01.24.11

Joan Rivers Won't Shut Up (Thank God)

Oscar may have snubbed her documentary, but the comedienne's still part of the Fashion Police and has a new reality show for the WE Network. She talks to Jacob Bernstein about her longevity, her continued distaste for Sarah Palin, and why Jay Leno is better than Ambien.

Most entertainers who are snubbed by Oscar try to be diplomatic. Not Joan Rivers. She wants you to know she was completely pissed that her film, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, didn’t make the cut for Best Documentary.

“We were told by someone in the Academy—I can’t say who—that the nominating committee didn’t think it had enough social significance,” Rivers says by phone. “I said, ‘Next time I’ll carry around a crippled child from Africa.’ What assholes. But we just got a couple of other awards. It’s OK.”

The 77-year-old comedienne also says the film’s chances were hurt by the many years she’s spent in front of the Kodak Theater, lampooning the clothing choices of the nominees and presenters (although as she sees it, this puts her in pretty good company).

“I don’t think Ricky Gervais will ever get an Oscar nomination,” Rivers says, referring to the comedian’s outrageous commentary while hosting the Golden Globes last weekend. “And he was great. That group there, the Hollywood Foreign Press, they’re coming down on him, but look at the humor they have! They nominated The Tourist for Best Comedy! The Academy is smarter. They picked Anne Hathaway to do the Oscars so they’ll have a nice, nice boring show, but who cares? It’s all about the dresses anyhow.”

Mind you, the reason it’s become all about the dresses is due in no small part to Rivers, who along with her daughter and on-camera partner in crime, Melissa, practically invented red-carpet commentary. Unfortunately, Rivers isn’t exactly proud of the circus the Oscar pre-show has become since she first got on her soapbox a decade and a half ago. “I’m saddened by what it’s become, which is no fun,” she says. “When Melissa and I started, you could talk to the celebrities. They were loose. Most of them had picked their own clothes without a stylist, so there was a lot of boa and fringe and sparkles. Nowadays, my God. You dare to say something about somebody, the PR person won’t give you the next six people.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine her getting a red-carpet interview next time with Tilda Swinton, an actress whose Globes outfit—edgy, all-white, Jil Sander—Rivers is currently ridiculing. “I think he looked fabulous,” Rivers says. “ He put Ellen to shame, and she is David Bowie. There’s no question. Have you ever seen them together? At the same event?”

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Rivers may also have trouble wrangling Helena Bonham Carter, who showed up to the event in a kooky Vivienne Westwood number with two Miu Miu shoes in different colors. “All I know is if you had a child and you saw this woman in the playground, you’d leave,” Rivers jokes. “But I think she’s a brilliant actress. She was stunningly good in The King’s Speech. Which I was a little disappointed with because I met Colin Firth and he has a stutter in real life, so that wasn’t such a great acting job, after all…. Come on. Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true?”

“I think every 20 years Rupert Murdoch has a memo: Fire Joan again. It’s like ‘Wife’s birthday, meet about stock tips, fire Joan.’”

For Rivers, there’s no such thing as a sacred cow or person she’s too afraid of making an enemy. Years ago, she spotted O.J. Simpson strolling down Madison Avenue, marched up to him, wagged her finger in his face and said “Murderer, murderer, murderer.” “Then I ran right into T. Anthony, and said ‘Hide me. Put me in a trunk if you have to. I don’t care,’” Rivers recalls.

Perhaps that was unwise—others would surely advise against it—but recent events suggest Rivers’ trademark fearlessness is serving her well. She’s playing sold-out standup gigs all over the country, starring in the aforementioned documentary, and now, appearing weekly with her daughter Melissa on a reality show that debuts Tuesday night on the WE Network. On the show, Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, mother moves in with her daughter, her grandson, and her daughter’s boyfriend in Los Angeles only to find out—what do you know?—that the group doesn’t exactly turn out to be one big happy family.

“That’s a nice way of putting it,” says Rivers, who even by phone manages to be a perfect cartoon of herself, without ever making the mistake some comedians make of actually taking themselves seriously. (All in all, the perfect candidate for a reality show, really.)

She continues: “Think of your mother moving back in with you. I’m very strong and she’s very strong. I hate the decorating, I hate the way she serves dinner, I hate that she likes sports. I hate everything. I hate the room she put me in. She put me in a room that Kunta Kinte turned down and they got it all on camera.”

Still, Rivers is convinced living with Melissa—or appearing to, anyway, while the cameras are around—is an indignity worth suffering, not only for her own career but also because the show speaks to larger themes. “It’s the real story of what’s going on all around America,” Rivers says with her trademark deadpan. “Families are downsizing.”

In an early episode from the series, Melissa receives an offer to pose naked for Girls Gone Wild, and is totally opposed. Joan wants to convince her otherwise, and so Joan sneaks in while Melissa’s showering and begins taking pictures. The matriarch denies any suggestion that the bit was played up for dramatic effect.

“Truly it wasn’t,” Rivers says. “I think Melissa’s totally wrong. The Kardashians started with a porno tape, Paris Hilton started with a leaked porno tape. The newest thing now they’re talking about now on MTV is Skins. This is a different era and she has a great body. It’s an honor. In 10 years, she’s going to be very sorry she didn’t do it.”

There have also been pratfalls while promoting the show. Only last weekend, TMZ asked Rivers for her thoughts on Sarah Palin, so she gave them unfiltered, calling Palin “stupid” and a “threat” and blaming her for the Arizona shooting.

“I did not blame her totally,” Rivers says. “But if the wedge were on the other foot, if her daughter Bristol’s face came up in the crosshairs with her address, I don’t think Sarah Palin would be so cavalier about the whole thing. And what really upset me is that she became the victim. I mean, I was screaming in my very stunning New York apartment that is up for sale! I was screaming! That’s what upset me the most.”

So anyway, shortly after Rivers almost blamed Palin for what happened, Rivers was notified that her appearance on the Fox & Friends show was being canceled. Within seconds, the entire blogosphere had been notified about this possible “right-wing conspiracy”—Rivers isn’t saying by whom, but look at all the free publicity she got!

In retrospect, Rivers doesn’t even really think the Palin comments are the reason she got pre-empted. “I think it wasn’t the Sarah Palin remark, to tell you the truth. I think every 20 years Rupert Murdoch has a memo: Fire Joan again. It’s like ‘Wife’s birthday, meet about stock tips, fire Joan.’ I think that’s just what happened. It’s not the first time that Fox has fired me. It was just the right moment.”

If Rivers describes this without any bitterness whatsoever, that may be because she almost always manages to have the last laugh. She’s been from top to bottom to top again so many times, no one should ever make the mistake of writing her off.

In 1986, Rivers, the daughter of Russian immigrant Jews—Rivers is a stage name, her given name is Molinsky—went from being Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show sidekick to becoming the first woman to host her own late-night show (on Fox, of course, where Rupert Murdoch soon fired her). Shortly after her dismissal from the network, her husband Edgar, who produced the show, committed suicide. Yet when Lifetime went to make a movie about it, they didn’t have to find actors: Joan and Melissa starred in it themselves, doing all their grieving onscreen. By 1989, then pushing 60, Rivers got her own daytime talk show (which ran for five years), then started doing the red carpet for E!

Around that time, she became involved with Orin Lehman, New York state’s former parks commissioner and a man she later called the love of her life. But in 2001, she found out he was getting some on the side and tossed him out. “When they split up,” says her longtime friend Jonathan Van Meter, who wrote the definitive piece on Rivers for New York magazine, “that’s when she really took her foot off the brake. The time I got to know her was when she was at home with Orin, less career-obsessed. You know, Thanksgiving dinners, seders. Then he cheated on her, she kicked him out and went right back on the road. And that’s when I stopped seeing her so frequently.”

“With Joan,” he says, “There is a difference between onscreen and off but way less than most people. She’s incredibly funny and salty. She pays attention to everything, her brain is always clicking away. The downside, if there is one, is that the scanning never stops.”

Recently, things have been pretty good for Rivers. Standup gigs are in abundance, she and Melissa have a weekly show on E! called Fashion Police, and the new reality show is beginning. As she’s happy to note, the phone is ringing. “Unfortunately, it’s a cordless and I can’t answer the fucker,” Rivers says. “By the time I get on, they’re gone. They’ve called Betty White and made her a regular on a series. Which I think is very optimistic of them, you know?”

Still, Rivers wants you to know she loves, loves, loves dear old Betty, and can relate to anyone who isn’t ready to pack it in. In one scene from the documentary, Rivers’ former manager says, “God help the next queen of comedy because this one’s not abdicating. Never will.”

“Abdicate to what?” Rivers says. “I love this business. This is the one business that as long as you’re funny, they want you.”

In fact, she even reserves a bit of sympathy for Jay Leno, another comedian who wasn’t ready to abdicate and who was practically nailed to the comedy cross when Conan O’Brien was ousted from The Tonight Show last year. “The thing I found the most funny was that America felt sorry for a guy that just got $40 million. I mean, maybe I’m wrong, but whoa! There was a lot of ‘Poor Conan, poor Conan, poor Conan,’ and then he went and did the same thing to George Lopez. He said ‘I want your spot’ and pushed him out, just as Leno had done to him. I mean, it’s a business. Whoever is best is who’s going to wear the crown.”

Does she really think Leno is who’s best? “I think Jay Leno is the most boring comedian alive,” Rivers practically yells through the phone. “Tell me a great Leno joke! Right now! You can’t! There’s your answer. But I love him, because when I watch him I don’t need Ambien. Whenever I’m jet-lagged and don’t know what country I’m in, I put on Jay Leno, and I fall right asleep. He really helps me in England, because that’s the hardest time zone.”

Occasionally, Rivers is on the receiving end of the same kind of torture she dishes out, and when it happens, she can get a little sensitive. One thing Rivers doesn’t love is being mocked for her plastic surgery. “With what I’ve done for women and plastic surgery, I would be smiling were it not for the Botox,” she says. “I was the first one to say, ‘Look good.’ You go through life and you have no idea how fast it goes. Bang! It’s gone. You turn around and say ‘I’m how old?’ So if you want to look good, look good. Don’t listen to anyone who says, ‘This is how God made me.’ God also made plastic surgeons.”

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.