Before She Plays Dallas, Joan Rivers Talks Louie, the Holocaust and Obituaries
There's a distinctive meter to a Joan Rivers routine. A gap-filler, she's quick to follow-up a joke or talking point with a rhetorical question. It's a job most famously held by her "Can we talk?" catch phrase, tossed in to extend laughter until she pins it down with a punch line.
That doesn't change one-on-one. Rivers is always performing.
It was almost 8 p.m. in California when Joan called me last night. She lives with her daughter now, for equal parts work and companionship. In the last three hours Joan had planned Season Four of their reality show Joan and Melissa, wrote the next day's script for Fashion Police and was in the process of getting a manicure, pedicure and peroxide treatment.
But then, none of that is too surprising. She came up in the company of George Carlin, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby -- a generation of hustlers trying to succeed in 1960s New York. She'll say she was the last of them to rise up, but she used that lag time to even the playing field, letting audiences know that she could throw punches as hard as the men. Now, at 79, her career has ballooned. We'll spend an evening with her on Sunday as she performs her still-racy stand-up at the Winspear.
She's Joan Rivers: indomitable spirit animal.
JL: You've been charging forward since the beginning. I wonder: Was there an early performance that validated your career, that confirmed this was what you were meant to do?
You know, I always thought I was funny but nobody else did. I was a happy amateur in the beginning; you didn't know how terrible it could be. So what would happen in the real world is that I'd go up three times and people would hate me and then on the fourth time, they'd love me. You'd live off that for the next week through the performances where they hated you again. It was never one thing, there were always just enough people thinking I was good that it carried me through.
And on the flip side of that, was there one distinct point when you thought: "Work is drying up. Is it over now?"
Oh, that's all the time. Every single day. I have friends who are Name Actresses who aren't getting work. That's constant. And those people you see who walk off a series? I say, "Are you out of your mind?! You've got the gold ring and you're leaving a series?" How do you know the next one is going to be successful?
That was the central thesis of the episode of Louie you did with Louis C.K.
Yeah, and I totally believe it.
I'm curious, did he write you in that episode, or did you both write you, together?
I didn't know him at all, and he wrote the original one and I said to him, "No no no, let me explain: This is what I would say to you." Then we sat down and totally did it together. He's such a wonderful collaborator, and there's no ego there.
I thought it was oddly beautiful too, the way he wanted you to dominate him after educating him in the value of work ethic and kindness.
That's all Louis C.K.: He's so smart.
I watched your new webisode today, "In Bed with Joan," where you invite celebrities, like Sarah Silverman, to climb into your bed and let you interview them.
Oh yes, and already we have 16 in the can, as they say. We're just knocking them out! I'm having the best time. That came out of Joan and Melissa. I said "I want my own show" and they said, "let's follow it," and it's been so much fun.
Will it always be comedians, or will you let just anyone in your bed?
Oh, I've had Ru Paul, Kelly Osbourne, Chris Harrison, Redfoo from LMFAO all get in bed with me. We're just knocking them right out of the ballpark.
There is this certain decadence that comes from adults crawling into a bed to catch up together, and here that's made stranger by this almost uncomfortable-looking audience perched around the bedroom.
That's the people who live in Melissa's house! And believe this: People will tell you things in bed that they will not tell you anywhere else. Also, by sitting in that crummy little room, they lose all sense that we're on television, you know? It isn't intimidation, it's pity.
I'd like to point out, that you're still managing to get into trouble: You pried the door open for abortion humor decades ago, and are still getting slammed for being racy, like that Holocaust joke just last week. [On Fashion Police, Rivers commented on Heidi Klum's Oscar style, saying that "The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into ovens."]
Those idiots. Here, I've got more people talking about the Holocaust with that joke than have in the last five years.
So what do you think? The public barometer of prudishness has adjusted itself over these 50 years, but is that a sacred cow? Are there any topics left which are still untouchable?
Yes, I think a lot of P.C. I was just taken to task tonight by someone. We were discussing something that happened outside of an Indian casino. I was shopping at a Costco and someone tried to get me to leave the property and I said, "This isn't even your property! It's the Indians'. You get an Indian to tell me to get off and I'll get off. You stole it from them." And somebody stopped me and said "They're not Indians, they're Native Americans."
You want to say "Oh, come down." There are certain things people are just terribly sensitive about now: So that's the kind of things that people still get VERY uptight about.
You carry a message of balancing beauty with wit in this sort of educational way that you talk to young women. One of my favorite jokes of yours has to do with the value of beauty, you say: "No man will never slide his hand up your skirt looking for a library card."
It's exactly right. All of this nonsense now, like what's her name from the Girls, Leha, Lena... whatever, the chubby girl who's going around saying looks don't count. You just want to say "What are you talking about?" Everything counts. It's the whole package that counts. Everyone gets so wrapped up in what's important and what isn't and how to say it. Everything counts! Looks count. Brains count. Being independent while on your own. And when you do get a man, taking care of him the way he should take care of you. It all matters.
How has living with and working with your daughter complicated your relationship?
It gets very complicated. With shooting together, editing together and now living together. But with age, we all put up with more, which I think is why it's working. We see everyone else dropping like flies.
Can I ask you something very morbid?
You're an avid obituary reader. Some celebrities, especially ones who are writers, keep their own stashed away somewhere. Have you written one, and if so, do you call anyone out in it?
NO! And that's a great idea! I should, and I should call the New York Times and see what they put in it.
I'd love to look through it and say "No! This is wrong, and this is wrong and this is wrong!" I should fact-check my own!
You know my big obituary joke is when you see "Sadie Shwartz, 106, suddenly." I think, "Sadie Shwartz, 106, About Time."
Joan Rivers will get as raw as she sees fit at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Winspear. Tickets start at $37.50.