The internationally renowned comedienne and best-selling author talks about her latest text, Diary of a Mad Diva.
Comedienne Joan Rivers – Part 1
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, the first of two nights of conversations with Joan Rivers. At 81, she is the apogee of her already impressive career which saw her breaking down barriers for women comedians. One landmark, Joan Rivers was the first and, so far, only woman to host a late night network show.
Today, this New York Times best-selling author, Emmy winner and Tony nominee is juggling a weekly live web series called “In Bed With Joan” as well as “Fashion Police,” of course, on the E! Network.
She also has a new book out titled “Diary of a Man Diva” in which she gives politically incorrect new meaning.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with the incomparable Joan Rivers coming up right now.
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Tavis: Joan Rivers cracked open that proverbial glass ceiling that said women could not do standup, paving the way for a host of comedians with a take no prisoners attitude. She is a perennial New York Times best-selling author. Her latest tome is called “Diary of a Mad Diva.” It skewers just about everybody from Anne Frank to the Pope [laugh].
She definitely lives in a country with no sacred cows. At 81 – could I say that? – she’s still showing no signs of slowing down. She does 120 live webcasts a year called “In Bed With Joan” as well as a weekly series on E! that we all watch and love called “Fashion Police,” both of which are produced with her lovely daughter, Melissa.
I have wanted Joan Rivers on this program for all the years I’ve been doing it. I was just saying to her when she walked on the set that she was the very first comic that I ever saw do live standup. I came to L.A. to try to make my mark. I was working for Tom Bradley, the late, great mayor of this city.
I got to know Bernice and George at Carlos and Charlie’s because of the mayor and I would sneak upstairs every time you were there to watch you and Carlos and Charlie’s. So this is a full circle moment for me, so I’m honored to have you on this program.
Joan Rivers: So sweet, and you came here to make your mark. Where’d you come from?
Tavis: Indiana, the Midwest.
Rivers: Very brave. I’m always impressed with people that leave home to go someplace to do well.
Tavis: Well, I’m impressed with you for a lot of reasons. So let’s just start this mutual admiration society conversation.
Rivers: Okay, all right.
Tavis: There’s so many things I’m impressed about. One is…
Rivers: Yeah, well, too bad [laugh].
Tavis: One of them is, as I was saying to you when you walked on the set, that I think part of what separates those who make it from those who don’t is a level of energy. You can be gifted, you can be talented, you can have lucky breaks, but your level of energy, it astounds me.
Rivers: Yes. I don’t know anybody in any field that doesn’t work without a stop that’s successful, including friends of mine that are successful. But you just think if you just work a little harder, you’d be successful. Yeah, my energy.
But I love the business and I’m also terrified it will go away. It’s that double thing that keeps me going. Do the job, don’t say no to anything. No, no, take the job ’cause you don’t know if there’s gonna be another one. I can do that. You know, it’s all that kind of stuff going. That’s the energy.
Tavis: But once you’ve done it, Joan, for over 50 years…
Tavis: Why are you still terrified that it might go away?
Rivers: ‘Cause it’s been taken away from me how many – every third week, it’s taken away from me [laugh]. Are you kidding? They come after you with everything. Oh, you shouldn’t say that, you should do that. Then for a long time, there was the age thing started in. And before that, I was banned from Carson. Constantly, things are taken away.
Tavis: Where, though, does that fearlessness come from?
Rivers: I love the business so much. You cannot take it away from me. Screw you. I’ll do something else. I’m staying in the business. You’re not putting an end to me.
Tavis: Why do you love it so much? Why are you so connected?
Rivers: It’s all I ever wanted to do. I don’t know what you wanted to do. My eyes opened and the first thing I thought of when I could put thoughts together was I want to be in show business. Never wanted anything else. I used to sneak in the costume room at my nursery school and smell the costumes. Oh, I want to be in this, I want to be in this.
Tavis: I was moved – and I mean genuinely moved – when I learned of an experience your mother exposed you to because I regard Paul Robeson as the most…
Rivers: Nobody knows who we’re talking about now.
Tavis: That’s my point. I regard him as the most unheralded, under-appreciated, under-valued, unsung – he’s the ultimate renaissance man of anybody ever on the stage.
Rivers: And I knew the lawyer that ruined his life. Paul Roberson, one of the great…
Rivers: African American…
Tavis: Singers, lawyer…
Tavis: Rhode Scholar, football player, All-American…
Rivers: Player of Othello, broke every barrier, and became a communist. Of course, you’re gonna be a communist. You’re coming out of a bad time in Black America. Of course, I get it, I get it. And I knew – he was a friend of my aunt’s – the lawyer who said, “Paul, go out there and tell them you’re a communist.”
So at the height of his life, he went out there and said, “I’m a communist” and guess what? Threw him out of America. Terrible, terrible, terrible. And then by the time they brought him back, he was very old. Very sad.
Tavis: Your mother took you to see him…
Rivers: Took me to see him, yeah.
Tavis: When you were just a kid. What did that experience do for you?
Rivers: He was just amazing. I went, again, into his dressing room and smelling the smells and seeing the back stage and being part of that, I knew this was where I belonged. There’s no question this is where I have to be.
Tavis: I think people are discovering, in part because of your book and the wonderful documentary. I just love the documentary…
Rivers: The documentary was great. I got nothing to do with it.
Tavis: It was amazing, though. You had a lot to do with it. It was amazing. But I think a lot of people are discovering that comedy really wasn’t your first love. You really wanted to be an actress.
Rivers: Still. We all are. Any comic is a very good actor. Look at Don Rickles. He is saying the same joke every night for 20 years and making it look like he just thought of it. Hey, that’s acting. So Kathy Griffin wants to be an actress. Sarah Silverman an actress. We all – it’s my first – still is.
I’m going back in November to the National Theater in Washington and I’m doing a play reading. I’ve been on Broadway three times. I want to go back again.
It’s my bucket list. Three things on my bucket list. Go back to the stage, marry a very wealthy Jewish man who’s about to die [laugh] and his last thing is “Give Joan everything” and my third is go on a boat somewhere. Just have a boat. Fabulous.
Tavis: Why go back to the stage when, by your own admission, acting is your first love? But there have been moments where you have had issue with the way that you were reviewed or treated on stage.
Tavis: So why go back again?
Rivers: Because there’s nothing like live performing. I’m a New York girl. I come out of New York theater. To me, coming out of the subway with my mother looking up, that was the first thing. I got it. Okay, you know, here we go again.
And to be in New York to go into a theater and go backstage and they say hello to you? There’s a dressing room for you? This is not tragic. This is not tragic.
I was in Judi Dench’s dressing room when I performed my own show in England. Judi Dench was in here! Lawrence Olivier! Lawrence Olivier used that toilet! I mean, that’s it, you know. Constipated for a month after that one [laugh].
Tavis: So that your comedy ends up developing as a way to give life to the acting career that you’re trying to get off the ground. But who told you you were funny? How did you know you could do this?
Rivers: I truly think comedy is – being funny is DNA. My dad was a doctor, a wonderful doctor, and people still come up to me today, your father helped my mother die. You know what I’m saying? He made her laugh ’til she died. My father was always very funny.
My sister was a lawyer, very smart, a youngest woman graduate of Columbia Law School, but she was funny. I swear to God, she won the cases ’cause she was funny. She’d make the jury laugh. Smart as hell.
Tavis: Laughter works.
Rivers: Laughter works.
Tavis: If you can make ’em laugh, you can make ’em listen.
Rivers: And I wanted to be an actress. I knew I wasn’t that pretty, I knew I wasn’t that this or that. So I would make the secretaries laugh. If the secretary liked you, she would bring you into the agent.
And one secretary said to me ’cause I was everybody’s office temporary in those days, “You should do comedy. My husband does comedy and makes $6 a night. You should do comedy. You’re funny.” I thought, “$6 a night? It’s more than I’m making as an office temporary.” And that’s how I started with comedy.
Little did I know how difficult it is, but in the beginning, it was an easy way to make money and you passed the hat. It was Greenwich Village. Hat wouldn’t come back some nights, but you passed the hat [laugh].
Tavis: You said three or four things I want to go back and unpack. So now you’re getting ahead of me ’cause there’s so much good stuff…
Rivers: I’m so sorry.
Tavis: No. There’s so much good stuff coming out of your mouth. Let me start with this. How did you develop your own comedic style? Because you’re not just another comedian. You’re a woman comedian and you got to have your own voice. You’ve got to have that own thumbprint on your throat. How did you develop this irreverent Joan Rivers style?
Rivers: I never thought about it. Several of my friends think about what they’re gonna do. You know, there’s some people – Flip Wilson was very – these are guys I started with – knew every line. George Carlin said this is how I’ll do it. Rodney Dangerfield said I’ll find a phrase. I don’t get no respect.
I just went out and talked, but I always said talk as if you’re talking to a friend that’s sitting next to you. And to this day, all my comedy is that one friend and I guess that’s the irreverence ’cause that’s what I am.
If you and I go to dinner, we have two glasses of wine, I’m gonna say, “Let me tell you another thing” and that’s exactly what my comedy is. I get angry that people are so uptight these days and people – you can’t say this and you can’t say that. Oh, stop it. Laugh at it and move on.
Tavis: When you said earlier, Joan, that you think that comedy is in your DNA, it may be. But I have never seen anybody who works as hard as you do to push out these jokes.
I mean, you’re writing – when I saw that documentary when it came out a while ago, in your office, that huge wall of all the – you’ve cataloged on index cards every joke you’ve ever written? About 50 years?
Rivers: I wish. I’ve cataloged maybe one-sixteenth of every joke I’ve ever…
Tavis: There’s a big wall with a lot of cards!
Rivers: And you think where are all the jokes I haven’t – yeah, I just did “The Talk” today and, you know, we’re just gonna be ladies sitting and talking. I better make sure that I know what I’m gonna talk about. I always prepare. I always prepare.
Tavis: You’re writing notes every – you’re writing jokes everywhere.
Rivers: Everywhere I go, writing jokes, writing jokes. Biggest one is saying the nude beach. I never go to the nude beach ’cause it takes so long to get ready. Just hours and hours to pluck my nipples [laugh]. There it is.
Tavis: There it is [laugh].
Rivers: There it is. Try it out, try it out.
Tavis: But that also reminds me that there are a lot of great comics who have staffs of people who help write their stuff, and it’s like you.
Rivers: No, no. I have – for “Fashion Police,” we have producers that will give you ideas, give you ideas. I’m always saying please send me the joke. It’s one less joke I have to think of, you know. ‘Cause otherwise, you’re sitting around all day long going, oh, my God. I bounce a lot with friends. I have a couple of friends that are very good that I’ll get on the phone and we’ll laugh.
I wrote this whole book with a friend of mine named Larry Amarose, just adlibbed back and forth. You think this is funny and then blah, blah, blah. I can’t think. I have to talk it out.
Tavis: What do you make of the response to this book, “Diary of a Mad Diva?”
Rivers: Well, first of all, People magazine picked it number one…
Tavis: I saw this. People magazine, number one for summer reading.
Rivers: I mean, it’s unbelievable. We’re all over the place. People took it seriously. How stupid can you be to take a book and the first page in there is a disclaimer. It’s a three-paragraph funny disclaimer saying that I mistake my daughter Melissa for the actor Laurence Fishburne [laugh].
If you don’t know that’s a funny book – I also say if you don’t like it, call my lawyer, Clarence Darrow. I mean, it’s so stupid. And then Kristen Stewart’s lawyer called my lawyer and they wanted the book removed from the stores or a public apology. They have since withdrawn.
Tavis: What does that say as a comic? What does that say to you about the sensitive nature of our comedic palate these days?
Rivers: It says a lot. Well, it says two things. It says a lot of our stars are stupid [laugh]. And it also says everyone calm down. Comics are here to make you laugh. That’s the only reason we’re here. You don’t like it, move on.
Bill Cosby, who gave me my first break in the business, he said to me years ago, “If .1%, .1% of America thinks you’re funny, you’ll fill stadiums for the rest of your life, so don’t worry.”
You know, you can’t worry what everyone’s gonna think. There’s always gonna be somebody who says, “That’s not funny.” You know what? Don’t come and see me.
Tavis: Since you raised Cosby’s name…
Rivers: I love Cosby.
Tavis: Yeah. So a Black man gives a white woman this break. I’ve heard you get in peoples’ faces a little testy and I think it’s a legitimate complaint. I’ve heard you get in peoples’ faces about the fact that – you make a joke about it – that women say you’ve opened up doors for all of us. But you always say I’m still opening up doors.
Rivers: Damn right.
Tavis: So you will push back on people who try to put you out to pasture…
Rivers: Yes, totally.
Tavis: But I’ve never heard you complain – I have not. Maybe in your private time – I’ve never heard you complain, though, publicly about what you had to endure as a woman on the stage.
Rivers: I never found it as a woman. I was so busy just trying to get ahead. It’s also a big crutch. Oh, I’m a woman and that’s why they don’t laugh. Stop it! You know what I mean?
If you’re funny – Hitler, as I said this before – if Hitler came back with three good minutes, they’d say, “You know, he’s changed, he’s grown, he’s matured.” [Laugh] He’s a nice guy. He’s a fabulous dancer. It’s funny is funny and I find sometimes we take it as a crutch. I never thought about women.
Looking back, however, the group that I sat with when we were all trying to get on the stage in the bitter end, was Bill who went through first. But then it was George Carlin, Richard Pryor, me, Rodney, Woody, and I was the last one to get through. And looking back, I thought maybe it was because I was a woman, you know. But at the time, it never occurred to me, never occurred to me.
So looking back, maybe they did use to say things like, “Well, a woman shouldn’t say that,” but I ignored it. What are you gonna do? You know, you do what you’re gonna do. But I think it’s the time for – women now rule. Amy Poehler?
Tavis: Tina Fey.
Rivers: Tina Fey.
Tavis: A bunch of them, yeah.
Rivers: All of them coming up, are there.
Tavis: You take any pride in that?
Tavis: None at all.
Rivers: I’m fighting for my life. Every time Kathy who’s my good friend, Kathy Griffin, gets a job, I don’t [laugh]. Yeah, pride. I go around saying, “Kathy Griffin’s not so good. You think she’s funny?” And she’s very funny.
Tavis: She’s very funny. In retrospect, did you think you made the right decision doing the Comedy Central Roast?
Rivers: I did the Comedy Central Roast…
Tavis: Because they paid you.
Rivers: Because they paid me [laugh]. I’m very basic. It was a very nice check. It was a great check. The Comedy Roast, I just thought was stupid in a way. Watch. I’ll never work again for Comedy Central [laugh]. I said, you know, they’re gonna do jokes on, here we go, facelifts, plastic surgery. They’re gonna do jokes on age. They’re gonna do jokes on the jewelry. Come on, guys.
You know, I didn’t feel it would be very fresh, but they got great ratings. I loved my retort. I worked very hard on my rebuttal, so I was very proud of that.
Tavis: It was good.
Rivers: Yeah, it was a good rebuttal.
Tavis: So to your point now, how hard have you had to work or do you still have to work in your comedy at not being predictable, given the point you’ve just made about the Comedy Central Roast, that it was so predictable?
Rivers: I don’t even think about it. What I do find is I think I’ve got ADD, which is good. I want to talk about the latest things. I work in a little place in New York every week when I’m home. It holds 125 people and it’s called the West Bank Café. Teensy, tinsy. I can’t wait to get on and talk about what just happened.
So I’m not predictable ’cause I’m talking about what’s current. I’m not interested, say, in plastic surgery. Oh, my God, the last plastic surgery was six years ago. Enough! Who cares? Let’s talk about whatever the thing is to talk about right now.
Tavis: Since you raised the plastic surgery thing, earlier in this conversation, you made note – and it’s not the first time you’ve done it. You’ve done it in your books and your other work – that you never had any illusion that you were some gorgeous…
Tavis: I was trying to be charitable and kind.
Rivers: How can you have an illusion? I went to probably my cousin. She didn’t want to take me. It was horrible [laugh].
Tavis: But you obviously – you got comfortable with whatever your look is. It didn’t bother you? You got comfortable with that? You didn’t…
Rivers: Of course, it bothers you. Every day, it bothers you. I’m 15 pounds over. I can’t stand to look. I’m old. You work with what you got. No, I never had any illusions. Men never went, “Oh, I want to meet her,” unless I had a checkbook in my hand.
Tavis: I wonder if that was a blessing because in the sense that it…
Rivers: That’s a lovely thing to say. It’s a lovely thing to say.
Tavis: It makes people focus…
Rivers: Who would you rather be…?
Tavis: It makes people focus on your gift.
Rivers: Oh, what would you rather be? Okay, you or the most handsome, sexy, fabulous, great-looking stud in the world? When you walk in a room, everyone would go, “Tavis, hello.” You know what I mean? You work with what you got.
You’re a good-looking man. I’m not saying you’re not. But I would much rather have been tall and amazing looking. I’d love them to say, “Oh, my God, she’s an animal.”
Tavis: But that’s my point, though.
Rivers: I wouldn’t have been funny then.
Tavis: Well, you might have been funny, but you might not have gotten the respect for being – I mean, if you looked like Halle Berry, how does your gift really…
Rivers: Well, you wonder if Halle Berry is funny in private. Nicole Kidman is hilarious. How about that one?
Tavis: She has it all then.
Rivers: Yeah. I sat next to her at one Academy Award one year. And something happened and she started to tell me joke after joke. And you go, “She’s funny.” I couldn’t believe it ’cause sitting here is Nicole Kidman and then she’s whispering, “Take a look to the left, check out the guy on the right…”: You go, she’s hilarious. And then you want to be friends with them.
Tavis: I guess the flip side of the Nicole Kidman story, though, is whether or not, after all the years you’ve been doing this, it gets annoying when people come up to you trying to be funny.
Rivers: It’s very sweet. And they always come up and they give you a joke. Here’s one you can use, and then it’s usually three rabbis and a eunuch were in a whorehouse [laugh]. Oh, that’s good. I always say it’s good. It’s a good joke. Thank you. Yeah, people always think they’re going to be funny with me.
Tavis: Speaking of audiences, what have you learned that you can share with me and with us about the way you handle – ’cause you’re brilliant at this – the way you handle hecklers on stage? What have you learned about handling hecklers on stage that you can share with us about how to handle the haters in our own lives?
Rivers: Ignore it. Well, hecklers, I don’t put up with it. I once saw Sinatra. When I was opening in Vegas, my husband used to say, “Go see one of the headliners.” He was so smart. And as an opening act, you get time to run across the street, see the headliner. Headliners know what they are.
Sinatra took no prisoners. You’re talking? You know what? I’ll be back when you’re out. And I do that with hecklers. We’re not doing a double here. So I’m probably answering the question the wrong way for you. I don’t allow hecklers. I don’t allow hecklers. You’re allowed one thing to say to me and then you must be quiet or you’re out.
Tavis: In that documentary, though…
Rivers: Yeah, that happened. Well, that was so sad.
Tavis: It was sad, but the way – I mean, I loved it, obviously. I’ve referenced it three times. I loved the documentary. But the part about that documentary that I loved was to watch you at your genius. When this guy comes at you with – I played that thing back three times to see how fast you turn that crowd.
Within less than two minutes, you had checked this guy, gone on to another joke, calmed the audience down, had them laughing. You did that in less than two minutes and this guy came at you pretty hard.
Rivers: Yeah, and it was very sad. He shouldn’t have come to see me and he took something very seriously that he shouldn’t have because of the way it affected his life. And we shut him up very fast and I shut him up by saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” And was it blind? My mother ended up blind, so don’t you talk to me about blind, or whatever it was.
Tavis: The joke was deaf. He had a kid, yeah.
Rivers: So I made my mother deaf. You know, I made my mother…
Tavis: You’re 50, yeah [laugh]
Rivers: Whatever she had to be. My mother was deaf. She’s rolling in her grave. No, I wasn’t. I was losing my eyesight. Shh! and blah, blah, blah. And then it’s my job to make the audience relax and it’s my job to bring ’em back in as quickly as possible. I always say get six gay guys in front and I can do it [laugh]. Gay men are in an audience…
Tavis: Yeah, that’s all you need, huh?
Rivers: All you need.
Tavis: I got a few more questions for Joan Rivers. I’m gonna try to get her to stick around for just a few more minutes. And I think if I can do that, tomorrow night we’ll have a part two of this conversation with Joan Rivers.
The new book from Joan Rivers, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” People magazine said it’s the best summer read. And it is funny, I can guarantee you that.
We’ll continue our conversation tomorrow night on this program with the one and only Joan Rivers. You’ll stick around a few more minutes?
Rivers: I have only one jacket.
Tavis: That’s fine. I only have one suit, so we’re good.
Rivers: Okay, that’s good.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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