Everybody remembers the wild jokes and cracks comedian Joan Rivers would make onstage. But you might be a little less familiar with what she said offstage.
Joan passed away in 2014, but in her daughter Melissa Rivers’ new book, “Lies My Mother Told Me: Tall Tales From a Short Woman,” Melissa has a blast writing in her mother’s voice, making up lie after wild lie. Almost nothing in this book is true, Melissa told me. The falsehoods might stem from some kernel of truth – family vacations with Melissa, her mother, and her father, Edgar Rosenberg, or trips that Melissa’s son Cooper would take with his grandmother. But you’ll have to decide for yourself what’s true and what’s not.
Reporter Newspapers spoke with Melissa about her working relationship with her mother, living in Las Vegas as a kid, and her own comedy style. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You can hear Melissa talk about the book during the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s annual book festival. The event takes place on Nov. 5 at 8 p.m.
Reporter Newspapers: You talk about this a bit in the book, but how did the idea for this book come to you?
Melissa Rivers: Everyone kept asking me, what would your mother be saying, you know, in these times. So my writing partner and I started to write what we thought would be an article, or maybe an op-ed. We weren’t sure about what my mother would be saying about everything. We got into it and we realized, this is more than that. Then we were like, let’s write the history of the world according to Joan. Then we realized it would be more fun to sort of expand and open up the aperture and write about lies – you know, random lies. So we just started making up these crazy stories, and it got us through COVID. It was definitely a lifesaver.
RN: This book has a very interesting style. Is there anything in the book that’s true? How did you come up with the different lies you included?
MR: What’s true? There are very general, broad strokes. You’ll say what’s true, and I’m like, well you know, we did have Thanksgiving dinner! [Laughs] The truths are very, very broad.
I did spend a lot of time growing up in Vegas. My mom and my dad were friendly with Siegfried & Roy. So there’s little fun places of jumping off. But they’re very, very small. We just would think about what was funny. You know, my mother always hated when I had bangs. And we’re like, what could we tie that to? And we’re like, oh, you know, someone who got beheaded – French Revolution! So we just started brainstorming about what would be funny.
RN: I’m glad you mentioned the Las Vegas section. I can’t really imagine growing up in that environment as a kid. What was that like?
MR: Different, obviously. But my parents tried to keep it as normal as possible. Like, during Halloween we would go trick-or-treating in the hotel, you know, things like that. As a kid, you don’t realize your parents have preset everything. So those little bits about that kind of fun in Vegas, they do stem from an actual memory of being in Vegas as a kid.
RN: I can imagine going back over your whole life with your mom is a pretty big endeavor. When you were looking back at these real memories and bouncing off of them to make up these funny stories, were there any memories you happened upon that were particularly funny or emotional?
MR: I don’t think there was anything that was really emotional, because it’s a very light hearted book. [Laughs] We were not doing a deep dive into my psyche, you know, in any kind of a Freudian way.
I think the most fun things to think about were the different family vacations we took, and that my mother continued that whole thing with Cooper and “Grandma Week.” That’s all true, the places they went are true. What happened, I hope never actually happened – granted I wasn’t there, so I’ll plead the fifth on that one. So I think that was more fun, just to think of fun things we did or ridiculous situations.
RN: This book is written in your mother’s voice. Was that a conscious decision to write from her perspective? How does your real comedy voice compare to hers?
MR: How did I decide to write in her voice? Because by writing in her voice, I could get away with a lot more. It wasn’t me saying these things, it was her saying these things. It made it it very freeing.
How are our comedy styles different? Mine is actually much more like my father’s, in the sense that it’s very dry. I think that comes from the red carpets and all those years working with my mother. It’s much more reactive rather than proactive, and a lot more of finding the funny or the ridiculous in particular situations. Does that make any sense?
RN: I think so. You’re looking at something that’s mundane and figuring out what’s funny about it, is that a good way to describe it?
MR: Absolutely. Or ridiculous. And my mother would too, I think it’s just a different dryness.
RN: You worked a lot with your mother on quite a few things. I work with my dad a lot – we’re both musicians – and I know that working with a parent can sometimes be a little tenuous, when you have two different relationships going on.
MR: We like to say, “challenging.”
RN: Yes, exactly. I wondered if you had advice or perspective on how you navigated those two intertwining relationships.
MR: Pick your battles. Pick your battles, because when you are living with your parent or spending a tremendous amount of time with your parent, I found I would revert back to teenage behavior.
MR: “You can tell me that!” Rather than, you know, just going like, whatever and walking away. You revert completely back to an old dynamic.
RN: That’s so true. I would become a version of myself I hadn’t seen in years.
MR: Exactly. You sort of revert back into the roles. Unfortunately, in my house, they kind of flipped, because I was clearly the adult in the relationship [Laughs].
RN: You mention that a lot throughout the book.
MR: Yes. There’s a nugget of truth for you.
RN: The last thing I wanted to ask – and I’m sure you’ve been asked this before – but, what do you think your mom would have thought about the book>
MR: Oh, I think she would have loved it. I think more than anything, she would have been annoyed that she didn’t think of it. You know, I know my mom. She would have been like, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?”