her Facebook page. It wasn’t always appropriate, since Joan was decidedly more R-rated on Twitter, which wouldn’t work for the more PG-13 tone on Facebook. About a week or so after I sent Jocelyn that collection of jokes, I saw an alert on my phone that Joan had just tweeted. It was one of my jokes. I froze.

My first impulse was to call my mother, which I did. When she picked up the phone, I couldn’t get the words out because I had started to cry. When I finally inhaled enough oxygen to speak, I told my mom that Joan Rivers – not only one of my own comedy idols, but one of my late father’s comedy idols – had just used something I had written. I wished dad could have seen it – the moment that a comedy icon found my work good enough to share with two million people on Twitter. Coming from a time only weeks before when I was feeling thoroughly destitute and absolutely worthless, this moment remains one of the most validating moments I have ever had in my creative professional adult life. It still keeps me warm.

Joan used a couple more of my jokes later that summer. Same feeling. More private tears of gratitude.

The last time I saw Joan in person was at the end of July at one of her regular stand-up shows at the Laurie Beechman Theater under the West Bank Café on 42nd Street, her regular New York venue where she would perform her last show later that summer. She comped tickets and dinner for me and my friend Rob and then had us backstage for a quick hello after the show. She was on her way to appear on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live later that night. As we were leaving, she said to me, “Thank you so much for the great work you’re doing. Stay in touch with Jocelyn and let’s keep this going!” The work was challenging, but man was it fun. I was on Cloud Nine.

Backstage with Joan at the Laurie Beechman with my friend Rob Mandolene.
Backstage with Joan at the Laurie Beechman with my friend Rob Mandolene.

On Thursday, August 28th, everything came to a stop. Not one minute after I saw a news alert on my phone stating “Joan Rivers hospitalized and in critical condition,” David called me and confirmed that Joan had stopped breathing during a throat procedure. I had to clear all scheduled posts on social media and just wait until there was more information. Like everyone else, I was stunned and felt frustratingly powerless. I wanted to do something. So I wrote. With no clear understanding of the gravity of Joan’s condition, I started writing more jokes for her for when she woke up and recovered. It was my way of keeping up hope in a situation that ultimately proved hopeless. For what it’s worth, I like to think Joan would have liked them.

Through the next six days, we posted Melissa’s updates and statements on social media and Joan’s website. On September 4th, Joan was taken off life support and died. My heart, the hearts of everyone close to Joan and the hearts of millions of fans were broken. I closely monitored the comments left by bereft fans on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and JoanRivers.com. The outpouring of grief and support for Melissa and her son Cooper was overwhelming. Joan was truly beloved.

The private funeral for Joan was held on Sunday, September 7th at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. I was privileged to be among those invited to a send-off and tribute unlike any I have ever personally witnessed. The media, paparazzi and celebrity frenzy was otherworldly, and Joan would have loved it. Of the many incredible moments from a stunning ceremony so fitting for a legend, including breathtaking performances from the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, Hugh Jackman and Audra McDonald, my favorite had to be from Howard Stern, who was the first of several eulogists to follow the rabbi. As the entire temple was wiping away tears after Rabbi Davidson’s beautiful words, Howard started with one of Joan’s own jokes: “Joan’s vagina was so dry… Whenever she got in the bathtub, the water would just go ‘WOOOSH!'” He continued with “Joan always thought that if Whitney Houston’s vagina were as dry as hers, she’d still be alive.” Brilliant, and just what the heavy and bereft room needed.

Everything was very quiet for the next month or so, as it should have been. Joan’s Classics Collection on QVC would continue, just as Joan would have wanted. The task in front of us involved a transition and to respectfully and appropriately position David as the face of the brand on QVC. Up until then, David was Joan’s “sideman” on the air and certainly a known face and loved personality to Joan’s customers and fans on the channel. He would now take center stage, which was a daunting task for reasons personal, emotional and professional. He and Joan were very close and had been together as friends and business partners for nearly twenty five years. It was a lot. But being the class act that he is (Joan knew how to pick people), he showed up and continues to this day to carry Joan’s legacy beautifully. She would be very proud.

After Joan died, there was a shift in the focus of my job. While preserving Joan’s comic legacy with #TBT and #WordsofJoan on social media, there was more focus on the fashion and jewelry line. It was important work, and Joan took tremendous pride in it since she launched the line in 1990. But women’s fashion and jewelry were not my strong suits, and my lack of passion for them was becoming obvious. A job like that is best served by someone who really understands and loves women’s fashion and jewelry. In the spirit of rigorous honesty, I had to admit to myself (and to my clients) that it was probably time to go. They completely understood and eventually hired a successor, who was smart, fun and sharp as a tack. I stayed on board until she was ready to take the wheel, and she continues to do a terrific job. My last official day was November 15, 2015… my 45th birthday.

The parting was completely amicable, and I’m still in touch with David and several of those fabulous people at Joan Rivers Worldwide. I adore them. (In fact, David and I used to spend an inordinate amount of time carrying on about men’s style and tailored clothing. His taste and style are impeccable.)

This ride with Joan Rivers – this ride of a lifetime – was a gift. A brief but incredible gift. I was and remain so very grateful for it. Over that summer of 2014, I remember planning a written letter to Joan for the coming Thanksgiving, thanking her for a job that changed my life and kind-of saved me.

Unfortunately, I never got the opportunity to write that letter. I did, however, get the opportunity to thank David. It was he, after all, who plucked me out of Facebook obscurity and invited me on board one of the most exciting rides I’ve ever had. Since the opportunity to properly thank Joan passed me by, I wasn’t going to let it slip away with David.

We recently had a wonderful long lunch recently, sharing a ton of laughs, enjoying good gossip, and having so much fun as we always have. After lunch, as we parted ways on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, I grabbed his hand, looked him in the eye and, with a lump in my throat, said, “Thank you for seeing what you saw. I will always be grateful.”

And I will always be grateful for what was such an incredible journey.

One of my favorite photos of Joan, taken by Inez & Vinoodh for W Magazine's "New Royals" - October 2014 issue.
One of my favorite photos of Joan, taken by Inez & Vinoodh for W Magazine’s “New Royals” – October 2014 issue.

6 Comments

  1. Gregory Moore Reply

    Beautifully-put, George. How fortunate you were to have been able to share the orbit of this brilliant woman–and knowing that you had the imprimatur of this comedy legend should keep you “doing mental backflips” forever. It’s still hard to believe she’s gone…it’s really been two years? There are certain New Yorkers whose deaths seem to rock the globe from its axis…and Joan’s was certainly one of them. Maybe we’ve “moved on” with our lives…but New York–and the world–is palpably dimmer without her.

  2. Nicole O'Shea-Holohan Reply

    I just love everything you write in the first person voice.

  3. Lisa Burton Reply

    Such a beautifully written post. Both you and Joan are classy individuals. How fortunate you were to be able to spend that time with her.

  4. Michael Snook Reply

    I made the mistake of reading this at work. It is hard for me to hide tears while sitting in a cubicle. Well written as usual.

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