I know that we keep discussing that Joan is 78, but I am tempted to insist that she show me her birth certificate. When we were shooting the episode in Las Vegas, we shot with her all day. Our cameras followed her as she planned out Sabrina’s bachelorette party. Then we taped her live comedy show at the Venetian. During the concert, I had our crew go to the party bus that Joan and Melissa had rented for Sabrina’s party. We knew the bus would be dark, so we set up some extra lights inside it before the ladies got there. While they were adding battery-operated lights on the bus, I stayed at the theater and watched as Joan greeted a long line of the audience members who waited after her stand-up show to take her picture, get autographs, etc. Joan was really impressive to watch. Mind you, it was 11:00 at night when her show ended. Joan greeted each person — listened to each story, answered each question and patiently stood smiling as each person attempted to take a picture with her. (You’d be amazed how many people are clueless how to operate their own cameras, especially the ones on their phones). Joan was sincerely thrilled by their delight in her performance. I sometimes think that the audience adulation is the extra energy source that keeps Joan going. Like Audience Viagra, or Comic Ginseng.
It was nearly midnight when Joan finally climbed on the party bus. And you could have sworn she had just woken up from an eight hour sleep by her energy level. She was drinking and dancing on the bus – putting all the younger ladies to shame. All except Melissa, who was surprisingly adept at dancing on the pole on the bus. Where she learned it, I can’t imagine. Joan’s energy continued right into the dance club. Joan loved dancing to the Black Eyed Peas and got a second wind surrounded by 1500 gay men dancing with their arms above their heads. We did not stop shooting until 2:30 in the morning. And Joan was up for more dancing long after our cameraman gave me the eye that he was beat tired. Granted, he does have a 30 pound camera on his shoulder the entire time. It was a fun night for us all – and I had to smile as I watched Joan still dancing as we left the club.
Joan does not like the B-word: “Birthday.” We found that out in a rather obvious way. When we were reviewing her calendar to plan out our shoot schedule, we asked what she was planning to do to on her birthday to celebrate. I naturally figured that the party would be a fun thing to include on the show. Joan quickly shot back, “absolutely nothing.” And she insisted on no cards, cakes, flowers and certainly no gifts from the crew. Oookay. We got it. Do not bring up the birthday. But the devious producer in me realized that there was a much better story brewing around this birthday than a mere party scene. I figured that there was no way that the staff and crew, not to mention the friends and family who love Joan, would want to let the occasion go by unnoticed. And you should also know that Joan never lets another person’s special occasion go uncelebrated. When I was nominated for an Emmy during our shoot, Joan and Melissa surprised me with cupcakes. It was a lovely gift that I will not soon forget. And that’s just one of many thoughtful things they did for crew members this season. They are both so generous and thoughtful. Anyway, you can imagine that the people around Joan were eager to celebrate her despite her protests.
But Joan does not like the idea of growing older. Melissa says that her mom doesn’t feel any older, so the advancing numbers are about as welcome as a donut at a Weight Watchers meeting. Watching everyone walking on eggshells that birthday week, and poor Melissa having to cancel plans and hide gifts became the jumping point for our episode. Little did we know it would take us to New York where her friend, Margie, went to great lengths to get her friend out of her funk. This led us to tattoo parlor in New York City where Margie convinced Joan to get a tattoo. And where did Joan want one? On her butt. So there I was with two camera crews, zeroing in – carefully – on Joan’s posterior with the tattoo artist placing a picture of a bumble bee on her rump. These are moments that they don’t prepare you for in film school. Ah, the glamour of reality TV. I love it!
“My Fat Pet” is a show idea that Joan and Peter came up with together after discussing how fat Peter’s dog had become. Joan loves dogs, and loves any fun idea that she thinks will sell. So it was no real surprise that she wanted to pitch this dog as an idea for real. Melissa was mortified – imagining her mother slogging around town with an obese canine trying to sell this idea. Joan already has two successful shows on the air, a line of clothing and jewelry, not to mention a nationwide touring schedule with her comedy act. It’s not like she has extra time to be pitching to various cable channels. But pitch she did. (And knowing Joan, she fully understood how funny the visual it would be for us to follow her as she pitched this lunatic idea). Even as I write the word “lunatic” I realize that I’m probably wrong. With shows like Hoarders and My Dog Ate What? and Cup Cake Wars, is there any idea that is too crazy to believe would make it? Not to mention one that features pets. People love that stuff.
The various executives agreed to be tapes if we did not show their names or their networks. The dog that Peter brought was a total pain in the neck. Not only did he refuse to walk with Peter, but he pooped after every pitch. Luckily outside. Joan was not deterred by the fact that most of the responses varied from tepid to shocked. She knows a good idea – and like a chubby dog with a bone – she will not let up on the idea. She still brings it up with our production company hoping that we will shoot a tape to help sell it. It’s very funny the way she describes the tape – like the opposite of that Humane Society spot where Sarah McLaughlin sings. “Won’t you help them get thin?” I have to say that I have a sneaky suspicion that somehow Joan will sell this show. I imagine that my next blog will be written from a dog park, where 8 competing pooches will be chasing after the same ball – slowly – as their eager owners counting down calories with each step their puppies take. Perhaps I should start overfeeding my Bernese Mountain Dog Harlow now, in hopes that one day, she and I can compete for a trip to Vegas and a trunk of chew toys.
When Theater 80, an Off-Broadway Theater, called Joan’s office and asked if she’d be willing to have herself immortalized by putting her hands in cement in front of their theater, Joan was more than happy to agree. Joan loves the theater – she’s been on Broadway three times and been nominated for a Tony Award for best actress. And it was a great excuse to have her family come into New York – which she always loves. Joan called me and asked whether I thought we could shoot an episode in New York that featured the handprint ceremony. Show budgets being somewhat limited, we weren’t sure we could make it work – but thank goodness we found the money. Shooting in New York always gives you amazing surprises you don’t expect. There were several great examples of that in this episode.
For starters, when Joan decided to take Cooper and Melissa to one of her favorite lunch spots, Serendipity, we had no idea that her friend, fellow actress Sharon Gless would be there at the very same time. We were shooting over the Labor Day weekend – when most New Yorkers clear out of town for the long weekend. Not only was Sharon there, but she was in full make-up, having just come from a photo shoot with Tyne Daly (her former partner on the show Cagney and Lacy ). The make-up part is no small coincidence, since most actresses without make-up, especially ones over 20, will hide from cameras faster than roaches will run from sunlight. So to have her sitting at a table, happy to see Joan, and willing to be on camera – was nothing short of a New York miracle. Sharon could not have been sweeter. I get a thrill as a producer, and as a fan, when I see that people you admire on screen are great to work with. And she did not disappoint.
Another small, but fantastic New York surprise was that Theater 80 decided to have a kilt-wearing fan play the bag pipes outside the theater to play for Joan as she came past the press into the theater for the ceremony. Now on our shows, we have to clear all the music that plays in the background. So when he told us that he planned to play “Give My Regards to Broadway” I was delighted. Not only is the song loud and fun, it’s public domain (meaning: free). Oh, and it’s absolutely hilarious. I was afraid he would be playing an unknown Scottish dirge. I knew that Joan would find it funny too. When you get a comic gift like that on a reality show – it’s just sign that you’re making the show that you were meant to shoot. And where else but New York would you find a bag piper that plays show tunes?
I grew up watching Carol Burnett on Saturday nights with my baby sitter. She was amazing: a singer, a comic, and an actress who loved to laugh and meet her audience before every show. She seemed so down-to-earth despite her stature at the time. So when Joan told Melissa that she wanted to track down Carol Burnett to appear at the function for Cooper’s school, I was thrilled. The fact that they were friends meant that it might actually happen, and usually Joan’s friends are willing to sign our releases after we’ve shot them because they know that Joan is loyal to her buddies and will look out for their best interests. But I became increasingly frustrated because Joan was unable to pin down Carol’s whereabouts to have a meeting with her. But one afternoon when Joan was running errands for Melissa, Joan got the call from Sabrina that Carol was having lunch in Westwood. We quickly called the restaurant to find out if they would let our cameras inside. Luckily, they were cool with it.
I had two camera crews shooting that day – one following Joan, and one with Melissa getting ready for a video shoot with a cosmetics firm for her website. I quickly made the choice to pull the camera off of Melissa’s shoot (which was going to go for hours) to quickly race to the restaurant. We arrived at the restaurant and tried to make ourselves as invisible as possible as the two comedy legends went head-to-head. It was such a thrill to see Carol Burnett. She was such a pro around our crew. I suppose that when you’ve spent your entire adult life working as an actor, having a few cameras around when you have a normal conversation is no big deal. Still, it was great of her to work with us. After the shoot we sent a bouquet to her home to thank her for being such a good sport about the whole thing. I got an e-mail from her thanking us, which was so sweet. She lived up to my expectation. And I could see why Joan and Carol had struck up a friendship years ago.
As a producer, you share a special professional connection with your celebrity subjects. They invite you into their homes to tape their most private moments and they trust you to put the cameras in the right place to capture their emotion and edit the material fairly. Sometimes that responsibility can get awkward, when things aren’t going as the subjects have planned. In the case of this episode, we were busy shooting an episode about Joan and Melissa throwing a bar-mitzvah for Melissa’s longtime pal Conrad. Most of the subject matter was heartwarming and lightly comic. Conrad only recently learned he was Jewish, and the idea of a thirty two year old man being bar mitzvahed is comically unconventional. Suddenly, in the middle of shooting, Melissa’s world was rocked by a call from Perez Hilton of all people. Only in a celebrity’s life does America’s biggest bad boy blogger give you a call with bad personal news. Such is life in the Rivers world.
With news of Melissa’s boyfriend Jason’s activities online, all bets were off. As it turned out, the relationship dissolved very quickly. In fact, we did not shoot the day after Melissa got the call from Perez, but as a reality producer, you have to follow whatever story erupts. So, the big question for me was how comfortable Melissa would be with a camera on her at such an emotional time. I knew that Melissa had been okay with us shooting her blow-ups with her mom – but this felt different somehow. The subject matter was intensely personal and also involved Cooper. And Melissa is very protective of Cooper when it comes to our show. She does not want his world disrupted or exploited in any way for the sake of the show. As a parent, I completely agree with her. I called over to the house the morning after the Perez call. Melissa was too upset to take the phone, but Sabrina let me know that she was okay to have me and a single camera crew come to the house to tape events as they happened. It was a brave decision on her part, and lucky for us that she was willing.
We walked into a house that was unrecognizable. Jason’s things were being boxed up, clothes were laid out on the floor. But the biggest difference was that the usual happy spirit was gone. Usually, you never entered Melissa’s house without a friendly hello and hearing laughter coming from somewhere. We stayed very quiet all day, shooting events from as far as we could – using our lenses to get the close-ups rather than enter rooms all “paparazzi-style”. We just didn’t want to be under foot in the midst of her real drama. Luckily though, we were there when she called Jason to ask him about what she was finding. And we were shocked when Melissa tossed the computer off the terrace in frustration. We all felt for her that day. It was tough to watch. But I was really glad that our crew and I had developed such a close trust that she was willing to let us film it all as it went down.
When Joan decided to join Melissa on her annual vacation to a Wyoming ranch – we were very excited. The idea of seeing Joan attempt to ride a horse was worth taking the propeller plane to Cheyenne. And when Joan wanted to join the family to go fly-fishing – we were eager to see if she’d catch anything. Now you have to know, as a producer, it’s our job to make our crew as invisible as possible. Not an easy task when you are out in the middle of the wilderness with no other people, electricity, or vehicles around. We kept our cameras at safe range for the most part and used wireless microphones on Joan, Melissa and the rest of the cast to make sure we could record what they were saying. That way, we wouldn’t ruin the mood by having our crew in the river, and spoil the shots with a boom (the pole that holds the microphone). It all seemed like a great plan.
Joan assured me that she felt pretty steady in the water and that the current in the river was not too strong for her. Let me give you a piece of advice: when a funny lady tells you she’s just going to go fishing and not to worry – worry. After about an hour of fishing, Joan started getting bored with fishing, or more correctly, with not catching squat. It seemed that Cooper only had to put his hook in the water and something bit. Not Joan. It was like the fish knew she was coming. She started getting bored and casting her reel farther and farther. Finally, she did hook something. A bush. The next few moments seemed like they were playing in slow motion. Joan tugged. The bush tugged back. And Joan went down with a splash and a glug. Of course, our first thought was for Joan. She’s hardly frail, but still, she’s no Jacque Cousteau either. And she had on waders – which are great for keeping out water, except if you are under water. With the help of Melissa and the fishing instructor, she was back on her feet. And in typical Joan fashion, she was delighted knowing that her spill would make for funny TV. She found a hilarious way of cursing the universe, except the crew couldn’t hear most of it because her microphone went under water with her. Joan was fine with a toweling off. The microphone – not so much. Six hundred bucks down the drain. It was an expensive lesson for me. Water, electronics, and comedy simply don’t mix.
Sometimes as a reality producer, what you don’t do is as important as what you do. When Joan decided to record her voice on a GPS navigation system and surprise Melissa with it, we all thought it was a great idea. First of all, Joan’s voice and style of humor is so iconic, we knew that the product would turn out great. Second, the idea of Melissa having to suffer through her mom’s voice telling her where to go in the car made us all laugh. But how could we keep Melissa in the dark until it was installed in her car?
The trick as a producer was how to avoid letting Melissa know that all of this was happening. With Joan living in Melissa’s home, and working together on a constant basis, nothing happens to one without the other knowing.
First, Joan had to make sure that Sabrina and Melody would not spill the beans as they discussed the scheduling for both women. They decided to disguise the recording session as a pedicure appointment. How often do women check each other’s feet out – especially in the fall when sandal season is over? Second, we had to make sure that our crew’s call sheets (the paperwork that tells everyone when and where to show up) made no mention of the recording studio where Joan would record the voice for the GPS system. Then we had to make sure that Lynne, who is Melissa’s friend as well as Joan’s, wouldn’t let it slip over a glass of wine. There’s only so much we can control. But Lynne thought that surprising Melissa sounded hilarious, so she promised to keep silent.
The final piece, shooting Melissa in the car after the system was installed, was the easiest part. We helped Joan input the new voice card into the system early in the morning. Then we put some incorrect directions on one of Melissa’s scheduling sheets for the day, so that she’d choose to turn on her GPS while we were taping her. The results were hilarious – but we had to put the scene in a later episode – since it took several weeks for the system to be ready.
Okay, if you had told me that I would be helping Joan light a pot pipe last year, I would have said you were high. I was nervous when Lynne and Joan started looking for marijuana. I know that it’s legal in California, but I wasn’t sure how she would react to trying pot. I mean all I would need is for our star talent to get sick or nauseous. I was praying: “Not on my watch!” “Please god, let nothing really bad happen with my cameras rolling.” “A little bad for good TV, yes. But really bad, no.” I always set out to make a fun and exciting show – just so long as there aren’t any casualties. My mind was racing with all of the possibilities for disaster. What if she had a bad reaction to the drug? What if under the influence, Joan got depressed, or violent, or worst of all…unfunny? And I also hoped that I would not be in the position of having to cut Joan off.
Happily none of those nightmare scenarios occurred. But there were some very funny moments watching Joan go through the process, complete with getting the giggles and the munchies. I think that when Joan saw the pizza and the candy wrappers surrounding her bed the next morning – and mentally added up the calories she ingested, she vowed then and there to never try pot again. Luckily we were there to see Joan “up in smoke” this one and only time.
I’ve always been a Joan Rivers fan, so when the WE tv network executives asked me to Executive Produce this season, I was thrilled. She’s outrageous, super smart, and very real. But I didn’t appreciate just how real until she suggested that we follow her getting her plastic surgery.
Opening your life up to the cameras takes a kind of bravery and honesty that is rare – but to find it in a person of Joan’s stature is truly impressive. Joan is a very stylish woman. She’s built a small empire at QVC based on her good taste and style. And she rips on clothing-challenged celebrities on Fashion Police. So when the plastic surgeon told her that she could not have ANY make-up on before the surgery, no hair spray, no mascara-nothing, I feared that our cameras would not be welcome. Typically, Joan doesn’t open the front door for the morning paper without full hair and make-up…let alone for the TV cameras. And I hadn’t known Joan long enough for her to trust me in such a vulnerable state. But when I asked Joan if it was okay for us to shoot her on the morning of her surgery, she looked at me like I had two heads and said: “Of course. How else are you going to show what’s really going on?” I was relieved and impressed. Then she added, “And if anything goes wrong in the surgery, just keep the cameras rolling no matter what Melissa says. She will want to shut you down for privacy, but you keep rolling. She’ll be happy she has the footage later. She may get angry. You may get fired. But she’ll be happy she has it, later.” She added laughing, “much later.” Now THAT is why she’s Joan Rivers.