"It's a very tough, mean, rejecting business. So we're always fighting something. You're always against something. But it's the greatest. I mean, I wouldn't be in anything else. What a great life I'm having."
– Joan Rivers
Guy MacPherson: Did you play Vancouver in the early days of your career?
Joan Rivers: Not really. I don't think Vancouver was a place to play because in the early days I played much smaller places. I played places like the hungry i. Little places. You start in the small clubs and then you work up. The first time I really did Vancouver was when Melissa and I did a movie up there together about 15 years ago. And we just loved it.
GM: Well, it's covered with snow right now.
JR: I'm so jealous.
JR: Well, the same in New York. And the leaves still aren't off the trees and it's getting me crazy. You know? Enough.
GM: Enough with the nice weather.
JR: Yeah, let's get it to where it's supposed to be.
GM: Do you still have a desperation to succeed at this stage in your career?
JR: Oh, of course. It's all about loving what you do. We're in the business of failure and rejection. I just had lunch with a friend of mine, so you just hit a nerve. Because he was saying, "Have you ever felt successful?" He's a very successful friend of mine, a writer. And you never feel successful. It's always, "What did you just do? What are you doing next?" It's very hard.
GM: So even when you had your own show or whatever, you never thought, "Ah, I can relax"?
JR: No, never, because they're always telling you they can take it away from you. So absolutely not. The ones that relax don't last. I've never seen any performer that was serene about their career that it lasted. You always want to strive, you always want to get to the next plateau. I know in comedy I'm always looking at the next thing to laugh about. I'm always looking to see how far I can stretch it. That's just a natural thing.
GM: You said once, "No one who thinks they're pretty ever becomes a comedienne."
GM: But that's changing now, isn't it? I notice a lot of really beautiful female comics out there.
JR: Who?! Tell me the beautiful young comics.
GM: Well, there's Sarah Silverman...
JR: Sarah Silverman is a nice-looking girl, she's hardly a beautiful young woman. She's nice-looking. She wasn't a cheerleader in school.
GM: So the key is that no one who thinks they're pretty becomes a comedian. They may be, but they don't think it.
JR: Yeah, that's a good way of putting it.
GM: Because you would always make fun of how fat you were and I'd think, what?!
JR: I just looked at a whole bunch of things that we did for TV Guide. They're putting together a best-of, you know, little funny skits and stuff. And I look like a fat pig in all of them. So you got the wrong day.
GM: I don't believe it.
JR: Oh, trust me. I literally just came from looking at that. Don't kid yourself.
GM: Like Don Rickles, you both wanted to be actors.
JR: I think every comic wants to be an actor. I think they all started out as actors.
GM: And then something goes horribly wrong?
JR: I don't think Sarah Silverman woke up, if we're using her as an example of a woman, or let's go back to Roseanne Barr. Everyone started out to be an actor or an actress.
GM: You wanted to be a serious actress, right?
GM: Are you glad you ended up where you did in comedy rather than in acting?
JR: No, because I do both now. But I'm just glad I'm in the business. It's just such a wonderful business whether you're making people laughing... It's great to make people laugh. There's nothing like it.
GM: So that's your serene moment, when you're on stage.
GM: And then as soon as you're off, it's "Oh, now what do I gotta do next?"
JR: Yeah, exactly. When you're on stage and you're all laughing together, that's it. You're cooking.
GM: Of course, you're doing things now like the Shopping Channel, the red carpet thing, where we don't get to see your standup much on TV anymore like we used to.
JR: I just did a standup for Bravo! on TV. It went very well. I don't know if you get Bravo! It was rated very high, so that was great. But I do everything. I have a new show coming out in England. I'm all over the place.
GM: What kind of show?
JR: It'll be a talk show. I'm not allowed to talk about it yet.
GM: Excellent. But we won't get that over here, I guess.
JR: Well, I don't know. Another thing they ended up showing over there, called The Joan Rivers Position, and I know that was on in Canada, someone told me. It was another show I did in England for a while.
GM: Do women comics have it better today or are there just different challenges from when you were starting out?
JR: I think they're more accepted today but I think the woman comedian is a very strange bird. Because most of them are gay. It's a very tough... You know, you have to be very strong to be in front of an audience and take command. And I think they're more accepted but there aren't that many around.
GM: Well, there are getting to be more, though, compared to when you were starting out especially.
JR: I guess so.
GM: Because there was Phyllis Diller and then you. I guess there were others, too.
JR: There were others. Sandra Bernhard came around the same time and there were some else that never went as far as we did. There were always a couple. But now you have Kathy Griffin--
GM: I was just going to ask you about her because she seems to have taken your role as the celebrity basher.
JR: I do so many different things. I do a little bit of that but I really am much more about what's going on now. I don't know what I'm about. I'm more about sociological stuff. I don't know. Anything that annoys me, I talk about.
GM: And lots annoys you, I guess.
JR: Oh, everything annoys me! Everything gets me angry.
GM: What's gotten you angry lately?
JR: What hasn't? You just open the paper and there it is. It's about getting older, it's about dating older men, it's about Viagra, it's about, I guess, Pamela Anderson now. It's all that stuff. Divorce. It's just everything.
GM: Do you ever get political?
JR: Very little because my act is a reflection of me and I can't stand any of them.
GM: So there's no point.
JR: There's no point. I hate them all.
"My parents always brought us up to say you could do whatever you wanted. I didn't know there were any barriers. So people would say, 'I'm going to be a doctor not a nurse.' I'd say, 'Big fuckin' deal.' My parents never said anything except, 'Of course be a doctor.'"
– Joan Rivers
GM: You started out using other people's material.
JR: When I first started, yeah.
GM: And then you wrote yourself for other comics and TV shows.
JR: Yes, I was a writer. As they called them in those days, a girl writer.
GM: It's funny that you started out not being able to do it and then somehow you learned the craft of writing.
JR: The writing came out of Second City when you realized that what you thought was funny, they thought was funny. And that was wonderful. That was such an eye-opener. So that was an amazing thing for me.
GM: How much do you write today?
JR: Of my act, I'd say I write 90 percent. And then there's always somebody, God bless them, that will send you a new joke or a friend will say things. "Oh, can I have that?!"
GM: What I really liked when I saw you up here was that you make every joke, whether somebody gave it to you or not, your own. You own it. You make it yours.
JR: You wouldn't think to put it in unless it became yours. You know, somebody might say something and you go, "That's a funny idea." And then it turns around it becomes yours.
GM: But you see some comics and their material doesn't ring true with them.
JR: Well, that's why we're all different.
GM: With all the adversity you faced in your early career...
JR: And my middle career and my late career.
GM: Before you got that big break, it's a wonder you kept going.
JR: No, it's a wonder I keep going now! (laughs) It never stops. It's a very tough, mean, rejecting business. So we're always fighting something. You're always against something. But it's the greatest. I mean, I wouldn't be in anything else. What a great life I'm having.
GM: When you think back on it, are you amazed you stuck with it?
JR: No. I had no choice. And that sounds very dramatic, but I had no choice. I always say it was like a nun's calling. When people say, "My child wants to be in the theatre", I always say, "If they can do anything else, they should do something else." Because it's not the choice. I never had a choice. From the minute I could put two thoughts together, this is what I wanted to do.
GM: I see. Because you got your degree in anthropology.
JR: That's right. I knew where I was going. From the minute I could figure it out I knew where I was going.
GM: So that was just a fall-back?
JR: Yeah. And that was really because my parents made me. And they were smart because it is nice to have a degree in your pocket and it does make you at one point say it's alright, I can always do something else.
GM: And you have to be smart to be a comic.
JR: I think you have to be very smart to be a comic. I also think you have to be different. We see things differently. I don't know if we work from a different side of the brain. I don't know. But we see things differently. I always say we see things crookedly. All comedians. You see comedians and they say things that are absolutely hilarious that nobody else has seen in that way. They're just wonderful. Comics are wonderful. It's just totally different.
GM: Is it true Margaret Mead was your professor?
JR: Yeah. When I first started out she would give me, which I loved, little questionnaires for people to fill out in the nightclubs. And I would bring those little pencils and put them on every table and send them back to her. Isn't that amazing? If they only knew they were doing things for Margaret Mead.
GM: What did you find out?
JR: It was really about women's liberation. This was in the mid-60s. I remember asking who rules the money in your house, can you work, does your husband want you to work, who makes the dinners? You know, very basic questions and it was all about the women's movement. It was just starting to take formation.
GM: You're not a big fan of the women's movement.
JR: I never thought about it. I always was on my own. I never realized that women couldn't... My parents always brought us up to say you could do whatever you wanted. I didn't know there were any barriers. So people would say, "I'm going to be a doctor not a nurse." I'd say, "Big fuckin' deal." My parents never said anything except, "Of course be a doctor." [My son is audible in the background] That's nice. That's your wife, huh?
GM: That's my baby boy.
JR: I know!
GM: Oh, I see. My wife's at work. My wife has a real job.
JR: That's good. How old's your baby?
GM: Just turned two.
JR: My grandson's five. He's so much fun.
GM: Yeah, they're great. Now, when's the last time you bombed?
JR: Last night.
JR: Yes. I did something. I did a charity thing where we all read from stars' autobiographies. Other stars. And I though you were supposed to read it straight. And I got there and everybody was camping it up. And it took me about five minutes to get into mine. I thought, "Oh, shit."
GM: But that's really not your material.
JR: No, so thank you. Bombing? Really bombing? I'd say about one show in about fifteen you just can't connect with them.
GM: Do you have any kind of preparation before you go out to perform?
JR: I'm always terribly nervous. I don't like when friends come to see me before the show. I really don't like that. Just leave me alone, you know? You don't talk to a doctor before an operation. I hate that. I'm always nervous, I'm always crazy before a show.
GM: Just a lot of pacing?
JR: Pacing and then if the first joke works, then we're fine. I get very nervous at audiences that are politically correct. Right now I'm always saying if you didn't like Borat, don't come and see me.
GM: You like Borat.
JR: Oh, I think he's fabulous. I always loved The Ali G Show.
GM: You can't be as blue on TV as you are on stage. Do you ever get older people who are expecting a cleaner show get shocked?
JR: Yes, but then I like to drag them into the present tense. Older people, you know, it's time. Get with it.
GM: Do you have boundaries? How far is too far?
JR: Nothing is too far for me. If I feel I can say it, I say it. That's the fun of working live with an audience because you can figure out where you can go. And it's also fun to take them to the edge. If I think it's funny, or I can make it funny, then it's fine.
GM: That's the key, isn't it? The funny.
JR: That's the key. The key is if you can get people to laugh at anything it's no longer scary, it's no longer taboo. It shrinks it and you can deal with it.
GM: I have to ask you about the Michael Richards episode.
JR: In every comedian, you have your own buttons. And he obviously didn't have the right buttons. But I will say in his defence – and there's no defence – but in his defence, two things. One, I don't know what they were saying to him and how smart-assy they were to him. And I think he just was being smart-assy, you know what I'm saying? Who knows what they said. But I think only a black person should say nigger. And only a Jew should say kike. And that's why when Chris Rock says it, it's funny: "Okay, nigger, move your feet." It's funny because he's black.
GM: So there's a boundary for you. You wouldn't say that.
JR: Well, I say it all but I tell them at the start of the show, "You're all gonna get it so calm down."
GM: When you took on, or still take on, some of the celebrities, do any of them ever get really upset?
JR: No. Willie Nelson's daughter once wrote me a letter. In those days I said how dirty he was. And she wrote, "They're teasing me at school." So I took it right out. You know, you don't want to upset a child, for God sakes. So out it came. I'm never out to... I was the first one to do Elizabeth Taylor fat jokes. Because God knows she was a big fatso then. And then everybody started doing them. I like to think I'm kind of the Emperor's new clothes.
GM: Have you said anything that you later regretted?
JR: If I did I'll say it right on stage: "Gone too far, huh?" No, very few things.
GM: Some critics in the past have said you're mean-spirited, but I just don't get this at all because it's clearly ironic and funny.
JR: Thank you. I don't get it, either. They missed the point. I had lunch today with a lady who had just seen Borat and she thought it was disgusting and filthy and stupid. And I thought, "Oh, God." It was just silly and funny and insane.
GM: And here's your point. He's Jewish so he can get away with saying terrible things about Jews.
JR: You got it. But Mel Gibson? No, no, no. But also, this was done in humour and Mel Gibson was done in drunken reality. And he's a drunk. A friend of mine saw him very drunk at a nightclub and screaming, "I own Malibu. What the fuck are you all gonna do? I own all of you." He's a bad boy.
GM: Did you ever meet him?
JR: I met him years ago and he was doing Braveheart so he was very charming.
GM: And if you met him now?
JR: I'd say, "I'm Jewish. I have nothing to say to you."
"Paula Poundstone came over to me and said, 'Oh, I owe everything to you. You're my idol.' And I thought, 'I'll wipe the floor with you.' And I did. I don't mean it in a bad way, but don't make it like, 'Oh, I learned from you and now I've got the mantle.' No, you don't. I'm still wearing it and it's sewn to my shoulders."
– Joan Rivers
GM: Have you done The Tonight Show since Jay Leno took over?
GM: Is that on your part or their part?
JR: Their part.
JR: Persona non grata for 18 years. Interesting, huh?
GM: Aren't there new people running it? What's the deal?
JR: Yes, and the deal is I've never been asked, and I haven't pitched, to do it. I've never done that show. I've done Letterman once. I have been locked out of late night.
GM: Any idea why?
JR: It all goes back to... I don't know. It goes back to Johnny Carson and the boys' club. Obviously I've managed to... I do survival lectures and I talk about this in those lectures. You find another doorway. Don't waste your breath, don't waste your time. They don't want me, fuck 'em, I don't want them. You know what I mean? They're stupid. They don't want me, their loss.
GM: I see you on The View occasionally.
JR: I do The View, I do The Today Show all the time. I do Regis & Kelly all the time. On Bravo! I have my own pilot now. I'm fine.
GM: But still.
JR: That's their problem.
GM: Yes, it is. And ours, too, the viewers because we don't get to see you.
GM: On your old talk show on Fox, Mark Breslin was your booker.
JR: Yes, isn't that amazing? I love Mark. And what he did, I mean he really was early in on all this comedy explosion.
GM: He's the king in Canada.
JR: I know, isn't that great?
GM: How many gigs a year do you do now? Just standup comedy.
JR: About 40. I'm out maybe... Certainly every second weekend I go out.
GM: And you still love it or you just do it out of habit?
JR: Oh, no. And then I work every Wednesday night in a little room called The Cutting Room in New York. I just break in stuff and just ad lib around. I love it. I cannot wait till Wednesday.
GM: So you're working with all the young comics.
JR: Working with all the young comics. And it's very young. It's right in the heart of the NYU area. It's great. If I'm in town, I'm on that stage. It's wonderful.
GM: It must be a thrill to see you in an intimate setting like that.
JR: It's so much fun. And you can do anything and say anything.
GM: You said you were never honoured. But that must be changing the longer you're around.
JR: I don't want to be honoured. That means you're no longer in the trenches. I'm not ready for the award. I hate that. Paula Poundstone came over to me and said, "Oh, I owe everything to you. You're my idol." And I thought, "I'll wipe the floor with you." And I did. I don't mean it in a bad way, but don't make it like, "Oh, I learned from you and now I've got the mantle." No, you don't. I'm still wearing it and it's sewn to my shoulders.
GM: (laughs) It's like the Charlton Heston line, "You'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands."
JR: That's hilarious. A friend of mine was thinking of giving up... She's one of the hosts on one of these, like, Entertainment Tonight shows. And she [said], "Should I give it up?" And I said, "Give it up? You hold on! And when they chop your hands off, you hold on with your elbows." That's crazy! Like, giving up anything (laughs). And she called me two years later and said, "You were right. That would have been such a mistake."
GM: What do you think of the infatuation with celebrity in our culture?
JR: Well, it's always been that way. From Vincent Price's wife, I have a little statuette of Nell Gwynn, who was Charles II's mistress. And she was an actress. They sold little china statuettes of her. There's always been... I'm sure Eve had a following.
GM: (laughs) With the snakes.
JR: So it is a celebrity culture.
GM: But it's a different type of celebrity we're cultivating today, isn't it?
JR: It isn't so much a celebrity who's done something, it's a celebrity of shock. If they're wild enough or you can get famous by slapping your maid, like Naomi Campbell. You can get famous by doing a porn film if you're Paris Hilton. That's the kind of stuff. It's a different kind of celebrity.
GM: Yeah. They're not all entertainers now; they're just people who happen to be on TV for whatever reason. It's not like they have a talent.
JR: Yeah. But maybe it's because of where I am, and I've been around interviewing for so many years on the red carpet and stuff, you see them come, you see them go. And the ones that make me sad are the ones that aren't enjoying it while they have it.
GM: They don't realize--
JR: They don't realize it's going to be a long, on the other side of the fence, a long journey.
GM: Like you say, once they've made it they get complacent, maybe.
JR: They think it's going to stay. Nothing stays. It's either you're going up or you're going down.
GM: It's always somebody else's turn.
JR: Always certainly somebody else that wants it to be their turn.
GM: And we take such pleasure in both the rise and the fall of our celebrities.
JR: That's very American, don't you think? And all you have to do is have something sad happen to you and we're on your side again.
GM: Ah, I see.
JR: We hate you, we hate you, we hate you, and then something sad happens and oh we love you, we love you, we love you.
GM: Michael Jackson needs something sad to happen to him.
JR: Yes, he needs something sad to happen.
GM: Do you follow many of the young female comics today?
JR: I don't go see any new comics because I'm doing what I'm doing and I don't want them to think I got it from them. There's always going to be crossover of material.