Joan Rivers may not have done it all, but she’s done a hell of a lot more than most. How many other entertainers can claim the titles of comedian, best-selling author, Tony-nominated actor, playwright, screenwriter, talk-show host, jewelry designer, fashion critic and businesswoman?
But Rivers isn’t one to take such praise, let alone allow PGN to bow at her feet or consider her a living legend.
“Oh, please, drop it,” she said. “You should only be thought of like that after you’re dead.”
But, at 75, she’s still running circles around performers half her age — and, according to her, there’s a good reason for that.
“I’ve never stopped or had the time to stop,” she said. “I’m not being cute. I’m so busy always slugging it out and always working on my act that I never think in those terms. Never, never, never, never. I won’t let them put me in that category. They’re always saying, ‘We want to honor you.’ Oh, go to hell. You’ll honor me when I’m dead. I’m not finished yet. I don’t think I’ve peaked and that’s really true.”
Rivers also doesn’t look 75 for a number of reasons, all of them plastic surgery. Unlike the majority of entertainers, she has never been shy about telling people what she has had done. She went further in 2008 when she wrote “Men Are Stupid ... And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery.” In Rivers’ world, getting something lifted, tightened or adjusted is as essential as wearing makeup. In “Men Are Stupid,” she delivers personal anecdotes about life under the knife, making a passionate argument for a woman’s right to do whatever it takes to be beautiful, feel better about herself and be happy.
But Rivers said the subject of plastic surgery is still extremely taboo in Hollywood.
“People will tell you their sex lives,” she said. “People will tell you how much money Bernie Madoff took from them. But they will look at you and tell you they’ve done nothing. Meanwhile, they’re talking to the part in their hair. That goes back to ‘I was born beautiful and you weren’t.’”
More recently, Rivers took her first stab at writing fiction with “Murder at the Academy Awards: A Red Carpet Murder Mystery,” a novel that she admits has more than a fair share of real-life dirt she witnessed first-hand.
“There are so many stories that you want to tell about what goes on backstage at these awards shows,” she said. “You couldn’t in a non-fiction book and walk around the city. As fiction, I put in all the stories I’ve heard and all the things I’ve seen. I love bringing [readers] to the Vanity Fair party and I love bringing them to the gifting rooms. I’m showing them how tough it is out there on the red carpet. I love doing it as fiction because I can really tell it. Nobody can get mad at me. It’s fiction.”
Some things we didn’t need to know. We were sure that Rivers’ red-carpet connection meant she was getting hooked up with all sorts of free fashions and accessories, but she burst that bubble.
“You get nothing free,” she said. “I get nothing free. I’ve never been in that group. Dresses will be lent to you but they want them back, which I always find fascinating, as they have been altered. So they have to look for a short Jewish person.”
If you are under a certain age, you might only know Rivers as the woman who dishes on celebrity fashion at high-profile awards shows, or from TV commercials or shows like “Celebrity Apprentice.” But a generation knows her as a pioneering entertainer in the worlds of stand-up comedy and television, who started acting in the late 1950s.
Rivers said one of her early inspirations to get into comedy was none other than the legendary Lenny Bruce.
“I was lucky enough to be taken to see him on a date when I was a senior in high school,” she said. “You just knew that this is something amazing.”
Rivers’ star continued to rise through what many consider the golden age of stand-up comedy, when she commanded as much attention as many of the comic greats of the time.
“Richard Pryor was a genius,” she said. “No one was like him. You couldn’t touch him. Life magazine picked me in 1975 as comedian of the decade. And I was so stupid that I told them, ‘No, you should see Richard Pryor.’ So I took them down to see him in Greenwich Village and they were in shock because he was so ahead of his time. He was absolutely amazing. [And] Johnny Carson, one of the meanest ever born — but he was brilliant. Nobody has ever replaced him in what he does. I’m glad Leno is going on at 10 o’clock because he can put us to sleep one hour sooner.”
“Oh, come on!” she said. “When was the last time you quoted a joke that Leno did? I don’t even watch him. He’s so not anything. Carson was brilliant at what he did. [George] Carlin got less funny as he got older. His material was brilliant. He honed it and honed it. I liked him when he was looser and younger. I think he lost a little bit of his edge when he got older.”
But Rivers still has her edge, and is still commanding stages with her signature brand of rapid-fire neurotic comedy that paved the way for many a generation of female comics, like Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin and Wanda Sykes.
“The secret is to keep working,” she said of her long career, “especially if you’re a comedian. I work every Wednesday night when I’m in New York in a little club getting new material. Don’t think you have laurels to rest on. You’re as funny as your last joke, and your last joke had better been a good one.
“Once, when I was on ‘The Tonight Show’ guest hosting, I went to one of the producers and asked how many shots at not funny could I get away with on this show before you would never use me again. My husband thought three and they said two. You’ve got to deliver. This is a business of delivery. Bill Cosby said when they don’t know you, they give you five minutes to make up their minds. If they do know you, they give you six minutes. You’re as good as your show.”
Rivers added that she is too focused on her own work to be concerned about what most other comics are doing.
“Years ago, a friend of mine said don’t worry about the others, run your own course. I don’t look to the right or the left. I do my on thing. I’m very friendly with Kathy Griffin, so I know about her career because we’ve been friends for years. I love Sarah Silverman. We come and we bow to each other. We pay homage to each other. Rosie, I adore. She’s so smart.”
Many of today’s comics would hail Rivers as a trailblazer and an inspiration — not that she would entertain the idea.
“They all tell me that,” she said. “Who cares? Get the fuck out of the way. I could still take you with one hand behind my back. You can only become a role model when you become the grand old master. I’m in the trenches with those girls. I’m competing with them for audiences and, if we’re on the same show, I want to be funnier.”
Rivers wouldn’t even acknowledge her business acumen, which, on top of her red-carpet reputation, has landed her a successful business selling her own brand of jewelry and beauty products. She credits her success to serendipity, not business sense.
“What are we talking about here? I’ve never had control in this business,” she said. “I still don’t at this age. I’m still depending upon the kindness of strangers. You’re talking to the empire. I’ve never had that big sitcom. I’ve never had that big payoff. I’ve never owned anything. Everything is luck. They came to me during one of the down moments in my career, which were many. I never say no to anything. I’d always worked in retail growing up, so I had that and I paint, so I was kind of artistic. I sat down and designed very basic jewelry. I brought it to QVC and they sold out. My God, I’ve found myself a jewelry designer. I learned while doing, which turned out to be advantageous.”
She added that selling jewelry under the bright lights of the QVC studios isn’t that much different than performing for an audience in a club or theater.
“It’s totally the same. It’s just a different audience. I adore my jewelry but I’m still there to entertain the people who are there to watch me.”
Rivers knows there are longtime fans in the audience that still want to hear her do her famous routines from the ’70s and ’80s.
“I try to throw them in because I’ll go backstage and someone will say, ‘Please do your gynecologist routine. I saw it 30 years ago and I brought my friend,’” she said. “So I throw in at least part of some things. But I love the new stuff. With Tony Bennett, you want to hear ‘San Francisco,’ but with Joan Rivers, you don’t want to hear the old ‘Wedding Night’ routine. It’s fabulous that they do that, but they still want a good show. They paid for parking, a babysitter and tickets. They want to have a good time. I feel that obligation. You have no idea how heavy that is on my head. I want you all to go away having a good time — except for seven people who will be totally offended, because that means I’m still sharp.”
When it comes to her career, Rivers said she still gets nervous before she goes on stage.
“I never go on stage without saying a prayer,” she said. “Every audience is different.”
She added that she couldn’t pick out highlights of her career, because she hasn’t peaked yet.
“It had better happen fast,” she said. “I swear to you, there’s something better around the corner.”
Joan Rivers performs an evening of talk, comedy and conversation at 8 p.m. May 2 at the Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St. For more information, visit www.gershmany.org or call (215) 790-1042.