Comedienne Joan Rivers – Part 2

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Rivers keeps the laughs coming, but also does some serious reflecting in the conclusion of our two-part conversation.

With her unique brand of humor, Joan Rivers has enjoyed an impressive career spanning more than four decades. She's a comedy pioneer who, after appearing in 1968 on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, hosted one of the first syndicated daytime talk shows and made TV history as the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show. She also helped launch the Fox Network with her own late-night show. An Emmy winner, Tony nominee and savvy businesswoman, she hosts E!'s Fashion Police and has a WEtv weekly series, Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best? She's also penned 12 books, performs stand-up to sold-out audiences and dedicates time to numerous charitable organizations, including Wounded Warriors.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, the second of two nights with Joan Rivers. At 81, she’s still going strong. Her latest tome, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” is already on the New York Times best-seller list.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Night two with the incomparable Joan Rivers coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Welcome back to night two of our conversation with Joan Rivers. I said last night, in case you didn’t see the show last night – and if you didn’t, go to the website and check it out – I said last night that I’d been wanting to talk to Joan Rivers for so many years.

When I first moved to this city 27 years ago, Joan was the very first comic ever that I saw do standup at Carlos and Charlie’s and I’ve been trying for the longest time, particularly when that documentary came out, that I wanted to have you on. We couldn’t make the dates work, but I’m delighted that she’s here for her new book.

A perennial New York Times best-selling author is Joan Rivers. The latest one is called “Diary of a Mad Diva” and there is some funny, funny stuff in here. How do you know where the line is, or is there no line for you?

Joan Rivers: You ask such good questions. I have no line. If I think it’s funny, it’s funny. Here we go. Life sucks. You sit at a dinner party and I always say to my daughter, “Scratch anybody and some story will come out that is so amazing and so sad, you’ll find out what they’ve been through, that if you can be funny about everything, it’s okay.”

Goes back to Lenny Bruce who used to say, “Everybody’s something.” Here we go. Get ready to bleep. “You’re a nigger, you’re a kike, you’re a Pollock, you’re a chink, you’re a frog.” He used to go through all of these. He’d say, “You’re all something, so who cares? Nobody is not something.”

And that’s what life should be. Everybody’s something. Okay, shh, enough. Now let’s go to lunch [laugh]. Now let’s go to lunch. Okay. The chink and the kike are going to lunch.

Tavis: Is the joke for you funnier the more politically incorrect it is?

Rivers: Yes, because it shakes them up. It shakes them up. You want to say stop. This whole thing now which is the latest thing, someone said you can’t call an Indian an Indian. I’m not talking about feather. I’m talking about dot. What do you call them Gandhi lovers? Diaper wearers? What do I call you? You’re from India!

It’s insane now. Do you know what I mean? It’s insane and I get very angry ’cause I think, you know, don’t worry about that. Write to your Congressman. Get something changed. Don’t worry about this nonsense over here. Worry about the big issue over there.

Tavis: You said last night that over the years – and I suspect when you been at this 50 years, your career obviously ebbs and flows…

Rivers: Oh, lot of ebbs.

Tavis: Lot of ebbs, huh? So on that every third week that you referenced last night when your moment is being taken from you, how have you navigated those ebbs? How have you not taken personally or decided to walk away from this when you feel like you’ve been insulted and offended and thrown out, kicked to the curb again?

Rivers: First of all, I never read reviews.

Tavis: You don’t read them?

Rivers: I don’t. Nothing negative is told to me. My assistants – I have one wonderful one, Sabrina, on the west coast, Josh on the east coast – show me nothing negative. I’m not interested, not interested. I don’t want to hear. So I just push forward, push forward.

A Mafia guy in Vegas once said to me, “Run your own race. Don’t worry. Put on blinders. Run your own race, sweetheart.” He also said, “Who you want killed?” [Laugh] That was the second half. But I ignore it. I’m not interested.

Tavis: I don’t think, Joan, that one has to necessarily read critics or reviews to assess one’s own gift and talent and performance. But if not for critics and reviewers, how do you assess your own performances? How do you know when you killed it or when you’ve not killed it?

Rivers: I walk on a stage and I know if it’s been a good show or not. You know when it’s been a good interview. No one has to tell you. You know it. You feel it. You can feel the air. You can feel everything about it when it’s a good show. And you know when you’ve messed up. You’re so angry at yourself; you don’t need anyone to tell you. I know, thank you, I know.

No is a mistake and sometimes they’re wrong too. Sometimes a critic will be very wrong and say – Woody Allen. Nobody liked him the first seven years. Larry David, 20 years before the critics said this crazy guy is brilliant. You just got to go your own race and when the door shuts, find a window.

Tavis: Let me ask you as question. I want to get sensitive just for a second, if I might. Last night on this program without me asking or saying anything about it, unprompted you raised the issue of Carson and what happened and how he didn’t speak to you. And the question I’ve always wanted to ask you, given that he’s gone and you’re still here, is how…

Rivers: He’s dead. He’s not just gone. He’s dead.

Tavis: Dead, okay. How do you navigate forward when someone who meant so much to you cuts you off and there’s no way to really get closure on it because he’s dead and you just have to live with that hurt and that pain and that disrespect until you die? How do you navigate past that every day?

Rivers: Well, first of all, it made me so sad that this man who had everything couldn’t forgive that he thought I’d left the show for 21 years? That’s what’s eating you inside? So that always made me very sad about him. His son died, killed in an automobile accident, after he had cut me off and everything.

And I wrote him a letter and said I’m terribly sorry. This shouldn’t happen to anybody. Whatever happened between us shouldn’t happen – never answered me and I thought, God, how sad is this man, is this soul, you know? So I feel there’s more sadness than – there’s no anger at all at him.

Tavis: Just sadness.

Rivers: This terrible sadness for him. And sad because, when you get older, you want the same people in the tapestry. You don’t want it changing. I know this is my friend here and this is my friend here and this is my enemy here, but they’re all my life. I don’t want anybody disappearing.

Tavis: When somebody disappoints you and hurts you and lets you down in that way, you feel a certain sadness for him, as you said. I take that and I get that, but what did you learn about yourself and the way you want to treat others around you, given the way you have been maltreated?

Rivers: Boy, you really are going for it and that’s great. What I learned from the Carson thing? That I’m much more honest ’cause I know I called him and said I’m leaving. So I was very proud of myself in that. When the whole world said you didn’t do something and everyone was calling me a liar, I knew I wasn’t. I knew that I treat people in a certain way.

I was very glad the way I did that. It’s what I learned from that, that I’m much more honorable than he was. I also learned that, when the chips are down, I can’t put the knife in. I wish I could. I would have been a lot bigger. I wouldn’t be sitting here. That was a joke [laugh].

Tavis: I get it, I get it [laugh]. I got the joke, but putting the knife in would have been what? That would have expressed itself how?

Rivers: He was so nasty and really blackballed me from late night. I should have gone on and fought back and, screw you, this is the truth and this is the truth! I could never do the final killing of somebody which a lot of people in our business can do.

Tavis: See, I’ve always believed – if I haven’t always believed, I’ve come to believe it as my life has moved on – simply that if you keep going, eventually you’ll get there. You got to keep going.

If you keep going, eventually you’ll get there or, as your guy Larry says in that documentary that, again I love so much, that you can’t get hit by lightning if you ain’t out in the rain. And he says that Joan will stay in the rain longer than anybody I know until that lightning hits. But you got to be out in the rain for it – you gotta be out there.

Rivers: Gotta be out in the rain and you gotta keep going forward. You know, I do a lot of lectures on survival. I always say you can’t change what happened, so have a little wallow, feel very sorry for yourself and then get up and move forward. You can’t change what happened.

It’s all about going forward, all about pushing forward. And you never know. You might find tomorrow that you paint and all these years this great painting thing. Try everything, try everything. You could be a ballet dancer. You have great ankles.

Tavis: No, that’s not gonna happen.

Rivers: You don’t know. There you go.

Tavis: That’s not gonna happen [laugh].

Rivers: See? Negative, negative.

Tavis: With all due respect to Baryshnikov, that ain’t gonna happen [laugh].

Rivers: You may walk out today and suddenly just pirouette to your dressing room [laugh].

Tavis: Speaking of things that you have tried and that you are good at, we love your fashion critique and commentary and the jokes.

Rivers: Oh, I love doing it.

Tavis: Have you always loved fashion? I mean, is that just a way to get off some good jokes or do you really love fashion?

Rivers: All my way through college, I worked my way as a window dresser for Lord & Taylor, so I always liked fashion. I always loved fashion and I love that we can do it and not take it seriously.

But, you know, style, you either have it – it’s like herpes. You either have it or you don’t [laugh]. It’s so much fun when they come down the red carpet and they think they look terrible. They go, “Thank you, God.” They think they look wonderful and they look really bad and you go, Oh, Thank God.”

Tavis: See, you always tell the joke. You always say, “Do you think some woman making $25 million dollars a film really cares about what I think?” I think they do.

Rivers: I think they do too.

Tavis: I think these folk do care when you skewer them about their clothes.

Rivers: I think they do too, but some of them don’t. I love it when – Sarah Jessica Parker, I always bring her up. She will come up to me and say, “Look at the shoes. Can you believe the shoes?” and you just want to hug her ’cause she knows it’s fashion, instead of Anna Wintour or those two little – one of the little bulimics allegedly, the Olsen twins.

Tavis: The Olsen twins, yeah.

Rivers: God, you smell the vomit before you see them. In they come, allegedly. I don’t need those little shrimpies [laugh], those little shrimp boats suing me. We’re the Olsen twins!

Tavis: Does the stuff just come to you after all these years or is there – this is one of those inside the actor’s studio kind of questions.

Rivers: Yes, yes.

Tavis: Is there an equation for how to write a good joke, or just how do you do that?

Rivers: None, and usually the first time you say it, it’s the best. And the thing is, quick, quick, quick, write it down. There’s no equation. And you know what breaks your heart? When something isn’t funny after you’ve thought about it. Here I come, audience, and here’s the joke! And the audience goes, nah, not so good, and it kills you. There’s no way to know it’s gonna be funny.

I once asked Woody Allen. I said, “Tell me how to make something funny.” He said, “You write it and, if it’s funny, you get on your knees and say thank you, God. You go on to the next.” [Laugh] That’s the answer? Okay.

Tavis: This book, “Diary of a Mad Diva,” comes courtesy, in part, of your daughter Melissa who gave you a diary and told you to write it in. Joan writes in the diary and, a year later, we get this book.

Rivers: She hates me [laugh].

Tavis: Does she regret giving you the diary?

Rivers: She regrets everything [laugh].

Tavis: I raise Melissa’s name only because I want to talk about family.

Rivers: Oh, number one.

Tavis: About Edgar, about Melissa. I don’t want to color the question, but just talk to me about family.

Rivers: Family is everything. You know that. What it all comes down to, when the chips are down, who takes you in? Family. Who’s there? Family. Most important, I made sure in my life that my family – we’re very small.

Cooper, my grandson, knows. Melissa knows. I know. We’re it. Holidays? Always together. I don’t care if you have to fly 1,800 miles, we’re together, we’re together, we’re together.

Tavis: Are you and Cooper still taking that annual grandma-grandson trip?

Rivers: Yeah. We’re going away this week.

Tavis: Just the two of you?

Rivers: I take a friend now. He’s 13.

Tavis: Plus your stylist and your hair people…

Rivers: Well, my stylist, my makeup man, my PR person, my limo driver.

Tavis: And Cooper.

Rivers: Yes, and I’m very aware of the real world. Between my penthouse and my limousine, I see the homeless [laugh].

Tavis: Speaking of your penthouse…

Rivers: My penthouse. It’s not a penthouse.

Tavis: I haven’t been there, but I’ve seen it, yeah.

Rivers: I have a nice apartment.

Tavis: Yeah, it’s a very nice place. You live well.

Rivers: Yes, and you should live well.

Tavis: But you have to work hard to maintain that lifestyle.

Rivers: Honey, we’re going through this life once.

Tavis: Yeah.

Rivers: And I love working hard. I love coming home to something nice. I love living well. I live – I hate the term – like a lady. I love pretty china. I love a nice table. I love nice towels and I’d rather work four more club dates and live nicely.

Tavis: It’s worth it for you?

Rivers: Yeah.

Tavis: Even at this age, it’s worth it for you?

Rivers: Oh, yes. I really…

Tavis: See, sometimes I rethink that. I got a nice house and…

Rivers: Good.

Tavis: But sometimes I’m thinking maybe I should just downsize and not work so hard to do all this.

Rivers: Are you enjoying your house?

Tavis: I do.

Rivers: When you go home, you say I did this?

Tavis: I do.

Rivers: I did. This is my house and I love it. And you’re a man, so this is my car. Then you work hard. Enjoy it. Tracy Morgan’s a friend of mine. You turn around, you don’t know. You don’t know. Enjoy it while you’re doing it.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact – this is my word. You may not own this and you don’t have to. What do you make of the fact, though, that you have been, to your point now, blessed to do this for as long as and as well as you have?

Rivers: I wake up every day – or I do not wake up any morning without saying how lucky I am. You think I’m kidding. I think I said in the documentary, “It’s 50 years now they’re sending cars for me. I still open my door and I look and there’s a limo? I go, oh! Good morning.”

Oh, God, yeah, I’m still aware how lucky I am. My dogs take it. It’s their due. Dogs see a limo, they walk right in, but I still go, “Hmm, I’m not so sure.” Yeah, I’m very lucky, very lucky and I’m aware of it every single second.

Tavis: What do you get – what is the takeaway for you when you’re standing onstage and you know it’s working? What’s that feeling? What is that takeaway? What’s that…?

Rivers: Well, first of all, at this age, I walk onstage now and I am genuinely happy to see those audiences. And my first words usually are, “I am so happy to see all of you.” It’s like 5,000 people. I genuinely am so happy.

I am so happy when a show is going well and they are laughing and I am laughing, and it’s like one big party and we’re all getting it. It’s heaven, it’s heaven. It’s great. You walk off after a good show, nothing like it.

It’s so hard to go home to an empty hotel room and watch “Lockup,” which I love watching [laugh]. It’s my go-to at night, “Lockup.”

Tavis: If you were gonna complete this sentence. “After all the years of my doing this, I was right about…” – what I’m getting at here is I know there were things that people told you you shouldn’t do, that wouldn’t work, that were bad decisions…

Rivers: Still.

Tavis: What do you feel that you were, now in retrospect, I was right about that, about your career?

Rivers: Right, yeah. I was lucky enough, to be dumb enough, to be driven enough to know this is what I’m gonna do. I was so lucky that I made the choice and stuck with the choice. And I used to say it’s like a nun’s calling. I really didn’t have anything else. I had no choice. That’s where I was going. That’s where I wanted to go.

I still before I go on, I go, “Oh, my God. I’m going on.” I walk on a stage. In rehearsal, I find myself smiling. When I hit the stage, I’m so lucky. In a previous life, I must have been like the Jewish Mother Teresa. I must have done something very good because I must have washed a lot of stinky feet. This life has been terrific.

Tavis: You smile when you walk onstage, but at this point, is there ever stage fright?

Rivers: Always.

Tavis: Still.

Rivers: Terrified.

Tavis: No!

Rivers: Terrified, terrified.

Tavis: Of what?

Rivers: Of will they like me? Will they think it’s funny? Is it gonna be all right? I’m at the age now, will I remember? Not that it’s ever happened yet, but who knows? And friends come, “Can we see you before the show?” No! I’m working. Come afterwards.

I’m terrified before I go onstage. Let it good, let it be good, let it be funny. Are they okay? I’m always asking opening acts, how are they? Are they okay? Did you like them? Give me a number! One to 10, give me a number! Yeah, terrified.

Tavis: If the moment should ever come when you no longer have it onstage – and I can’t imagine that with you – but if that moment should ever come when you don’t have it, how will you know?

Rivers: I will know when I guess I do the same joke three times, I will know. And then I will go offstage and call Dr. Kevorkian. And you’re waiting for a joke. There’s no joke.

Tavis: No, no, I didn’t laugh. I was just about to say I think you meant that.

Rivers: Oh, true.

Tavis: That if you couldn’t be onstage, you wouldn’t want to be here.

Rivers: Done. I have it in my will or whatever you call it, and the lawyer got crazy. Do not resuscitate if I cannot get up and be able to do 90 minutes onstage in concert. That’s it. And my lawyer argued with me about how long [laugh].

Tavis: You wanted 90 minutes.

Rivers: He said, “What about 60?” I said, “90 minutes, Michael.”

Tavis: If I can’t do 90, don’t even resuscitate me.

Rivers: Do not resuscitate. 90 minutes onstage. He’s arguing. “How about 60? We’ll get a really good opening act.” [Laugh] He’s arguing.

Tavis: I didn’t laugh when you said that because…

Rivers: Absolutely true.

Tavis: I saw in your eyes that you meant that.

Rivers: Oh, totally.

Tavis: If I can’t do what I do, I don’t even want to be around here.

Rivers: Don’t want to sit down and be a vegetable. I don’t want Melissa seeing her mother sitting there singing World War I songs, “Over there, over there…” [Laugh] Change her catheter. I don’t want any of this, uh-uh, mm-mm. Hello, Amsterdam, I’m outta here [laugh].

I’ve had a great life. If I drop dead right now, nobody’s gonna say, “So young.” [Laugh] I’ve had such a great ride, such a great ride. I’m just so lucky, so lucky.

Tavis: In retrospect then, what do you hope, believe, that you have given the American public through your comedy?

Rivers: Okay, I’ll tell you the truth. Here we go. The nicest thing when someone will come up to me – and I’m very reverent, as you know, and I go right for the joke the same day it happens – and someone will come up and say, “You made me laugh after 9/11” or “You were the first one that made me laugh after my mother died” and they’ll take my hand.

You know what I mean? Or “My husband committed suicide. I didn’t laugh until you.” That to me is like this is why I’m here. This is why I’m here, and to make a good living. But this is why I’m here, to make people – I go back to it again and again and again. Life is tough. If I can give you a little moment of it’s okay, how great is that? How great is that?

Tavis: I love it when you tell your jokes in the moment of some major crisis and you say, “Too soon.” [Laugh]

Rivers: Too soon, yeah.

Tavis: I love when you do that. “Too soon.” [Laugh]

Rivers: I said, “Gwyneth Paltrow’s face – and Tracy’s a good friend of mine – looks like Tracy Morgan’s limo after the crash” and the whole audience went – it was like third night in – [gasp]. “Too soon? Okay, let’s change the name.” How about Paul Walker? Too soon? All right. How about – just keep going back. James Dean? Too soon? [Laugh]

Tavis: You never have any problem pulling the trigger, though. You at least put it out there.

Rivers: But you laugh. You know what I sent Tracy? Dead flowers [laugh]. I said, “We’re holding these flowers waiting for you to come out of the coma. Not my fault they’re dead ’cause it took him two and a half weeks [laugh], and they said he laughed.

Tavis: My time is up, but I could do this for another night if I had the time. Did you think – I thought it was hilarious, but since I got you here, did you think that the David Letterman walk-off was hilarious? I thought it was…

Rivers: Oh!

Tavis: David killed me with that. I loved it.

Rivers: David Letterman and I go back forever. And when he stood up and walked, I’m so glad. He’s such a grand man now. I love that he did that, love that he did that.

Tavis: I love that you have done this book and the documentary, as I said last night and again tonight, and just the gift that you’ve shared with us all these years.

Rivers: Well, I love talking to you. You’re a pleasure…

Tavis: Nothing like laughter.

Rivers: Pleasure, pleasure.

Tavis: Nothing like laughter.

Rivers: I hope your numbers didn’t drop from last night to tonight [laugh].

Tavis: Oh, please, not at all. The new book from Joan Rivers, another best seller, is called “Diary of a Mad Diva.” Again, make sure you read the first page and read the disclaimer very carefully so that you’ll know it is a book of jokes [laugh].

It’s comedy, but it’s good stuff. People magazine says it is the best read this summer and who am I to argue with People magazine? Joan Rivers, I love you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

Rivers: Oh, my joy. Back at you.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.


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Last modified: July 17, 2014 at 2:32 am