Joan Rivers Won Ben Stein’s Money by Suing Him Over a Nasty Hit Piece
Bert Hacker really had it out for Joan Rivers. After the death of Rivers’ husband, Edgar, in 1987, Hacker took to the pages of GQ magazine to lay the smackdown. “I have known Joan Rivers for more than 20 years,” wrote Hacker before describing all the terrible things she had to say about her dead spouse. “(Edgar) has been all over my case like a maniac,” Hacker quotes Rivers as complaining. “Listen, when I think of the way he makes me crazy, I really wonder if they didn’t execute the wrong Rosenbergs.”
It’s easy to see why GQ would bite on a story this juicy. There were only a couple of problems: 1) Hacker didn’t really know Joan Rivers; and 2) there was no Bert Hacker. That was just a pseudonym for the real author — Nixon speechwriter, Ferris Bueller teacher and Comedy Central game show host Ben Stein. And apparently, he was just making stuff up.
Rivers, no stranger to feuds with comedy stars like Johnny Carson and Jerry Lewis, wasn’t having it. She filed a $50 million libel suit against Stein and demanded a full retraction, calling the GQ hitjob “a total pack of evil, vicious, sick lies.”
How did Stein defend himself? Hilariously and against the advice of his lawyer, as it turns out. In a 1988 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Stein offered up this rationale for why Rivers was in the wrong: “Essentially what Joan Rivers is saying in this lawsuit is, ‘Yes, I am a famous comedian. Yes, I have been spending all my adult life saying to people, ‘Come look at me make jokes.’ Yes, many of those jokes are about dead people. Yes, many of them are about my husband. And yes, I told a number of jokes about my husband after he was dead. But I didn’t tell these specific jokes. Because these specific ones went a little too far, and I didn’t tell these.’”
Note that it took Stein a minute to get to the part about Rivers not actually telling the vicious jokes that Hacker/Stein’s article claimed. If the lawsuit got before a jury, you’d think that would be a pertinent piece of information. For Stein, apparently, it was enough that Rivers had made jokes about both her husband and other dead people in the past — so what’s a few more?
But if Rivers didn’t actually say those things, why in Nixon’s name did Stein write the attack in the first place? He had a rationale for that too, an incel manifesto for the ages: “She’s up there on TV preaching … a social ideology. And that ideology is materialism: Don’t worry about whether or not you love him, get the ring. Don’t worry about whether or not you enjoy having sex with him, that’s a fake anyway, worry about how much money he’s got. Don’t worry about whether he or she is a nice person, worry about what he looks like. This to me is a coherent social ideology, and I think an extremely unfortunate one. I think she’s preaching, just as much as Jerry Falwell or Jim Bakker, and I think she deserves to have her life examined just as much as they do.”
It’s not clear how claiming Rivers dissed her dead husband qualified as an examination of the comic’s social ideology. But Stein was upset nonetheless about the lawsuit sucking him into the Joan Rivers publicity machine. And GQ wasn’t doing much to pay his legal bills! Poor guy.
If Stein had any chance in court, the Times interview likely blew it up. In October 1989, he settled the lawsuit by agreeing to pay an undisclosed amount of cash to charities of supposed materialist Rivers’ choosing. Don’t shed a tear for Jimmy Kimmel’s former co-star, however. As a member of the Nixon administration, Stein knew how to take a loss.