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Say what you want about Joan Rivers—and it’s all been said—but she’s undeniably a comedy icon. Women comedians are not a dime a dozen; you probably don’t even need two hands to name all the famous ones from the last 40 years. Yet Rivers has been a staple since she entered the NYC comedy club scene in the 60s—her career is the result of hard work, determination, and a well-documented aptitude for resilience.
Her 9+ lives have now been documented in a new bio-doc called, appropriately, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. For the film (which had its New York premiere at TFF 2010), filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg spent 15 all-access months with Rivers, then 75, exploring her diverse career—on television, in stand-up, on QVC—both then and now. All topics are covered, including her husband’s suicide, her public (and permanent) rift with Johnny Carson, and her relationship with her daughter Melissa. The result is a portrait of a true performer—she’s clearly happiest when she’s working, and she adores the camera.
At a recent roundtable interview, Rivers kept the press amused with her jokes, her warmth, her candor, and her (at times) foul mouth. She weighed in on the “bitches” of Celebrity Apprentice, why Conan O'Brien really shouldn’t throw stones, her upcoming mother/daughter reality show, and why she thinks she still has three great love affairs to go. In sum, she’s still a hoot!
Q: You always say that what makes you happiest is performing, with a full calendar. Why?
Joan Rivers: Because that’s what I am. I’m a performer. I was meant to be one, and I’m still performing—how great is that? I love what I do. I don’t want to have lunch with my girlfriends—I love my girlfriends—but one of them just told me she spent 3 weeks in Venice taking cooking classes. I thought, “I’d f***ing kill myself.” I just love what I do.
Q: How has comedy changed?
JR: It’s much better now. It’s so rough, and you can talk about anything. How wonderful to get on stage and you can talk about vaginas dropping, anything. You know, I was pregnant on [The Ed Sullivan Show], and I couldn’t say I was pregnant. That’s insane! 8 months gone, and saying, “Mr. Sullivan, soon I’ll be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet.” That’s what happened. It’s much better now.
Q: There’s a scene in the movie where [someone tells you not to joke about something.] How do you know when you it’s okay to joke about something and when it’s not?
JR: You have very good questions, but remember, I am a very shallow person. So your questions will be a lot deeper than my answers.
People ask, “What won’t you talk about on stage?” If I’m talking about it, I know it’s right. And I don’t know why it’s right, but there’s obviously a connection with the audience, and you say, “Yeah, we should be talking about this.” And when [that man] said to me—first of all, as a man, you don’t know what women go through—and the women in the audience were responding immediately, and that’s what I was talking to my girlfriends about. Why is Sex and the City such a big hit? Because it’s women talking to women about things nobody understood women talked to each other about. And that’s exactly what a lot of my life has been about on stage.
Q: So do you think Michelle Obama would have laughed about your Blackie O joke? [In the film, she calls the First Lady “Blackie O,” but is dissuaded from using it in public.]
JR: I don’t know—I meant it truly as a compliment! “Look, we’ve got Blackie O! She’s so chic!” And everyone said, “You can’t say that!” And I didn’t, because you certainly don’t want it to be taken the wrong way. And very often, you find yourself apologizing… but me of all people? I call people Orientals, Asians, whatever—because nothing means it’s bad to me.
If I were black and saying it, she would have laughed. You always have to stop and think about the other factor. So I always try to think, “If they were non-Jewish, and they made the joke, would I laugh?” And usually I go, “Yeah.” [laughs]
Q: You were a longtime stand-in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, but when you accepted the talk show at Fox in the 80s, he never spoke to you again. Why do you think he was so vindictive—was it because you were a woman?
JR: Two reasons: I think because I was a woman, he never thought I’d leave him. I’ve looked back over the years, and everybody in that group left—David Brenner left, Bill Cosby left—this was all the same group—George Carlin… He was never angry at any of them. I left, and it was like, “You have cut off my arms. How could you leave me?” It was insane.
Let’s look at the Leno/Conan thing. I left and I became competitive to [Carson], I was going opposite him, [and] he became a tough, smart businessman. What happened with Leno/Conan? [Leno said,] “I want it back,” and he got it back. And Conan is going around, “Boo hoo, boo hoo, boo hoo.” And then he goes and does it to George Lopez [on TBS]. He did exactly the same thing: “I want that spot—push him out.”
It’s a business. Women are more emotional, and we come from a different place, and we forget very often that it’s a business—it’s a bottom-line business. But Johnny never spoke to me again. [incredulous] Edgar killed himself, and he didn’t…
Q: He didn’t call, send flowers…
JR: Nothing! And this is the man who introduced me to Edgar. I mean, where are you? Who are you?
Q: Did you ever talk to mutual friends about it?
JR: He never had any friends. He was very enclosed. The only one—God bless Ed McMahon. I was sitting in one of my terrible low points, in the Beverly Hills Hotel (so not THAT low [laughs], a low-ish point, looking very chic, but a low-ish point), and Ed McMahon, this sounds so stupid, but Ed McMahon came over and talked to me. I thought, “You’re risking your job.” He was such a nice man. He came over and chatted with me, and boy, oh boy, nobody gets what it meant for him to come over and talk to me. None of the others ever spoke to me—they all pulled back.
Q: What would be your ideal circumstances for your own TV series now? Perhaps on cable?
JR: My ideal would be another late-night show. I love interviewing. I love love love love love. I would kill—I would do it on the Internet! I’ll sit in my living room.
And Melissa and I are doing a new show called Mother Knows Best. December 2 is the airdate on WE. And I think it will destroy the relationship, but it’s worth it. [laughs] It’s a reality show—I am moving back in with her.
Q: Do you have any control over the editing on your new show with Melissa?
JR: Yes. Even though there aren’t going to be any writers, I am obviously a producer on the show, so I’m going to be a writer. What I am worried about is that Melissa is so private. When you have children, you realize that they are only 50% you, and Melissa is [like] my husband—my husband was so English, you didn’t know anything. You didn’t know he was going to kill himself until he killed himself. And this is the man I lived with.
So Melissa is a very private person, and I don’t think she’s going to be as happy as she thinks she is going to be on the show, because America wants to see—the whole point is to see a real mother/daughter relationship. I don’t want to be Tori and Dean, even though they are successful. I want to do a REAL show, so I think it’s going to be a little difficult. She’s going to say she doesn’t want to show things I want to show.
Q: In the movie, you talk about your experience on Celebrity Apprentice. How did your season compare to the latest one?
JR: We were the perfect storm—everybody hated each other. Everybody was nasty and vicious and backbiting—we were perfect. [This year’s] group really liked each other. Off-camera they were kissy, they were happy to see each other! I mean, Holly [Robinson Peete] said, “Bret [Michaels] should win.” I was like, WHAT? Where are you coming from? It was such a different vibration…
I think ours was a more interesting season. With Melissa, you don’t know how nasty those two bitches treated her. The two prom queens, I always call them.
Q: Annie Duke and…?
JR: No, Annie Duke was my problem. Annie Duke played people like you play poker. And once you understood that, it took about 4 weeks to realize that she was just lying to us. She would tell you one thing, and tell her another, and him another… It was just amazing. She was bad. At the end it became like a crusade: I swear, I was the white knight on my horse going into battle. This girl CANNOT win! [shrugs and laughs at herself] It was Celebrity Apprentice.
Q: Is the Donald the same on camera as he is off?
JR: I went in very skeptical. [But] he is so smart and such a pro. He gets it—he knows what he wants. I walked out of there with such respect for him; I get it. And yes, he’s the best—my God—you sit with him for 2 minutes and you believe in everything. “I’ll invest in that!” He’s such a salesman—he must have been like P.T. Barnum—he’s just a brilliant salesman. He totally, totally believes it, and you do too. Nothing dumb about that man.
Q: Do you have any kind of backup system for your famous card catalog archive of jokes we see in the movie?
JR: Oh, in theory. We always get a poor summer intern who starts putting them into the computer, and—the kid came from Brown last year—you see his eyes rolling back in his head, and he’s still on A. So no, if there was ever, God forbid, a fire, we’re screwed. So we’re trying to get them on backup, but it’s almost an impossible task.
Q: In the film, you have some advice about money. Can you explain?
JR: Save your money when you are young, so when you are old, you don’t have to worry. Because no one ever thinks they are old. When I hit 60, I said, “From now on, I am going to be very careful, because I want to retire at 70. So I’ll just have 10 more good years.” [Then] at 70, I’m saying, “Now, I really should be careful, because when I hit 80, I am going to have to start saving my money.” So I know I will be 110 and saying to the nurse, “You know, easy on the Depends. Can’t we rewash it?”
Q: Is there aspect of your life they left out of the movie that you wish they had included?
JR: I was very upset they left out QVC. I go in every day and design the jewelry. I sit with them, and I’m like Joan Crawford in a movie: “Gentlemen, I said BLUE!” [The directors] shot it, but they had 14-15 months’ worth of shooting, and [the film is just] 83 minutes. Where were they going to put it? Well, I think it should have been a two-parter…
Q: What do you hope that people will learn about you from the film that they don’t know?
JR: I don’t know. I hope they come away knowing: Push forward. Stop whining. Get on with it. And better things happen. Life is a lot of downs, but there are a lot of ups. The New York Times says you can have deep love six times. Isn’t that fabulous? We’re not talking [lust], we’re talking deep love. If that’s true, I’ve got three more old Jewish men waiting for me. I’m so excited.