Melissa Rivers hosts Kennedy Center tribute to Joan Rivers

November 29, 2021 | WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Joan Rivers tribute at Kennedy Center (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Since 1998, the Kennedy Center has honored the nation’s top comedians with the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

But ironically, the venue has never hosted a full-fledged comedy festival — until now.

Get ready for the Kennedy Center’s District of Comedy Festival, running now through July 25.

Melissa Rivers (“Fashion Police”) will kick off the festival by saluting her late mother in “Celebrating Joan: A Tribute to Joan Rivers” on Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.

“It’s their big comedy festival and they’d like to open it with a tribute to my mom,” Rivers told WTOP.

“She always wanted a Kennedy Center honor or Mark Twain Prize and she never got either, so I said this is the closest we’re gonna get to the Kennedy Center! … Beggars can’t be choosers.”

It’s hard to believe Rivers never received either honor, considering the Mark Twain Prize has gone to peers and protégés like Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Tina Fey, Ellen DeGeneres and Carol Burnett.

“Who am I to understand the inner workings of that secret cabal?” Melissa Rivers joked.

The closest her mother ever got was saluting George Carlin with a Mark Twain Prize in 2008.

Expect similar celebrity tributes and clips packages at this week’s Joan Rivers salute.

“We have lots of great celebrities and clips and performances by a lot of people who knew my mom,” Rivers said. “We’re going to take a look back at her life and the different things she accomplished.”

What will Rivers’ specific role be?

“I am opening and closing the show,” Rivers said. “I will be introducing my mother’s favorite child, which is her joke cabinet. [Not me]. I knew where I was in the pecking order.”

Ironically, her sibling rivalry didn’t come with the joke cabinet, but rather the family pooch.

“I mostly had sibling rivalry with her dog,” Rivers joked, refusing to mention the puppy’s name. “Why give the enemy airtime?”

Spitting such funny quips, it’s easy to see where Melissa Rivers gets her comedic chops. But even Melissa has a hard time putting into words what made her mother such a natural funnywoman.

“You can’t really answer that,” Rivers said. “She was always current. She was so smart. You can never really put a finger on something like that. You can never really define anything. It’s how that particular person looked at the world, and if you could say why it worked, then everybody could do it.”

Rivers says her mother was equally funny in private.

“My mother was always very funny. My father was very funny. We grew up in a household with a lot of laughter,” Rivers said. “Our sense of humor ran toward the ironic, the dark and the absurd behind the scenes, and looking at life going, ‘Are you kidding me?’ That’s how I was raised looking at life.”

The family life routinely inspired her mother’s comedy routines.

“My father and I were constant fodder for her material,” she said. “Once I had Cooper, my son, being a grandmother also became fodder for her act. She always drew on what was going on in her life.”

Melissa even played her mother across Jennifer Lawrence in David O. Russell’s “Joy” (2015).

But the younger Rivers says she doesn’t need movie roles to see her mother’s spirit in herself.

“Oh, all the time,” she said. “When you become a parent is when that really hits you, because you find yourself saying things that your parents said or your parents did. Oh my god, I do that all the time.”

This September will mark two years since Joan Rivers died during complications from a medically-induced coma during a minor throat procedure at an outpatient clinic in Manhattan. She was 81.

“Grief is tricky; it ebbs and flows,” Rivers said of her mother’s passing. “Like anybody else, you have your moments. Some days are good. Some days are bad. Some days it feels like forever, and some days it feels like yesterday. You know, grief is a process and there’s no way to speed it up.”

For now, the best therapy is to remember her mother’s life and celebrate her comedic gifts.

“She touched so many people and she worked with so many people and she influenced so many people,” Rivers said fondly of her mother. “Just looking at the list of the people who are coming, finally we had to start saying ‘no’ to the different taped pieces [pouring in].”

Taped video tributes will include Andy Cohen, Barry Manilow, Lily Tomlin and John Waters, while in-person remarks and performances will include a powerful lineup of Louie Anderson, Rachel Bloom, Dick Cavett, Meghan McCain, Kelly Osbourne, Aubrey Plaza, Jordin Sparks and Bob Saget.

“It’s going to be an incredible evening,” Rivers said. “It’s going to be filled with laughs, fun, music and amazing clips and you’re gonna walk out in a great mood. It’s a wonderful tribute.”

Here’s the full list of Kennedy Center events for the District of Comedy Festival:

Click here for more info on the Kennedy Center’s District of Comedy Festival.

November 29, 2021 | (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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