Joan Rivers, who turns 77 on Tuesday, is a survivor.
The audacious Rivers, with her raspy, heavily New York-accented voice, got her start in the late 1950s appearing in the play “Seawood” opposite a then-unknown Barbra Streisand. She made a name for herself performing stand-up in numerous Greenwich Village comedy clubs in the early 1960s, before making her debut on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” in 1965. Rivers flourished on “The Tonight Show,” eventually serving as Carson’s regular guest host. She’s hosted several short-lived daytime and late night talk shows, often clashing with producers, and helmed a number of bestselling books and comedy albums. For the younger generation, Rivers is most famous for her red carpet awards show hosting duties on E!, where she flagged down celebrities with her trademark phrase, “Can we talk?”
In recent years, the oft-criticized Rivers, with her numerous plastic surgeries, has found trouble getting work – the kiss of death for a lifetime workaholic. Documentary filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (“The Devil Came on Horseback”) chronicled Rivers’s attempt at a career resuscitation as the comic turned 75. The result is the documentary, JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK – a revealing portrait of the life of the relentless TV personality/comic/actress. If you weren’t a fan of Rivers’s work before – and she has her detractors – you will be after viewing this touching work on one of the hardest-working women in showbiz.
MMM sat down with the iconic Joan Rivers for an in-depth interview touching on career longevity, why Jews are funny, Michael Jackson’s pedophilia, Heidi Montag’s plastic surgeries, “Sex and the City,” her legacy and so much more.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: What are the Altoids for?
JOAN RIVERS: Altoids are because when I have interviewed people close up all these years I’ve many a time wished they had one. So I always make sure I have one. You’ve all had that, and you go you can’t stand another minute. So I always carry Altoids with me.
MMM: You’re so hard working and the you’ve been at this game for a long time. How do you feel about reality stars these days getting instant fame?
RIVERS: I think they better enjoy it. I think that a lot of them don’t get it; that it’s five minutes of fame. And the ones that are complaining… we always see it on the red carpet – this one just gave them trouble and that one demanded this and this one won’t move. You want to say you stupid ass. You are a lucky person; enjoy it now because five years from now no one’s going to give a damn about you. They’re all missing the point of how lucky they are.
MMM: And your secret of longevity is?
RIVERS: Anything. It says it in the movie. Do anything. I’m only an actor? Excuse me? Do what you have to do. If you love the business you’re in the business, and I’ll do anything, as I say in the movie. And I mean it. My jewelry business; they came to me and said to me do you want to do jewelry for QVC when everyone was laughing at television shopping. It was a joke; dead performers were going on there. And I said sure, let’s try it. What’s so terrible? And look what it turned into; it turned into a legacy for me.
MMM: Is there anything you’ve turned down though? There must be something?
RIVERS: Nothing. I don’t know. Looking back, maybe I’ve turned down a script or something I really thought was terrible. But very seldom.
MMM: Are there things now, especially in light of making this movie, that you want to seize hold of that you haven’t done?
RIVERS: Oh, everything. I would love to do another late night talk show, which will never be offered to me. But I would love to do that.
MMM: Why don’t you think one will be offered to you?
RIVERS: Because they look at you with a 10-year time and they look at me and they think god knows where she’s going to be in 10 years. That’s number one. Number two, I have to constantly beat myself. I constantly have to top myself. Who is my biggest competitor? Me. “Oh Joan, she’s funny.” So you have to be better than that; you’re no longer fresh. If I came in as Harriet Schwartz, a new housewife from Long Island, the world would be open to me. But I’m not. It’s Joan Rivers. She’s funny. For 40 years she’s been funny.
MMM: But Joan, look at Betty White.
RIVERS: That’s what’s giving me hope. If she dies now that’s really going to fuck me. I am so nervous! I’m sending her vitamins. Exactly, look at Betty White. How wonderful is that?
MMM: You were at the Miss USA pageant. What is your take on the controversy going on there?
RIVERS: You mean because she was a pole dancer? Oh, so. Like all of us haven’t danced on a pole at one time.
MMM: And it was pretty groundbreaking to have an Arab American win.
RIVERS: I don’t know. I’m a New Yorker and I get very nervous when people tell me – this is a terrible thing to say – I get very nervous. Arab American, fine. Just show me where it says I want to live in peace. That’s all I want. I want you to have a good time, you believe what you want, I believe what I want. But I don’t want to hear that you’re out to get me. And that does scare me. I don’t think she’s a Muslim. Her mother was in a dress that was so cut down I could tell you what color her underwear was. The mother was having a good time, so there wasn’t this feeling of…ladies didn’t come in burkas to congratulate her. Then you would have gotten very nervous. But they were hilarious. The girls that lost were standing in bikinis crying and eating brownies because they knew they were out of the running down. They were all in little bikinis stuffing their faces.
MMM: Why are Jews funny?
RIVERS: Look at us. Have you seen my relatives? You better laugh. See, people say Jews are funny. Look at the great comics today, they’re not Jews. Chris Rock; I don’t think he’s got a Jewish bubala sitting there. Robin Williams, George Carlin. When you really stop. But I think there were more Jews in the Catskills coming from that, and Jewish humor is hilarious and it’s easy to be funny when you’re Jewish. You know that. It’s just so much fun. Just a Jewish compliment: “What happened to you?” That’s how my relatives greet me.
MMM: This is a very revealing portrait of you, this documentary. How do you feel about that?
RIVERS: Truly, I was the pawn. I wanted them to tell the truth and I wanted them to make the statement about stop whining, get on with your life, and also how horrible age is. You’re all in this room, even though you don’t think about it a lot at this point, you’re all going to come up to that mountain and it sucks. And it’s one thing that you cannot say I can turn this mountain around. You can’t. So that’s what I wanted to come out of the documentary, and it was their choices of what they picked.
MMM: Are there any scenes you really loved out of this?
RIVERS: Yeah. One with my grandson that I love. The other was again, which is so what I think, the one with the girl who was such a winner, Fox, and such a tough, edgy New York girl, and an ingénue and an artist and a photographer, and look where she’s sitting now. And that to me is life sucks and you better enjoy it. It goes back to the reality show; you better enjoy it right now when your legs are moving. You could cross the street tomorrow and from the neck down you’re lying there in bed.
MMM: Which scenes were you uneasy about that you sort of half wanted taken out of there?
RIVERS: Melissa was very upset with Edgar’s stuff because her father’s her father. The only thing we did remove, we removed something where I walk past Edgar’s photograph, which I do almost every day, and go “Fuck you.” I’m still angry and it’s 20 years later, but if you haven’t had suicide in your families you don’t get that. And if you have had a suicide you are so upset and so angry for the rest of your life. And so Melissa said please take that part out, so that was the only one I called and they were very nice. Because I had given them complete carte blanche, and I said at one point art is art but I don’t want my daughter upset. So they were kind enough to remove that.
MMM: Do you have any regrets?
RIVERS: You know what I have regrets about? Who I didn’t sleep with. Remember this, women and men. That would be: Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, I could give you a whole list of guys that tried it with me and I was married. When you meet them on a show you’ll be interviewing them and they’ll be talking to you, you’ll be talking to them. So I look back and I go, “Fuck, I should have done that. I regret that.” Seriously what do I regret? Somebody once said you only regret things you didn’t do. I don’t regret anything I’ve done because at least I’ve done it, I’ve tried it.
MMM: Is any of the archival footage interesting to watch? Some of the older stuff?
RIVERS: I love what they found because I hadn’t seen any of that stuff. Carson was the best straight man in the business. Carson was the best appreciator you could have. Like it was a gift and you know I have this good joke for him and then you give it to him. He never asked for it in advance, never wanted to know what you were going to say in advance, which some of them want to know every god damn thing and then they go, “Ha ha ha.” Oh stop. And when he would lean back in his chair and laugh that was your paycheck. It made you so happy, so happy.
MMM: You said seeing Carson laugh hysterically at your joke really made you happy. Aside from audience appreciation, what else makes Joan Rivers happy?
RIVERS: My daughter saying it’s a good day. All the things that make us all happy. If my family is happy and my niece is going out with a great guy now and my sisters are fine, everything is fine. I’m so lucky. Look at my apartment, I have great friends. And I know I’m happy because I’ve been through lots of shitty times. You have to know when you’re happy.
MMM: About your apartment, you’ve been trying to unload that for a long time. I’m just wondering why you’re trying to unload it.
RIVERS: I have an accountant who says to me you’re living too high and you’ve got to unload it. So I put a price on it that nobody except a stupid Russian will buy it. I’m hoping the guy that bought the Nets will buy it.
MMM: When you were in Washington, the Kennedy Center Honors George Carlin, Mark Twain Award, and you were talking about everybody having their team of writers. So is it really just you still writing jokes?
RIVERS: People will send me jokes and if they’re good I’ll buy them for $20 a joke, but I’m not going home tonight and saying let’s have our little writers meeting here and guys by tomorrow I need 14 jokes on being a woman gardener. You just don’t have it.
MMM: Are you one of the few big comics who still is a solo joke writer like that?
RIVERS: Well I think a lot of stand-ups don’t have staff. You have your show. I mean look at Letterman, look at “Saturday Night Live”; we know that. When Obama was so funny the other night at the White House that was all Jon Stewart’s writers writing for him for months, and rightfully so. But when you have to go up against these people you suddenly go I have nobody and you get very self-pitying.
MMM: Your catchphrase “Can we talk?” Is there something really profound about that?
RIVERS: No. It just came out of telling the truth to the audience, when the audience gasps. When Michael Jackson died and the whole world went into mourning, I never saw any reaction like this. And I walked out and I said he was a druggy and he was a pedophile. Can we talk about this? And that’s how it always came. Can we talk about this? This is stupid. Everyone calm down. He’s very talented but would you let your grandson stay overnight? No. So shut up!
MMM: Was he a pedophile though?
RIVERS: He was a pedophile. I saw the checks. We had the same manger. I saw the $35 million check to the guy [father of the boy]. Maybe he didn’t penetrate but I saw a boy get a $35 million check. You don’t get a $35 million check for nothing.
MMM: You have a very big gay following. What do you think about gay marriage rights?
RIVERS: Gay marriage in a second. And you know something, if it’s your son and you want to leave him with Michael and have a good time, do it. You know what I’m saying? Here we go again. Do it. Gay marriage: why, are you that stupid? Which means gay divorce? You want to get married? Get married. It’s only going to cause you problems.
MMM: Who pisses you off these days?
RIVERS: Everybody. [Laughs]
MMM: I heard you’re not a big fan of Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
RIVERS: Oh Sanjay Gupta. I hate Sanjay Gupta. Just go and read a medical book. He’s never doing medical things. He’s always talking. I want to see you change a bandage. Bret Michaels is bitching me off because I never saw a person in intensive care with an IV in his arm, with bandages, with his bandana. Who is the doctor? It must have been Sanjay Gupta.
MMM: I heard you’re glad that Brett won “Celebrity Apprentice?”
RIVERS: I felt terribly. I think Holly should have won. And Melissa’s a good friend of hers and Melissa said that’s what she’s about. But she didn’t have a shot and she knew it. The man is coming back from the dead and risked his life everybody to be on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and then risked his life again the next day to be on “Regis and Kelly,” and risked his life yet again to be on the “Today Show,” and risked his live again to be on “Fox on Five.” This man is very brave.
MMM: So what’s next? Are you going to be on “Dancing with the Stars?”
RIVERS: I begged them to put us on. It was Melissa and me in the same costume and we would do changes when it got tough. Suddenly, Melissa’s doing the turn then I’m back dancing, and they didn’t find it amusing.
MMM: Speaking of reality TV, one of the biggest reality TV stars these days is Heidi Montag and there’s been this huge backlash about all her plastic surgery operations and I’m just wondering what you think about it all.
RIVERS: Are you straight or gay?
RIVERS: Alright. What do you want to look at? A pretty woman. So shut up. You know what I’m saying? That’s what America’s about: beautiful women looking good. And she’s in a business where you have to be a beautiful woman. Good for her. I was very upset that I didn’t know the doctor that would do 11 procedures at one time. This really upset me! [Laughs]
MMM: What I thought the documentary showed is that you’re a business woman, a mom, and the interesting parallels between celebrity and getting older. At the end of the day what’s most important: being a performer or your relationship with your daughter?
RIVERS: The truth? 50-50. If I had to choose of course. Melissa or your career? There’s nothing to discuss, of course. But my career is my life. My daughter is on her own and she’s launched, thank god, and my grandson is fine, and thank you god for all of this. But what sustains me every day, I get up in the morning and I have people who are getting paid to listen to me.
MMM: What about your grandson possibly going into this business? What do you think of that?
RIVERS: How many people have you interviewed that are no longer there? It’s such a bad business. I would love him not to. If he got that he could be the next so and so and he could do “Home Alone” one, two, three and own a piece of it, where do I put the makeup on? Shut up, Cooper, and get out there. So I don’t know. I want him to be Larry David. That to me is the ideal. Be a comedy writer and then go into it.
MMM: Do you ever think maybe this wasn’t worth it all in the end? Maybe I should have just been a writer and stayed outside or on the fringe of it?
RIVERS: Life is such an adventure. No. It’s so much fun to keep doing different things. Dilettantism is fabulous. Do a little of this, a little of that; it’s so good, all good.
MMM: Would you ever do the red carpet again?
RIVERS: Oh yeah. Let them ask me. They have asked me. What we’ve done with E!, which I love, they’re letting us do the next day. Do you know how horrible it is to stand there and say, “Audrey! You’ve never looked better!” and then the next day “What did you think of Audrey’s dress?” “Audrey shouldn’t have worn that dress.” It’s so horrible. So now I don’t have to say to anybody anything; we just do the fashion police the next day, so you can be so much more truthful. But they want us to go back on.
MMM: Are you a fan of “Sex and the City”? The new movie is causing waves.
RIVERS: I love “Sex and the City” on television. But I think the girls have to be careful because it could be “Sag in the City” if they do one more. There go four more friends. I have no friends. The joke comes first. But I think it’s such a good show. There are certain shows that always are good. Any “Seinfeld” I stop there. So brilliantly written. “Sex and the City,” it’s always good. There are certain ones late at night you go find and stop there.
MMM: Who’s your female icon? Somebody who’s still around today that you love.
RIVERS: I love Kathy Griffin because I know her struggle. It was a struggle to get there. I think she’s just great. And Meryl Streep, who can do no wrong on stage. I saw her in the park in “Mother Courage” and you go, “I can’t stand it!” She’s just great.
MMM: How important is your legacy?
RIVERS: You know something? Vincent van Gogh couldn’t afford a potato and now they’re going for what, $100 million. I don’t care. Truly.
JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK opens on June 11th in New York and Los Angeles.