How one thinks of legendary standup comedian Joan Rivers depends solely on their age. Rivers has been around that long. If you grew up in the ’60s, you might remember her as the right-hand girl on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, the bubbly blond Jew who slammed herself for being unwed at 25 years old. If you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, Rivers is that crass, plastic-faced shopping channel lady who once praised New York club weirdos for their eccentric apparel on her Emmy award-winning talk show, The Joan Rivers Show. And, if you were born yesterday, she’s that lavishly dressed woman on E! Entertainment’s Fashion Police — the one who makes fun of Snooki’s vagina and uses the phrase “ass cakes” to describe a bad red carpet look. The point is that Rivers’s career has lasted for nearly 60 years because she is a force to be reckoned with and she’ll do anything.
“I’ve always believed that you go through any door that opens,” she tells me on a morning phone call from Santa Monica. “And some doors open faster than others.”
Rivers started making the comedic rounds in the ’60s, performing in tiny clubs in New York for “eight dollars a night,” breaking through as a taboo-busting, bright standup. She pummeled into the spotlight when appearing on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show as a guest host, and soon met and married producer Edgar Rosenberg. Throughout the ’70s she continued to build her status, acting in films and on Broadway before solidifying herself as the permanent guest host on The Tonight Show in 1983. Then came two bestselling books, sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall and in Las Vegas, and finally the crash that resulted in her being blacklisted from appearing on NBC and shunned by her contemporaries.
Fox offered her a late-night show that would compete with Johnny Carson’s program, but when ratings sagged they wanted to fire Rosenberg as the show’s producer. She dramatically sided with her husband, and they both lost the Fox deal. Three months later, Rosenberg committed suicide while Rivers was getting liposuction.
The tragedy complicated her career and Rivers stood still in the whirlwind of her loss. But she eventually rebuilt herself in daytime television with The Joan Rivers Show, a shopping channel jewelry line, two more books — Murder on the Red Carpet and Men Are Stupid... And They Like Big Boobs (Rivers says she wanted to title the book Everything I Know About Plastic Surgery but her editors argued that it wasn’t funny enough) — guest spots on Nip/Tuck, a Comedy Central Roast and winning Celebrity Apprentice, all the while remaining a strong standup performer.
She physically transformed her face with copious amounts of plastic surgery, becoming the poster girl for modern-day, overnight improvements while advocating for cosmetic procedures. “It it makes you feel better about yourself, run don’t walk,” she says.
Then, in 2010, a film crew documented 14 months of her life, exposing her tenacious show business attitude as well as her hidden insecurities in the wildly successful documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The film brought a new Rivers to the limelight. She wasn’t just the flippant, witty surgery queen the public already knew, but a 76-year-old entertainment veteran who battled age, self-image, depression and a fear of being forgotten.
“[The film] changed how people perceived me. They’d say, ‘We didn’t know you were so nice!’ But now that I am doing Fashion Police all that is forgotten,” she laughs. “Anyone who takes themselves seriously in this business is so stupid. No one is an icon. We’re all going to die so fast. Look at Natalie Wood. My friend is writing a story on Natalie Wood for Newsweek and two-thirds of the people she called to talk to about her death [in 1981] aren’t alive anymore! When it’s over, it’s over, so buy that dress.”
Now, at 78, Rivers is in her comedic prime. “You reach a certain point and you realize you can perform how you want to perform,” she says. “I’ve been through so many ups and downs, I’m not afraid of downs so it’s freed me tremendously onstage.”
“I never pander to my audience. I tell them what I think is funny and I hope they go along with it. I never throw a show. All I want, swear to God, is that [the audience] gets their money’s worth.”
What Rivers finds funny works. Not only is she relevant and hilarious onstage, but her 707,550-follower Twitter feed, blogs, talk-show appearances and red carpet critiques on Fashion Police are steeped in razor-sharp pop culture wit. Her onstage jokes have grown with the generations — she’s no longer poking fun at feminized housework. Now she’s talking about being fucked from behind while multi-tasking on your Blackberry — and she’s stayed true to her infamous self-deprecating nature. “We’re [women] told we have to be beautiful, smart and sexy all at once. We’re given such a high bar and we all feel terrible. So, by making fun of myself I’m saying, ‘I’m not so wonderful, let’s just laugh.’”
It’s clear that the only thing that has kept Rivers alive all these years is her sense of humour. She describes her ability to immediately laugh at tragedy as a “soother” and a “Band-Aid.” That, and never reading a bad review, she assures me.
But her success doesn’t just stem from her comedic talent. It’s also her unthinkable work ethic (her day planner alone is enough to make most hyperventilate) and her humble attitude towards opportunity. Since the Fox debacle, Rivers rarely turns down a job. That is why, at 78 years old, she has two successful reality shows (Fashion Police and Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best), a jewelry line, a book she’s hopefully turning into a film and a North American comedy tour in full swing. Who else is doing that? Most of her contemporaries are dead, but Rivers is powering along like the Keith Richards of comedy.
In an age where up-and-coming celebrities like Hayden Panettiere, Kirsten Stewart and Lauren Conrad complain about fame, Rivers has one thing to say:
“Anyone who doesn’t like being famous is a fool. The work is everything, but when someone in your family is ill and you go to the hospital, the nurse recognizes you and takes you right in. That is fabulous. You pull up to a parking lot in New York and it’s full, full, full but then, ‘Oh Ms. Rivers, we’ll get you right through!’ That is great! And if you don’t like it, go back to being a waitress. We won’t hold the door for you.”
JOAN RIVERS ON....
“I love the documentary (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work). I loved making it and I loved the crew. The sound man and camera man were young guys, both vegan. I could tell you every vegan restaurant in New York. Vegans always want you to become vegan too, but come on. Real food is so delicious! [Veganism] is a cult!”
2. Her first cosmetic surgery:
“I did my eyes first. My father has very big bags under his eyes and it was hereditary. I had been on the Carson show and some makeup lady said, ‘Oh, you are getting some bags here!’ I was very young and I thought, ‘Uh oh!’ Next thing you know, boom. Done.”
3. Our culture’s obsession with youth:
“Don’t talk to me when they put 14-year-old girls on magazine covers. I didn’t invent it. I just live in it.”
4. Her daughter Melissa:
“Melissa has been a producer for years and she is excellent at [her job]. I’ve been saying that for years but nobody listened to me.”
5. What her late husband would say about her life if he was alive today:
“You want the serious answer or the funny answer? What the hell happened? Seriously, I think he’d be very proud of the way it turned out. That we picked up the pieces and started anew. Edgar was very smart — he’d probably have his own Facebook page within an hour. He loved technology. He would love all this. He’d have the latest iPhone. He would never own a book again, and I am so against it. I hate all that. ‘You can get it on your iPad.’ No, give me a book.”