This morning, I had the pleasure of chatting with the legendary comedienne Joan Rivers about her life, work, eccentricities, and the new documentary that showcases all of the above, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg‘s aptly titled “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (trailer). The film, which debuted to widespread acclaim at January’s Sundance Film Festival, is very funny, as one might expect considering its subject, but also surprisingly moving. It touches upon the tragedy (a husband’s suicide), pain (a mentor’s rejection), and loneliness (a byproduct of aging) that have helped to fuel — and, even after 76 years, continue to fuel — Rivers’ trailblazing career in the public eye, and leaves one with a newfound respect for Rivers herself.
Following are excerpts of our conversation, which touched on the documentary; her work in comedy, on QVC, and along red carpets with her daughter Melissa Rivers; her roast on Comedy Central; NBC’s Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien debacle; Betty White‘s surprising resurgence; the next generation of female comics; her new TV Land show “How’d You Get So Rich?”; the possibility of an Oscar-hosting gig; and much more…
Why did Joan Molinsky became Joan Rivers?
Because in those days, which were the mid-sixties to the seventies, you liked to have a “theatrical name,” quote-unquote, and my agent’s name was Jerry Rivers. So that was it, just a good name.
Who were your comic role models and inspirations?
Probably Lenny Bruce. And there were lots of women around, but they were doing it and looking funny at the time, you know, like Phyllis Diller was at her height. She was wild-looking, silly-looking, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to look pretty.
When did you first realize that you were funny?
Always. Always [been] funny.
What made you decide to allow cameras to record your private life — for the first time, I believe?
No, it’s not really. They did a couple of “Biography” specials on me and stuff, but they were such pandering — you know, “everybody loves you” talking heads. And I just thought that the work that these two girls do is extraordinary, and I thought they could really get an honest picture of what it’s like for a year in the life of a performer. And I think they did. [Note: Co-director Stern's mother is a close friend of Rivers's.]
What was your initial, immediate reaction upon seeing the completed film?
None — and that’s a good question — none. I’m too close to it. I was in awe at what they were able to put in, and — not disappointed, that’s the wrong word — surprised at some of the things that they left out.
As long as you mention that, may I ask what some of the things were that you were surprised they left out?
Well, my personal life, my social life. They mainly concentrated on my professional life, which is great, but it looks like I have no friends in the world, it looks like I don’t have a family, you know? But they only had 89 minutes or something to do it, and obviously it’s getting amazing reviews — they picked which they thought were the most interesting things, and they were obviously right.
After watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder what really drives you to continue to work so hard and to continue to subject yourself to audiences. In the film you joke that it’s largely due to bad investments and the need to fund your lavish lifestyle; there’s also a montage in there that seems to suggest that it’s anger or even hate about certain things; and your daughter, meanwhile, expresses her belief that it’s really just the same thing that’s driven comedians forever, namely the need for approval. But I wonder what really is the driving force that makes you continue to do this…
I think it’s all of the above, plus I just love the work. I love what I do. I’m one of those lucky people that has been able to survive all their life doing what they love, what they wanted to do from being a child on. I never wanted anything but this business, and how lucky I was that I was able to make a life in it.
Is there a step in the process that you love most of all? Is it the writing, or the delivery, or the audience response, or something else?
It’s everything. It’s everything. To think of an idea, and laugh about it, and then do it on stage that night, and then they laugh? That’s great. It makes you feel so good.
As someone who was also unfairly screwed around by NBC late-night, what’s your take on the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien debacle? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who won? Who lost?
I think they both won. Conan got $45 million — not a bad check to walk away — and then Conan, after all his boo-hooing that “I was pushed out by Leno, boo-hoo, boo-hoo,” went and pushed out Lopez. No one has put that piece of the puzzle together yet, which I find the most interesting of the whole thing — he did exactly to George Lopez what Leno did to him! And Leno absolutely belongs at 11:30 — he’s boring, he’s easy, he doesn’t make waves. He’s perfect for late-night ’cause you can go to sleep and you’ve missed nothing.
The documentary doesn’t devote much if any time to your work on red carpets, which is the primary way that many people who grew up during the 1990s and 2000s know you–
Are you surprised that it wasn’t touched upon more?
Again, that was their choice. I just allowed them into my life, and they were around me for 14 months, 15 months, and they had to pick what they thought was the most interesting.
As far as that chapter in your life — the fashion stuff — how did it come about?
Well, everyone forgets that I designed my own line on QVC for 20 years. So I’m very much into that kind of fashion. All through college, I worked in window display — which is a combination of fashion and showbiz — for Lord & Taylor. Those were my summer jobs and my jobs right out of college. So I was always kind of involved with fashion. And I just like fashion. It was just a natural thing. And every woman comments, every woman sits in front of her screen and says, “I like her dress, I don’t like her dress.” Every woman’s a fashion expert.
Before you, had anyone ever asked the question, “Who are you wearing?”
I figured that question out — not a heavy question to figure out! [laughs]
No, but it’s really become a popular catchphrase…
I know, and the New York Times, when I was saying it in the beginning, was saying, “How superficial and how stupid to say this!”
Well, I think you won that one…
Yeah, I won that battle.
Many of the critiques that you’ve made have been very entertaining, but some of the recipients of them have asked, “Who are you to make them?” What would you say to them?
“And who are you to wear such an ugly dress?!” [laughs]
There’s a generation of female comics now — Ellen DeGeneres, Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, etc. — who very possibly might not have been interested in doing what they’re doing or been able to do it were it not for you. Therefore, I’m curious: who, in your opinion, is the comic heiress to Joan Rivers?
There is no heiress! I am alive, and I am well, and I am working at the top of my form, and I couldn’t give a shit. There is no mantle to be passed; I am wearing the mantle, and it is a gorgeous mantle.
If you had not led such a public life, what do you think you might have done with your life?
I would have been a funny dentist’s wife in Larchmont. I don’t know because I think, somehow or other, I would’ve gotten into this business. It might have been community theater, who knows? I just always was hellbent on getting into the business.
What’s been the hardest part of it? If you could lose one part of it, would it be the fierce competition or criticism? I mean, the documentary features your thoughts on the Comedy Central roast, which really seemed like something that you were not gung-ho to do at all. And, when you did do it, they were not nice — they got into plastic surgery, and age, and stuff like that. At this stage of your life, what do you need that kind of crap for?
The money was amazing. The money was amazing, which is exactly why I did it. I ended up having a great time with it, and I loved the people I worked with. But I never do roasts; I don’t let them do one of me and I don’t like to do them. I just think they’re stupid because, again, you’re always gonna say the same thing — there are, like, six areas that you can talk about with anybody, and it’s so boring, and who cares? And they always end up saying, “But, seriously, I love you!” Oh, go away! I’m not a roast person.
You must have thick skin, though. You don’t let that stuff bother you?
I knew what was coming. In the documentary, I said to my assistant, “They’re gonna do plastic surgery, and age, and QVC jokes.” And then you saw the show and they did plastic surgery, and age, and QVC jokes. As I said, I’m not a fan of roasts.
If you could go back and change one thing about your life — the work side or the personal side or anything — what would you have liked to turn out differently?
Oh, I would have loved to have been a great opera singer.
Oh, God! I would have loved to be able to get on the stage at the Met and just belt it out. Oh — oh, my God!
Did you ever pursue that at all? Not necessarily at the Met, but at a lower level?
You haven’t heard me sing. [laughs]
In the film you talk about “the book” — your calendar book. How’s that filling up these days? What are your plans for the future? What are you up to next? Is there anything that you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet?
My book is busier than ever, thank God, which is amazing. I want to do everything I said in the movie. I want to go back to Broadway; I’ve never been in a situation comedy — of course, I’ve never even asked to read for one. Melissa and I have a new TV show coming out in December, a reality-show. I have my own show, “How’d You Get So Rich?,” on the air in its second season. My jewelry. It’s all — life is okay! No complaints at this moment.
What do you make of all the hubbub over Betty White hosting “Saturday Night Live”?
I think it was wonderful. I think she’s a great comic actress, and I think she was so underrated until now. When you look back, she was on “Mary Tyler Moore” — hilarious. She was on “Golden Girls” — hilarious. She’s a wonderful comic actress. How great for her, at 88, to be so feted. I mean, that’s just wonderful.
Now there’s a grassroots campaign for Betty White to host the Emmys or the Oscars. Next to her, you’re a kid! Would you ever be interested in doing that? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate turn-around, to bring you inside from the red carpet?!
Oh, in a hot second! But they’ll never do it. I’m an outsider. They will never do it. Again, you’ve gotta learn in this business to survive. You put on your blinders and you do your own race. They will never do it. I have never been an insider, which is one of the big things for the movie shows. And I would probably be the 19th down on the list.
But, playing the devil’s advocate, aren’t Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jon Stewart outsiders? Yes, they’re in show business, but they’re not really movie people…
But they’re just perceived differently. And who cares? Again we’re back to that — I don’t look, I don’t care.
Photo: Joan Rivers performs stand-up in Edinburgh, Scotland in May 2009. Credit: Underbelly Limited.