The work of comedian and actress Joan Rivers has long pushed the boundaries of taste and decency. In her unforgettable brassy manner, raspy voice, and thick New York accent, Rivers has brought formerly untouchable topics—abortion? death? female angst?—to the stage since the ’60s. She’s also admired as an Emmy-winning talk show host, playwright, bestselling author, and ruthless fashion critic. But her battle to stay relevant in a business dominated by youth, perhaps most accurately captured in the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, is part of what makes her an interesting and remarkable character today.
- PHOTO BY CHARLES WILLIAM BUSH
- A PIECE OF WORK: Joan Rivers brings her hilariously offensive, diva-licious style to the Cal Poly PAC.
NEW TIMES What can we expect from your performance at the PAC?
RIVERS Just everything. Whatever’s just happening in the newspapers, obviously that’s going in. Whatever’s annoying me is going in. The latest gossip is going in. My act is really about whatever’s happening at the moment.
NT Do you spend a lot of time writing new material every day? Or is that something that just comes to you while you’re doing other things?
RIVERS Nothing comes to anybody. Every day, you think of different things and you think, “I should try that in the act.” And that’s why I work as hard as I work, and the act constantly changes.
NT Last night, I watched the documentary A Piece of Work. It’s very revealing, actually. I’m quite surprised that you were OK with it. Other celebrities are very private about their lives.
RIVERS If they’re going to do a documentary about you, you should give them free access. Otherwise it becomes so stupid. That’s why the Biography Channel is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen. Because everybody’s wonderful. If you watch that channel, everybody’s a good guy. Everybody’s a wonderful person. And they just slide over the bad things, like, “Oh, and he killed his wife.”
NT One of the parts I really like was your file cabinet of jokes. To me it was very strange—such a businesslike approach to comedy.
RIVERS Right, but maybe one eighth of the jokes get in there. And it’s never the ones that you adore. It’s always: Let me get that down, let me try to get that down on a card. It’s very hard. I don’t know why, but it’s just like that.
NT I noticed that they’re categorized by topic: You’ve got “My Daughter” and there was “My Sex Life” and all these different topics. I’m wondering, are there topics that you wouldn’t touch anymore?
RIVERS Oh, no. I am the most politically incorrect person in the world. What’s happened to our country is shocking. You’re not allowed to say anything about anybody, you’re not allowed to expect anyone to do anything on their own. So no. No, no, no, no. I hit on everything.
NT You’ve long joked about your daughter turning down Playboy, and how disappointed you were.
RIVERS Totally. The kid has a great body. Everybody’s doing it. There’s no stigma. And she’s going to be very sorry when she hits my age. She’s going to go, “Hmm, I should have done that.”
NT Is that something you wish you had done personally?
RIVERS Well, I didn’t have a good body.
NT I had read that she was dating [porn mogul] Steve Hirsch, which was something that you were very excited about.
RIVERS He’s so nice and smart. He’s just great. … It’s a different world now. When I was pregnant on Ed Sullivan, I was not allowed to say I was pregnant. I was seven months pregnant, and I had to say, “Soon we shall be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet.” I looked like Omar the Tentmaker, I was so big. And I was not allowed to say on the air I was pregnant.
NT I remember you saying, instead of abortion, “appendectomy.”
RIVERS And then you would wink. Everybody knew. “Oh, I know what she’s talking about.”
NT I wasn’t around during that era, but I almost think it’s more fun to be dirty when you’re using euphemisms and people have to work a little bit to figure out what you’re talking about.
RIVERS Well, you don’t get it. Things have just evolved, and I think life is so much rougher and more frightening now. We’re not safe anywhere. There’s germ warfare. People can come into New York and blow up two buildings. Life is rougher, and comedy is rougher along with it.
NT In the documentary, you said you could either live the kind of life you wanted, with the very fancy apartment and personal assistants and limousines and everything, and you could work for it, or you could stop working and you would have to, I guess, downsize? Was I understanding that correctly?
RIVERS Well, in life it’s all about choices, and you choose what you want and how you want to live.
NT Well, to me it almost sounded like you were saying, “Well, if I want to pay rent, I’d better keep working.”
RIVERS If I want to pay rent on this gorgeous apartment. I would rather go out and work, which I love, and live wonderfully, than stop working. Why would I want to stop working and lose this wonderful apartment? I don’t want that. But some people might. Everybody should do what they want.
NT You’ve been working for most of your life. Do you think that you will ever want to retire?
RIVERS And do what?
NT I don’t know. Paint?
RIVERS I love performing. I love writing. The business is so much fun to be in. Every day it’s another challenge, another fight.
NT Having performed as long as you have, do you still get people who behave badly at your shows?
RIVERS Very, very few. The fellow who heckled in the documentary was probably the first heckler in 10 years. And it was so funny, because it was so unexpected. I think that’s why I was so harsh on him. At this point, you go, “What?” Because people know if they come to see me that it’s going to be tough and it’s going to be screamy and it’s going to be angry about things, and not being afraid to talk about them. They know what they’re getting into when they come in to see me. And so you very seldom get hecklers. But when you do—I especially believe this, as I’ve gotten older: People pay to see me. They do not pay to see a drunk in the audience. Usually, the audience will shut that person up. I once saw Frank Sinatra walk off the stage, so he disappointed 3,000 people because of one son of a bitch. And you think, that’s crazy! Have that one son of a bitch removed, and let’s go on with the 2,999 other people. They shouldn’t be punished.
NT When you were younger, whom did you admire?
RIVERS I grew up in the great days of radio. My dad was a doctor, and so he would go and make calls, and we would sit in the car listening to radio while my dad was inside making house calls. I listened on the radio to Jack Benny, and to George Burns, and to Fred Allen, and all these great comics. And that stayed with me
all my life. So all those three were tremendous influences on me. And of course, the great, the one, the only, Lenny Bruce.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can’t hear hecklers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.