Find Joan Rivers Is a Piece of Work Online Joan Rivers Really Was a Piece of Work
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 9/12/14)
Posted on 12 September 2014
Joan Rivers’ untimely, shocking death has resulted in a run on her 2012 autobiography I Hate Everyone … Starting with Me. I hope it also calls attention to the splendid film documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work , which was made in 2010 by the terrific documentary team, Ricki Stern and Annie Sunberg.Rivers helped promote the movie and I had a great time participating in this free-wheeling roundtable with her. At one point I asked her about her catchphrase “Can We Talk?” I wanted to know how she was able to make every audience feel like it was the only audience she opened up to. I must say, she was able to make us feel like confidantes just by being as unfiltered as anyone in the business gets with journalists. I imagine she conveyed intimacy at every gathering where she felt she was embraced rather than attacked. (Not long before her death, she walked off an a televised interview because she felt she was being put on the defensive.) In light of Rivers passing, I am very grateful to have met her (and am delighted she was a good sport to pose for a picture with me), and think this roundtable, though several years old, is interesting for those who now have an insatiable appetite for everything Rivers. I think it has special meaning now because she revealed so much about who she was. Read the interview, and whether you were a Joan Rivers fan or not, see this fascinating movie.
Danny Peary: You’re often referred to as a pioneer. When did you stop being a pioneer? Aren’t you still in your mind a pioneer?
Joan Rivers: I never thought of myself as a pioneer. I’m always the first to talk about everything so I never think about it. I get very angry. As I say in the film: don’t give me past tense here, that’s stupid. I’m still on stage doing much more and saying much more than anyone else.
DP: Still a pioneer.
JR: If you want to call it that. Or current. My manager calls it “relevant.” I have a Southern manager; “You are rel-ev-ant.”
DP: I’ve known you most of my life but the movie gave me a whole new appreciation of you.
JR: Thank you, thank you, thank you! Q: This documentary is a sometimes an unflattering portrait of you. How do you feel about that?
JR: Truly I was the pawn. I wanted them to tell the truth and I wanted them to make the statement “Stop whining, get on with your life,” and also show how horrible age is. You’re all going to come up to that mountain and it sucks. There’s nothing like that. You cannot say you can turn this mountain around. You can’t. So that’s what I wanted to come out of the documentary, and it was their choice what went in.
Q: Are there any scenes you really loved?
JR: Yeah. One with my grandson that I love. The other was of me visiting the tough, edgy New York girl, who had been an ingénue and an artist and a photographer, and look where she’s sitting now. In a wheelchair. And that to me is “life sucks and you better enjoy it right now when your legs are moving. You could cross the street tomorrow and be paralyzed from the neck down and be lying there in bed.
Q: Which scenes were you uneasy about that you sort of half wanted taken out of there?
JR: Melissa was very upset with Edgar’s stuff because her father’s her father. The only thing we did remove, was when I walk past Edgar’s picture, 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. 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. I had given them carte blanche, but I said at one point art is art but I don’t want my daughter upset. So they were kind enough to remove that.
Q: With everything being so politically correct you know how to push that envelope. Two scenes I’m questioning; the one, Jackie O, when you refer to Obama as Blacky O, and then you did the thing about the Chinese person, pulling your eyes into a slant.
JR: Right. I am so not about color and race. It’s so not in my vocabulary. I looked one day at the group that works for the jewelry company and I said this is the United Nations. And it wasn’t done because I said, oh let’s get this nationality and this color, but because we picked people we liked. And we were laughing and we said someone should come here and take a picture. So it means nothing to me. You’re Chinese, you do see this in the mirror, what’s so terrible? You also have the most gorgeous women with the most beautiful hair in the world. That’s not negative. And with Mrs. Obama, I voted for them, I thought it was a great joke. Blacky O from Jackie O; what a nice association. But then when everyone at the table screams at me ” You can’t say that!,” I said “Okay, okay I’ll take it out.” But I bet she would have laughed.
Q: Do you have any regrets about anything you’ve said or done?
JR: You know what I have regrets about? Who I didn’t sleep with.
Q: And that would be?
JR: That would be Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, I could give you a whole list of guys that tried it with me when 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. Those guys–move them back in time to when they asked and they can try again! [Laughing] You have to move me back too!
Q: Is any of the older archival footage in the movie interesting for you to watch? Like Johnny Carson cracking up as hard as he did.
JR: I love what they found because I hadn’t seen any of that stuff. Carson was the best straight man in the business. He was the best appreciator you could have. Like it was gift knowing 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, when some of them want to know every god damn thing and then they go “Ha ha ha”–Oh, stop! When he would lean back in his chair and laugh that was your paycheck. It made you so happy, so happy!
Q: You said seeing Carson laugh hysterically at your joke really made you happy. Aside from audience appreciation, what else makes you happy?
JR: 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. I know I’m happy because I’ve been through lots of shitty times. You have to know when you’re happy.
Q: About your apartment, you’ve been trying to unload that for a long time. I’m just wondering why.
JR: 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.
Q: When you were in Washington, the Kennedy Center Honors for George Carlin, Mark Twain Award, and you were talking about everybody having their team of writers. So is it really just you writing your material?
JR: 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 a little writers meeting here because by tomorrow I need 14 jokes on being a woman gardener. I just don’t have it.
Q: Are you one of the few comics who still is a solo act like that?
JR: Well, I think a lot of stand-ups don’t have staff. 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 rightly so. But when I have to go up against these people I suddenly go “I have nobody!” and get very self-pitying.
Q: I was a little surprised to see you opening shows for Don Rickles, although you both shared the pot.. JR: There are so many stupid rules in show business, and I figure whoever’s coming in is going to see my show and they’re going to have a great hour. This goes back to 10 years ago we started working together – Don wants to close the evening, so let him have the privilege and the courtesy of closing. I go down, I lay it out, and, I’m not making a joke, I’m home by 10:30. You know how great that is? I did Westbury twice this week, I was walking the dogs at 10:30, I was in bed for Saturday Night Live. And it’s a different story because we split the money.
Q: Why are Jews funny?
JR (laughing): Look at us. Have you seen my relatives? You better laugh. See people say Jews are funny. Look at the great comics; 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 and think about it.. 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. You know how my relatives greet me: “What happened to you?” Q: Do you have more books in you?
JR: Oh yeah. I’d like to do another autobiography. I was so disappointed; we got great reviews on “Murder at the Academy Awards” and we thought that was going to be a series. Not one negative review, great reviews. And nobody cared. DP: Your catchphrase “Can we talk?” Is there something really profound about that?
JR: No. It just came out of telling the truth to the audience, when the audience will gasp. 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 druggie and 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!” Q: He was not a pedophile.
JR: He was a pedophile. I saw the checks. We had the same manager. I saw the $35 million check to the guy. 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.
Q: I know the family and he was not a pedophile.
JR: And you know something, if it’s your son and you want to leave him with Michael to have a good time, do it. You know what I’m saying? Here we go again. Do it.
Q: What do you think about gay marriage rights?
JR: Gay marriage in a second. 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. Q: Don’t ask, don’t tell?
JR: Don’t ask, don’t tell is ridiculous. That’s the stupidest thing in the world. I think you say this is what I am and you have barracks. You want to divide the barracks, divide the barracks. Q: Who pisses you off these days?
Q: Talk to me about Sanjay Gupta.
JR: Oh, Sanjay Gupta. I hate Sanjay Gupta. Just go and read a medical book.
Q: Why do you hate him so much?
JR: Just because he’s never doing medical things. He’s always talking. I want to see him change a bandage. Brett 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.
Q: I heard you’re glad that Brett won on Celebrity Apprentice this year?
JR: I felt terribly. I think Holly should have won. 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 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 Today, and risked his live again to be on Fox at Five. This man is very brave.
Q: Did you get to go on The Tonight Show the year you won Celebrity Apprentice?
JR: No. They would never have me. [She lobbied to be on Jimmy Fallon's first TonightShow in 2004, and was thrilled to make her return.]
Q: So what’s next? Are you going to be on Dancing with the Stars?
JR: I begged them to put us on. It was going to be Melissa and me in the same costume and we would change off when it got tough. Suddenly Melissa’s doing the turn and then I’m back dancing–and they didn’t find it amusing.
Q: One of the biggest reality TV stars these days is Heidi Montag from The Hills and that’s been sort of a backlash about that and I’m just wondering what you think.
JR: Are you straight or gay?
JR: 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.
Q: The film shows that you’re incredibly hard working. So how do you feel about these reality television people getting instant fame?
JR: I think they’d better enjoy it. I think that a lot of them don’t that it’s five minutes of fame. And the ones that are complaining, who we always see it on the red carpet–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.
Q: And your secret of longevity is?
JR: 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. I’ll do anything, as I say in the movie. And I mean it. My jewelry business; they came to me and said, “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.
Q: Is there anything you’ve turned down?
JR: Looking back maybe I’ve turned down a script or something that was really terrible. But very seldom.
Q: You were at the recent Miss USA pageant. What is your take on the controversy going on there?
JR: You mean because she was a pole dancer? Oh, so? Like all of us haven’t danced on a pole at one time.
Q: No, I mean that she is Arab American and people were making a fuss about that.
JR: I don’t know. 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, she was having a good time. Ladies didn’t come in burkas to congratulate her. Then I would have gotten very nervous. But they were hilarious. The girls that lost were crying and eating brownies because they knew they were out of the running. They were all in little bikinis stuffing their faces.
DP: How important is your legacy?
JR: You know something? Vincent van Gogh couldn’t afford a potato and now his paintings are going for what, $100 million. I don’t care. Truly.
DP: In the production notes it says you’re on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame? You don’t care about that stuff?
JR: The Walk of Fame, I have my star there and I’m always saying “Clean off the dog doo.” The Walk of Fame– anybody gets that if they have a good PR person and pay for it. It’s show business.
Q: 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?
JR: The truth; 50-50. Melissa, so smart, nailed it. She said it’s another child. If I really had to choose between Melissa and my 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 she’s fine 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 11 people who are getting paid to listen to me.
Q: What about your grandson going into this business? What do you think of that?
JR: 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 could be the next so and so and he could do Home Alone1, 2, and 3, and own a piece of it, then where do I put his makeup on? 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.
Q: Do you 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?
JR: No. It’s so much fun to keep doing different things. Life is such an adventure. Dilettantism is fabulous. Do a little of this, a little of that; it’s so good, all good.
Q: Would you ever do the red carpet again?
JR: Oh yeah. Let them ask me. They have asked me. What we’ve done with E!, which I love, they’re letting us do thenext day. Do you know how horrible it is to stand there and say “Audrey! You’ve never looked better!” and then the next day say, “Audrey shouldn’t have worn that dress.” It’s so horrible. So now I don’t have to say anything to anybody; 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.
Q: Khloe Kardashian and Giuliana Rancic; how are they working out with you?
JR: Great. It was very difficult for them. They were doing Fashion Police together and then they shoved me in and said to the girls you’re like a panel. And I thought this is going to really be difficult but they were both terrific. And we really like each other and really laugh when the camera’s down so it worked out, thank you god, because Giuliana could have been very angry.
Q: Are you a fan of Sex and the City?
JR: 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 is always good. There are certain ones late at night you go friend, stop there.
Q: Is there a female around today that you love?
JR: I love Kathy Griffin because I know her struggle; it was a struggle for her to get there. I think she’s just great. And Meryl Streep can do no wrong on stage. I saw her in the park in Mother Courage and I go, “I can’t stand it, she’s just great.”
Q: You always give Wendy Williams your jewelry when you’re on with her. You gave Wendy your earrings.
JR: I gave her my hair extensions. I love her so. When they ask, “You want to do Wen..?” “Yes!” I don’t even wait for the second syllable.
Q: I wish they would let you do like a five-minute stint on her show every day.
JR: So why don’t you tell her? She and I want to have a very fancy dinner party. I said to her we’ll have finger bowls and only the two of us will have a good time.
Q: What are the Altoids for?
JR: Altoids are because when I have interviewed people close up all these years, many a time wished they had one. So I always make sure I have one. I always carry Altoids with me.
Q: To keep your energy level as high as we see it in the movie, what do you do for your daily workouts?
JR: I do a half an hour treadmill and a half an hour free weights.
Q: Are there things now, especially in light of making this movie, that you want to do?
JR: Oh, everything.
Q: What other kinds of projects or media? Or your own website?
JR: Oh, I have my website, I do my blog, I do all that. I would love to do another late night talk show, which will never be offered to me. [She made no mention of reality shows.]
Q: Why don’t you think one will be offered to you?
JR: Because they look at you with a 10-year time frame; 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 Joan Rivers–for 40 years she’s been funny.