Both Robin Williams and Joan Rivers were significant figures during that era of comedy, and of course both became even more central in popular culture during the decades since. Both recorded a few LPs, though none of them found their way into my collection. Still, I appreciated how both contributed importantly to American comedy.
When news of Rivers having passed began circulating yesterday afternoon, many in poker immediately recalled her venomous tête-à-tête with Annie Duke on Celebrity Apprentice from five years ago. I found myself looking back at a post I’d written here the day after the finale of that quasi-competition.
For Rivers the show existed amid what became an extended final run of heightened fame marked by her appearance on several reality shows, “red carpet” hosting gigs, and the E! network show Fashion Police that helped keep her a household name.
For Duke being on Celebrity Apprentice was the most notable of several television-related ventures that included turning up on other game shows and a couple of failed attempts starting shows centered around her own then-growing celebrity such as Annie Duke Takes on the World (a game show in which she played poker against amateurs) and All In (a sitcom based on her life -- no shinola).
At the time Duke was still representing UltimateBet (or UB) well after the site’s massive insider cheating scandal had become public. Indeed, she’d been spending much of the previous year defending the site, repeatedly claiming the site had shown “grace and integrity” in its handling of the matter when even then it was clear that was hardly the case, and of course later on further corruption within UB became even more evident. (She’d part with the site at the very end of 2010, three-and-a-half months before Black Friday.)
In other words, some of the poker community was already uncertain about Duke’s status as a “spokesperson” of poker even then in the spring of 2009, although on Celebrity Apprentice she was absolutely regarded that way by others on the show and by the mainstream audience. Indeed, when it came to the Rivers-vs.-Duke rivalry on the show, it was Duke’s poker player identity that earned the most remembered bit of vitriol from the comedian, at least among those of us in poker -- even more remembered than Rivers calling Duke a “Nazi” and comparing her to Hitler.
From that 2009 post:
“Even if you haven’t been watching the show, you’d probably heard about Rivers’ shots at poker and Vegas. How she referred to the money contributed by poker players to Duke’s cause as ‘money with blood on it.’ How she referred to her many years performing in LV by saying ‘I’ve met your people in Vegas for forty years -- none of them have last names,’ suggesting the nefarious and/or criminal backgrounds of the inhabitants of Sin City...”
the clip we all passed around at the time. “That’s beyond white trash.” “Poker players are the most awesome people in the world,” Duke responds, not necessarily her finest moment as a debater. “Poker players are trash, darling... trash,” reiterates Rivers.
Duke’s subsequent move from UB to the doomed Epic Poker League didn’t do much to prove Rivers wrong, either, when it came to her judgment of Duke. Speaking of, Jeffrey Pollack -- whose reputation in the poker world would sink in the EPL ship along with Duke’s -- was still the WSOP Commissioner at the time of Duke’s appearance on Celebrity Apprentice, and in the WSOP conference call that year would maintain that Duke’s appearance on the show represented a “leap forward for the mainstreaming of poker into our pop culture” and that the “net effect was going to be very good for poker.”
I’m wondering otherwise in that post, given how badly the game was portrayed on the show. And of course, years later, even poker players are today unhesitatingly siding in retrospect with Rivers against Duke.
For Rivers, Annie Duke was just one of several with whom she battled heads-up in a long career, her unrestrained comedic style (and personality) often being much more savage than subtle (or more Juvenal than Horace). And while poker and its image might have suffered some collateral damage from their exchange years ago, the game would persevere nonetheless -- despite both of them.