You needn’t worry.
As long as Joan Rivers is around, the book business will never suffocate from gratuitous gentility, no matter how many journalistic fantasists write about an upper middle class world where everyone’s job (and lifestyle) entails a beach vacation in the summer, with books they’ve been saving for the occasion.
With Joan Rivers filling up space between covers, no one can ever accuse the publicity business of not keeping it real, no matter what members of the literary cognoscenti gather at the shrine of the new, brilliant book of essays or long-awaited novel.
The new book by Rivers – the comedian who, at 79, has bashed, battered, blundered and bludgeoned her way through B- and C-list show business to be reborn as a national treasure – is called “I Hate Everyone … Starting With Me" (Berkley, 242 pages, $25.95).
No fool she. Her first feint in “hype world” to sell the book was to leak out info about the one-night-stand she had with Robert Mitchum, as a national talking point.
As a lifelong student of celebrity hookups at their most outrageous and surreal, she knew full well that there wouldn’t be a single culture-conscious home in America where someone of a certain age wouldn’t look up and say “Joan Rivers and Robert Mitchum? Well, I’ll be…”
Mitchum’s poet’s penchant for getting lost in sauce wasn’t exactly a secret, and a smart-mouth former Barnard College bohemian might have been a more than agreeable companion for an evening while he drunkenly declaimed his favorite poets at the top of his lungs and wondered aloud what happened to his soul. It no doubt had the flavor of a grown-up, showbiz version of all those young coeds and faculty wives who legendarily volunteered to spend therapeutic evenings in the bed of Dylan Thomas.
But a one-night-stand with Mitchum tossed around the “Today” show and Howard Stern can only sell so many books. The back cover is a raunchy smatter of fake blurbs written by Rivers herself in joyfully questionable taste: “I was in a good mood until I read this book.” – Sylvia Plath; “The author should be euthanized.” – Dr. Kevorkian; “Let her eat s---.” – Marie Antoinette.
That last one is the one that started all the fun.
Because it’s right out there in the open on the cover – printed in full and not with our family-reader-friendly dashes – the people at Costco, a big box wholesale club, refused to sell it.
Which led to what many are now nominating as the single greatest publicity stunt in the last 30 years of American publishing. None of this beach-read fantasy for the former Joan Molinsky, the doctor’s daughter from Larchmont. She marched into a California Costco with a bullhorn and at least one camera crew, and walked over to the nearest shopping cart. She told its temporary proprietor, “You’re about to be famous,” and handcuffed herself to the cart.
Whereupon she announced to the world through her bullhorn Costco’s censorious malfeasance and her disapproval of same. That was why she launched her commercial protest, she told the entire store parking lot.
How can anyone not love this woman?
Easily, actually.
They called the cops on her. It seems that somewhere during her bullhorn harangue or later, she compared the Costco de facto censorship to Nazi oppression.
No charges were filed, but the Anti-Defamation League stoutly objected to the trivialization of the Holocaust by Rivers’ analogy. That led to Internet defenses of her, pointing out that, whatever gentility the Anti-Defamation League may be trying to sell, book burning was definitely a famous Nazi tactic and therefore the comparision was not as much grotesque hyperbole as it no doubt seemed.
In a moment of public reflection so rare as to be almost epochal, Rivers admitted on camera in an interview that things got a little, uh, out of hand.
It has been, without question, my favorite book story of the summer.
So what exactly is this book at the center of Rivers’ delicious over-the-top test of mainstream consumerism?
It’s a joke book, plain and simple, a few hundred pages of all the things Rivers purportedly hates. Anyone who saw the wonderful documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” – the one that renewed her late-life renown – knows that Rivers writes jokes constantly and keeps a massive file of them in her apartment.
This is not unusual. Milton Berle did the same thing, only he never claimed he wrote all of his. He dumped massive agglomerations of them into book form in later years, resulting in others’ immortal witticisms insanely appearing unattributed.
That, essentially, is what Rivers seems to have done with files of her own jokes, i.e. emptied out the best in the “I Hate” category.
She might claim that she wrote them all specifically for the book, but if you believe that you’ll believe anything and ought to be handcuffed before you even allow yourself in a Big Box store.
Most of it is wickedly funny, and some of it is painfully juvenile and tired. A bit of it is in genuinely horrible taste, even to those of us willing to cede Rivers as much leeway as possible in such matters. There is a joke about the appearance of actress Nancy Kulp (“The Beverly Hillbillies”) as she died from cancer that is truly unforgivable. Nothing that I know of Kulp’s life justified such hideous mockery of her death. (Rivers has told newspapers that she’s a Republican. Kulp once ran for Congress in Pennsylvania unsuccessfully as a Democrat.)
Granted, Rivers is at an age where assaulting illness and death become the jokes one spends one’s entire life with, but that doesn’t mean all are permissible. They’re not.
And too, you’ll note from the book’s constant circling back to the subject of dinner parties and other social occasions that no matter how much of a rebel she remains, part of her is still a reasonably well-raised doctor’s daughter from Larchmont expected to take a respectable place in society – even if only to be the “bad girl at the dinner party,” the one invited to the most chic occasions because she’ll dare to impart what everyone else is secretly thinking.
You won’t have any trouble as you read this book identifying the woman who, after the suicide of her producer husband Edgar Rosenberg, lived for years with one of the ultra-monied Lehman brothers.
But in Joan Rivers’ constant unappeasable tests of American mainstream taste, it has long seemed to me that she, more than anyone, is the truest heir to Lenny Bruce as a genuine outlaw comic. In a world that has long idolized comedians – and where Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor are no longer with us – Joan Rivers still cares enough about things you still can’t say in certain places that she’ll dig out handcuffs and a bullhorn to tell us about them if enough cameras and microphones show up.
If she ever showed the world at large her hair in its real color, she’d probably be the Greatest Gray Panther of All Time.
Long may she wave.