As Joan Rivers lay in a coma, after going into cardiac arrest during an outpatient procedure at New York’s Yorkville Endoscopy in August 2014, Tony Tripoli, her friend and head writer of Fashion Police, sat beside her hospital bed proffering a picture of Kim Kardashian on his cellphone.
“Kim had been photographed wearing an especially distasteful garment the night before,” Tripoli recalls. “I said to Joan, ‘You have to see this dress.’ Melissa (Rivers, Joan’s daughter) and I joked that if anything could wake Joan from a coma it was Kim Kardashian wearing yet another dress that was too small for her.”
As Rivers hovered close to death, Tripoli also read tweets from celebrities—whose style Rivers had trashed as trash-talking chatelaine of the red carpet and latterly on E!’s Fashion Police—willing Rivers to recover.
“Joan called Rihanna a whore every week, and Katy Perry, who she trashed—all these people tweeted their thoughts for Joan. Katy Perry wrote that what was the point of dressing up in ‘dumb outfits’ if Joan wasn’t there to trash it.”
Tripoli said to Rivers, “Can you believe all these girls we’ve been so rough on this whole time ‘got it’? That part of being famous was being made fun of by Joan Rivers.”
“That was the very last conversation I had with Joan,” says Tripoli quietly, “reading these tweets that really revealed that these celebrities had been in on the joke all the time, and it was fine.”
Rivers died a few days later on September 4, aged 81, and Tripoli—now co-executive producer on the show fronted by Melissa—is also the warm-up act for Joe Posa, the brilliant Joan Rivers impersonator Rivers herself was a big fan of.
The two are touring the country with ‘The Bitch Is Back’ show, the silver-haired, buff, and handsome Tripoli geeing the crowd up--telling the kind of jokes Rivers would have loved--before Posa-as-Joan’s entrance.
Of having some of Rivers’s ashes, Tripoli says he was surprised to discover they are comprised of “grey bits of sand, or little chunks of bone. I expected it to be loose noses and rhinestones.”
Tripoli knew Rivers for five years. She, disappointed by some of the early commercials for Fashion Police, had invited him to Melissa’s house to meet with her.
For Tripoli, this was a genuine dream come true: the first time he would meet his comedy idol. Aged 15, he had seen Rivers perform in his hometown of Phoenix--an era when she used to give pot plants to those audience members she had made fun of.
Fortuitously, Tripoli’s parents owned a florist’s shop. He laughs that he thought if he bought her a plant they’d be best buddies. He made up a “gaudy bouquet,” and gave it to her on stage. She said, “Thanks sweetie,” and he was hustled off stage by security. “I was like, ‘But wait, this is not how I imagined this was going to go.’“
The second Christmas they knew each other as adults, the two of them were sitting in Joan’s dressing room. “She would lay her hand on top of mine, and stroke it the way grandmothers do, like a kitten. I got choked up. She told me not to be such a fag. I told her the story about seeing her in Phoenix.
“I said, ‘I wish I could go back to tell that 16-year-old, don’t worry about that plant, you’re going to grow up and this woman will be stroking your hand, and it will be something so much better than a plant.’ She hated sentimentality in every form, and said, ‘Oh Jesus,’ but I thought it was the best moment.”
At their first meeting as adults, Tripoli recited the zingers he’d crafted for her, while Rivers remained stone-faced. Tripoli was terrified his childhood idol was about to tell him he wasn’t funny, but instead she put her fingers on his face and told him he was her new head writer.
He told her he had only one TV writing credit. “She said, ‘It’s done,’ and that night E! called, and I had a contract to sign. She quite literally changed my life overnight.”
From that moment, he helped write all she said: from Fashion Police to what she said on stage, and shows like The View, and Howard Stern. For FP, she would fly in to LA from New York the day before taping and Tripoli would catch her up with all the tabloid gossip, Twitter feuds and sundry Kardashian brouhahas.
“This woman was brilliantly funny long before I came along,” Tripoli says. “She was an incredible collaborator. She’d always want opposing views and say ‘Tell me why I’m wrong.’ That was where her great observational comedy came from.
“I’d say, ‘Which dress do you love or hate?’ She’d say, ‘Which is funnier?’ I don’t want to say she was a whore for a laugh, but that’s what she’d say about herself.
“Part of working as intimately as we did was that we would have to disagree a lot. I am honored she trusted me enough that we could argue about things. She was still Joan Rivers, I’m still a nobody. It was always crazy to me when we were going toe-to-toe on something. She’d always say, ‘Don’t back down, fight for your side.’“
Posa struck up an online friendship with Tripoli three years ago, and invited him to open for him at Boston’s Club Café, owned by Frank Ribaudo, Posa’s husband and manager. Tripoli got Rivers’ blessing, though after she died Posa told him he didn’t feel like doing the act any more.
“I told Joe, ‘You have to do her now more than ever.’ He does such a great job. Nobody should stop doing something that they’re so great at just because someone passed away. He’s doing a great tribute to her. Also, Joan was the last comedian that could be that kind of honest and direct and so politically incorrect.
“Audiences are too sensitive culturally. It’s a really horrible time to be a comedian. Audiences feel like they need to find things in your act that they object to, and then make that known to the room because that somehow makes them better people and the world a better place.”
Many people claimed Rivers was offensive, racist even. She dismissed any of such criticism, and so does Tripoli.
“You don’t go to a strip club and complain the girls have their tits out. To say comedians are offensive is disingenuous. No comedian goes on stage to try to hurt any group. No comedian goes on stage to be racist, misogynistic, or homophobic.”
For Tripoli, and Rivers, comedians are going for the joke, and for “shining a light” on genuine bigotry.
“Obviously there are times when a comedian makes a joke and doesn’t realize it’s hurtful; but to say Joan Rivers is racist is absurd--over the course of an hour everybody got some. Pointing out some of this venomous stuff on stage takes away its venomous power.”
On stage, like Joan, Tripoli “loves pushing the audience past where it thinks it can go. That is the artform of stand-up. Joan used to say that there were so many terrible things in life, that we should make fun of them--it’s like taking a pin to a balloon to let the air out. I realize some don’t agree with that, but I absolutely share that philosophy. I learnt from the best.”
The most important thing Rivers taught Tripoli was that “when I am holding the mic I am absolutely right. and so you can laugh or not laugh, find it funny or not, but I’m right and you’re wrong. That’s how all comics go on stage. The point is you’ve paid me to come and talk about stuff. There’s no debate here. This is not a conversation. This is me teaching you stuff. I am the teacher, you are the student.”
Tripoli was honored when Rivers asked him to open for her on tour; honored even more that she watched his act so closely to see where he had changed things night to night.
“It was always shocking to me that she would talk to me as a contemporary, that we were in the same universe. I will talk about Joan anytime to anyone. I am so grateful to her. I can never pay her back for all the ways she changed my life.”
Like me, Tripoli found the brilliant 2010 documentary about Rivers, A Piece of Work, fascinating--the most resonant thing, that however famous and wealthy she was, there was an all-consuming need to work, and still be in the game.
Indeed, one of the angriest moments she had with Tripoli was when, while she was getting made up one day, he was sitting complaining about an imminent gig on a gay cruise.
“A gay audience is the toughest,” he says. “Their attitude is, you’re a gay guy from LA, you work with Joan Rivers, you’re in decent shape--what have you got to complain about?’“
As Tripoli was mid-kvetch, Rivers spun round and shouted at him, “You are not better than any gig. Don’t ever complain about someone writing a check for you to tell jokes. You never ever bitch about having a job. You’re not better than any job. We’re all whores. We go where the money is. I don’t want to hear it.”
For Tripoli, it was “a great lesson and a moment of tough love. This woman had jumped on shitty planes, gone to a bunch of Indian casinos she didn’t really want to go to, but they wanted to listen and that is what the job is.”
As it turned out, the gay cruise gig went as badly as Tripoli feared, and he and Rivers “laughed so hard” when he returned to tell the tale.
He and Posa do not bomb in their show, or didn’t the night I saw it--far from it.
“He really is terrific,” Tripoli says of Posa. “What he captures is the really specific energy of Joan. It’s not about looking or sounding like her, which he does. What he really does is he smells like her.
“The energy and chemistry of the room changes in the same way they did when Joan walked into a room. I’ve never seen another impersonator able to recreate that. I think it’s really profound. I am not in an emotional place where I am able to think of it as Joan. I think of it as Joe doing Joan. That’s a self-protective reflex.”
Rivers had cue-cards laid out at the front of the stage to remind her of all the points she needed to hit, then mixed things up depending on the reactions of the crowd.
Posa does the same without cue-cards. “One of the things that dazzled me about Joan is that never, in all the years of being with her, did I hear her repeat a joke, yet she did the jokes in a different order. Joe does that too.”
Nothing was off limits for Rivers, says Tripoli, apart from her much-loved grandson Cooper, who will turn 16 this December.
Rivers adored him (especially the annual holiday they took together), says Tripoli, and Melissa wants to ensure he has as regular an upbringing as possible which her mother respected.
Tripoli laughs. “Joan loved Prince Charles. They were really close friends, and she absolutely made fun of him. He would laugh about it. He had the most wicked sense of humor. No-one realizes how hilarious he is.”
Rivers was a brilliant ad-libber and had an encyclopedic memory, Tripoli adds. They would load up the jokes they had written into the Fashion Police teleprompter, then the order might change depending on her to-and fro with the panel, which Joan would signal to Tripoli, just behind the camera, with a set of hand signals.
The show has gone through turmoil since she left: there were rows, fallouts, and of the Rivers-era team of Kelly Osbourne, Giuliana Rancic, and George Kotsiopoulos, only Rancic remains.
Tripoli was fired when Kathy Griffin briefly took over the show, but viewers did not warm to her. He returned when she left, and so chooses his words carefully when talking about the show’s turbulent history.
“I will say, Joan would have been torn. She loved any publicity. The fact people were talking about Fashion Police would make her happy regardless. But we were family truly. Joan was mom/grandmother, and hated any of the children fighting. Joan would have squashed that stuff immediately, but that happens sometimes in showbusiness.”
Today, the show features Melissa hosting, and panelists including Margaret Cho, Brad Goreski, and Nene Leakes. Does Tripoli think the show has successfully moved to a post-Joan era?
“I have such an affection and respect for Joan both as professional and as a family member. She is someone I love--so for that reason alone the show will never be what it was. In any family, when you lose a family member, the dynamic can never be what it was, but the family also continues after that death.
“I think Fashion Police should continue and live on. Joan would want that, especially for Melissa, but I also understand that the show is a different show now—and that is as it should be. It would be disrespectful for us to continue and pretend there was never a Joan.”
A particularly bittersweet moment occurred last week. The Fashion Police episode that taped the day after the Billboard Music Awards was the last one in the studio where the show had been recorded with Joan at the helm.
The show is moving, like other E! shows, to the Universal Studios lot.
“We were always aware of Joan’s presence,” says Tripoli, “and that last show was Joan’s last show, the last show in the the house Joan built. Melissa bought some of Joan’s ashes [to scatter], and gave a little speech, and said that this last show was for Joan and it was really beautiful.”
Tripoli recalls that just before Rivers had gone in for the endoscopy the pair had chatted about work. “Having any kind of procedure done was a hobby of hers, so I know she would have woken up that Thursday morning in great spirits. She was very concerned about her voice. If she ever lost it she would lose her career.
“She had been to this doctor many times, and had a camera put down there many times in case there was anything to be addressed vocally. She wasn’t going in because she had any symptoms. It was a very routine examination.”
Tripoli pauses for a moment. “There’s no good time for anyone to pass on. But as I look back now, if I take Melissa and Cooper out of the equation, I am at a place, at a certain level, that I am happy for Joan that she got to leave in the way and at the time she did.
“She had three hot television shows, she was selling out every weekend in a different city. She was more funny and popular than ever. She was enjoying it more than she ever had. She and Melissa had gotten to such an incredible place in their relationship. Cooper was old enough for Joan to know he was going to be a great guy.
“Part of me thinks she couldn’t have made a better exit. We all have to at some point. Of course it’s tragic, and of course I miss her every day, but now I look back and think she got to go out as close to how she could have scripted it.”
Tripoli pauses and laughs softly. “I think the only thing she would change is that it would have been a cosmetic procedure. I imagine her in Heaven saying, ‘I have one note. Can we please make it a nose job?’“ He pauses again: “I mean no disrespect when I say that, of course.”
Tripoli praises how Melissa has “done everything right, beyond comprehension” since her mother’s death. She allowed Tripoli and other loved ones to say their goodbyes. Melissa oversaw Joan’s astonishing, funny, moving, “with a little bit of ridiculousness thrown in” funeral (which this reporter attended), and recently reached a confidential settlement with Yorkville Endoscopy.
Melissa has also curated the items for Christies’ auction of Joan’s possessions set for June 22. “I really wanted anyone who loved my mom to have access to something of hers,” Melissa has told Tripoli.
I ask if Rivers had left Tripoli anything.
“We had so many conversations…” he begins to say, then his voice cracks. “She would say, ‘I’m 81 years old. I’m not going to live a hundred more years.’“
She asked him if he would like some of her ashes, and when emptying her Connecticut home of its furniture offered him anything he might like from it.
“She was always so conscious of the power of her celebrity and what she meant to people,” Tripoli says.
He laughs, recalling that the Mother’s Day after they met he received an arrangement of all-white flowers, with a handwritten card: “You’ve always been like a mother to me, Love Joan.”
Tripoli says he laughed for an hour after receiving the bouquet. It was affectionate and yet also so absurd a note, “but just for a laugh she went to all that trouble. That little card means a lot to me. The only thing I asked Melissa for was one of the cue-cards from Joan’s stand-up. Opening for her, I stood in front of those cards so many nights, looking down on the audience thinking they had no idea of the train that was about to run them over.”
Those cards, Tripoli thinks, should be in the Smithsonian, or some similarly august institution, alongside the dresser that Joan carefully filed all her jokes in, according to subject area. (This reporter had the great privilege of seeing it when I interviewed her at her home once.)
“Melissa has that,” says Tripoli. “To my knowledge it is completely intact, apart from a couple of cards given to Howard Stern (who delivered a fantastically affectionate and profane address at Rivers’s funeral) and Jimmy Fallon.
“I believe it will end up in the Smithsonian. I think it’s an iconic artifact of American comedy and should be accessible to the public, and I think it will be at whatever time it’s appropriate.”
The dresser looked impressive enough to glance at. Tripoli obviously got to search its categories. “Under ‘P’ for ‘president,’ a card typed in a 1960s-looking typewriter said: ‘President Nixon is so dishonest…blah blah blah,’ then--as the years went by--Nixon’s name had been crossed out and replaced by ‘Ford’, then ‘Carter’, then ‘Reagan.’ It was amazing how a joke about a president being dishonest was good for any administration.”
“U” for ‘ugly’ began with a line, “I’m so ugly that…” while “F” for ‘fat jokes’ had, says Tripoli, “all these Elizabeth Taylor jokes, then her name crossed out for Shelley Winters, then Adele and so on. Joan was hilarious in how frugal she was. A good joke was a good joke and deserved to have a life.”
Tripoli admits he went hunting for Elizabeth Taylor jokes “because that was my childhood. I remember being 16 and thinking this one line was the funniest thing I had ever heard. Then to see it on a card… ‘Liz Taylor is so fat she puts mayonnaise on an Aspirin.’ To hold that card in my hand was like, if I was a religious person, holding the Holy Grail. This is where that joke started.” In his own loving and very funny way, Tripoli is continuing the Rivers legacy--and never bitching for a second when he books a gig.