Joan Rivers on her highs and lows, her honest comedy and heading to Deerfield for a lecture to benefit breast cancer research.
Joan Rivers is setting up what sounds like one of her notoriously naughty jokes. “I once was in a delicatessen. At the table were Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor,” she says. “And when my husband came in to meet us, he said, ‘You look like four undertakers. I’ve never seen such a sad, pathetic, not-laughing group of people.’ ” She pauses to emit one of her signature sandpaper laughs before dropping the punch line, which is shocking, but not in the way you’d expect. “I’m very shy,” she admits. “I like to think of myself in public as a champion of women’s rights and people’s rights and big and loud and screaming about it. But in private, if I don’t know you, I don’t talk.”
If it’s hard to accept the taboo-torching Rivers as timid, it’s because the iconic comedian has spent the past five decades demonstrating that she considers no public figure too sacred to lampoon and no subject too risqué to discuss with relish. “I say things that I think have to be said,” she says of her comedic persona. “I get very angry when things are pushed under the blanket. I really think that’s the comic’s job. We’re absolutely placed on this Earth to say, ‘The emperor has no clothes.’ ”
Rivers, 80, is just as willing to turn her wry humor and unapologetic critiques on herself, openly divulging her shortcomings and freely analyzing the triumphs and setbacks of her career. “I’ve gone up and down so many times, I’m like a Jewish yo-yo,” she laughs. “You’re hot, you’re cold, you’re hot, you’re cold. I’m on a big upswing right now, and I’m very aware of it. At the moment I’m everybody’s darling.”
She isn’t exaggerating. Rivers is currently starring on three TV shows: E!’s “Fashion Police,” where she shamelessly sends up Hollywood’s red-carpet style; “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” a reality series that follows Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, as they navigate life in LA; and “In Bed With Joan,” a low-budget, online-only gem that sees Rivers taking to her boudoir to talk with celebs like Bob Saget and Carmen Electra. When she’s not filming, she’s gearing up to promote her upcoming book, Diary of a Mad Diva, and touring the country doing stand-up. On May 27, she’ll bring her unrelenting witticisms to Deerfield’s Congregation B’nai Tikvah, where she’ll lecture at a fundraiser for the Renée Israel Foundation, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting breast cancer research.
It’s yet another surprising facet to her personality: Joan Rivers, the philanthropist. But Rivers has quietly paid her success forward over the years, and Renée Israel’s cause is particularly close to her heart. “My mother-in-law died of breast cancer,” Rivers says. “So I’ve been very aware of it for many years. It’s a part of everybody’s life, and I just think it’s a good thing to do something — to help people out when you can.”
Rivers has reaped the rewards of that philosophy firsthand. In 1965, after years of hard knocks performing in comedy clubs, small-town bars and strip clubs (“I was always fired the first night,” she recalls), Rivers’ bawdy wit made an impression on “The Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson. He plucked her from obscurity, giving her a regular guest-host gig. She spent the ’60s and ’70s charming and provoking audiences in equal measure, performing on the Las Vegas strip, releasing books and comedy albums and appearing on popular programs like “Hollywood Squares.”
But the ’80s marked Rivers’ first big downswing: First, after she landed her own late-night show in 1986, Carson shut her out, refusing to take her calls or allow her on “The Tonight Show” — a ban that lasted nearly 30 years thanks to subsequent hosts Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. “It was insane. My agent would call up every five months and say, ‘Come on. Even men that commit murder get out in 20 years,’ ” she says. “Carson never understood when I left, but he understood when Cosby and Brenner and Seinfeld left. It was the one time I felt discriminated against because I was a woman.” Soon after, her show’s run was cut short and tarnished by tragedy — after Fox executives fired Rivers’ husband Edgar Rosenberg as producer in 1987, he committed suicide. “It was a really rough period,” says Rivers.
But just as quickly as things soured for Rivers, they turned sweet again. In 1989, she landed her own daytime talk show, “The Joan Rivers Show,” which won a Daytime Emmy and ran for five years. In the early ’90s, Rivers and daughter Melissa began hosting the pre-Academy Awards show for E!, launching a partnership with the network that’s still going strong. “It was a total moment of, ‘You can’t take this away from me,’ ” says Rivers of finding her way back to fame.
These days, Rivers is holding onto the spotlight with both hands. In March, new “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon welcomed her back to the show; she says he called her the minute he got the job. “He said, ‘This is ridiculous. We want you back.’ It was extraordinary. I adore him.” She’s got more than 2 million Twitter followers hanging on her every quip, and she’s fielding requests to appear on “In Bed With Joan,” even from celebs she’s spent years skewering.
Rivers attributes the series’s popularity to its unpretentious nature. “I wanted a show where I could do and say anything, and that’s on the Internet,” she says. “[The guests] are all coming on and talking honestly — what could be less intimidating than sitting in this ugly little room, in bed with me, with one s***** camera and three lights?” And though she’s three TV shows deep, she’s already plotting a fourth. “I want to start doing celebrity drunken calls,” she says. “I want to have a glass of wine and call up Lindsay Lohan and give her advice.”
River’s single-minded focus on moving forward leaves little time for much else. The self-proclaimed homebody says she “never lingers” when she travels for work, always returning home to her lavish New York digs or her room in Melissa’s LA house. “I have no personal life,” she jokes. “I have no romance. I closed the hotel three years ago.” Instead, she sees plays with pals in her spare time and works on keeping her career “exactly as it is now,” seeking out every possible opportunity to share her disarmingly truthful take on things. “It’s always fun to keep trying. Push the envelope,” she says. “Otherwise it gets stale, you know?”
And though she’s thrilled to be back on top, Rivers credits her darker days with keeping her honest — and more importantly, funny. “I think comedians have to go through being outsiders and not having the confidence that they’re wonderful,” she says. “[It keeps me] edgy and a little off-center.” Not that the hard times seem much easier in retrospect. “I look back now and I don’t know how I did it. I think of the strip clubs I played, how I was fired from my first job,” she says. “I don’t know how that poor girl went back. I’d like to meet her and ask, ‘How’d you do it?’ ”
The answer? “I wanted it so badly. I was — I still am — so driven. I just have to do it.”
To purchase tickets to the May 27 Renée Israel Foundation fundraiser, visit Reneeisraelfoundation.com.
Some outtakes from our interview with Joan:
• If you were interviewing yourself on one of your shows, what would you ask yourself?
That’s a wonderful question. What would I ask myself? [Laughs] ‘How come you can’t stay on a diet? You have such a big mouth, you always manage to tell all your friends what to do and how to do it, and you can’t even manage to stay on a diet for a damn day.’
• What would you answer?
‘I can’t help it. I love candy.’
• When was the last time you were starstruck?
I was just in an airplane with Uma Thurman, who’s such a movie star. 175 feet tall, weighs 3 pounds, all in black leather with 6-inch heels, and the hair pulled back and zippers everywhere. You just go, ‘Yeah! She’s a moooooovie star.’
• Did you talk to her?
I did, I said, ‘I’m such a fan, I’m such a fan.’ She thought I was crazy. She thought I was this little Jewish woman on the plane. I was some poor slob going, ‘I’m such a fan, I’m such a fan. I loved you in “The Producers.” ’ She thought I was one wackadoodle.
• You were the first and only woman ever to have a late-night talk show on a network. What does that mean to you today?
Nothing. I’m not being cute. I loved late night when I was doing it. I think late night now is so overcrowded, but at the time, it was great to do, and now, if you just go through your dial, there’s a thousand choices. I find that late night is not as much fun as it was when I was doing it. Or maybe that’s sour grapes. I don’t know.
• What do you remember from the nine months you spent at Second City in 1961?
Second City was the first time in my life I knew I was right in what I was saying, that I was funny. Up until then I was just doing jokes, but not really great jokes. It was a terrific time in my life.