At The Russian Tea Room in New York City, a cocoon of plushly-furnished, shamelessly old-school luxury with red booths, Joan Rivers is directing the Entertainment Tonight crew following her for the day, as she takes her seat in our booth. “That’s not going to work, that lighting. I can tell you it’s wrong.”
She should know. As Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the brilliant, genuinely candid 2010 documentary about her life made clear, Rivers works relentlessly because she is terrified about what not working means: not being relevant, or in the mix. She doesn’t crave fame, she craves attention and recognition, and staying in the game, having a voice.
Forget retirement. Luckily for us, and unluckily for Hollywood's most vain and self-involved, Rivers, 81, is an old-school trouper, fully immersed in pop culture for her comedy routine. She makes jokes about the Kardashians and Kristen Stewart on the brilliant E! Friday night fixture, Fashion Police, and on stages across America. She does the reality show Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, which follows, in highly scripted and contrived form, Rivers, her TV producer daughter, and Cooper, her 13-year-old grandson. There are web series like In Bed With Joan and the newly minted Drunken Celebrity Phone Calls.
She was a regular comedian on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; later she had her own talk show. She remains the dirtiest, rudest deflater of celebrity egos and vanity in Hollywood. Joking about the plastic surgery she’s had, she once told me she had bumped into the cast of Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City in the waiting room of Pat Wexler, “the best doctor in New York,” who collectively couldn’t blow out the candles of Wexler’s birthday cake, their faces were so frozen with Botox and fillers.
Rivers’s latest book, Diary of a Mad Diva, is plainly not a diary of 2013 in any way at all (it totally leaves out her sister’s death, for example); a note at the beginning says, “Miss Rivers wrote this diary as a comedic tome, not unlike Saving Private Ryan or The Bell Jar…Anyone who takes anything seriously in this book is an idiot.”
What it is a gleeful, messy barbecue of famous names, beginning with a quote by Kanye West proudly proclaiming to be a non-reader of books, to which Rivers’ dedication on the next page reads in response: “This book be dedicated to Kanye West, because he’ll never fuckin’ read it.” There follows almost 300 pages of jokes at celebrities’ expense. One, Kristen Stewart, has already threatened legal action, after Rivers wrote: “Many stars only do one thing well. The best one-trick-pony is Kristen Stewart, who got a whole career by being able to juggle a director’s balls.”
The glorious Rivers, originally bought up in Brooklyn, marches on. She has been through much worse, most notably the suicide of her husband, Edgar, in 1987, after her talk show was canceled, a dark period which also led her to contemplate taking her own life. She lives in a grand, mini-Versailles of an apartment on the Upper East Side, and in Los Angeles.
The waiter places two crisp glasses of Chardonnay in front of us.
Joan Rivers: Oh, thank god, it’s been a long day. Go, go, go, anything you want to ask me, ask me. [To the waiter] I’m begging you: Please bring us some finger food.
Tim Teeman: Is Kristen Stewart suing you?
JR: I don’t think she’s suing me, I think she stopped it. Her lawyer called my lawyer and wanted the book to be taken from bookstores or a public apology and my lawyer—I love him so much—said, “Have you read the book, have you seen the disclaimer?” It’s a comedy book. I find it astonishing that people can read something and say, “Will the Kardashians really name their second baby, ’cause the first one is called North West, South East?”
TT: So, Stewart’s legal threat surprised you?
JR: I didn’t know who she was. She should have a sense of humor. It’s a shame as I wanted her in court and made to touch a doll in the parts where the director touched her.
TT: Who else have you upset with the book?
JR: Adele is I hear very upset, the Kardashians are very upset. The ones who aren’t upset are the smart ones who laugh at it and know it’s silly.
TT: Do celebrities approach you to tell you you’ve upset them?
JR: I made so many jokes about poor Russell Crowe, he once knocked on my dressing room door, and told me he wanted to go out on this chat show we were on to laugh with me. Now he’s ruined it. I can’t make another joke about him. Cher would get upset if I took her out of the act. She would come to see me in Vegas, and ask, “Why am I not in the act?” She understood that you’re only in the act if you’re relevant. I see the Kardashians at E! I always say, “Stay famous, or I’m going to lose seven to ten minutes of my act.”
TT: Do you know them well?
JR: I think the mother [Kris] is the smartest woman in world: She took the entire family, and now the next generation, and made them celebrities for doing nothing. I think that’s brilliant. I want to sit at her feet and take notes. I begged Melissa to do a sex tape. I said, “I’ll even hold the lube.” Melissa is such a princess. She said, “What will the thread count of the sheets be?”
TT: You mocked one up yourself with Ray J.
JR: Before I met him I thought he was a sleazeball, but Ray J turned out to be adorable. He was articulate, charming, full of a sense of humor.
TT: Why are Hollywood stars so sensitive?
JR: I love when they say I’ve crossed a line. On the scale of 1 to Osama bin Laden, I didn’t blow up buildings. I made a joke about Sharon Stone. I think sometimes celebrities believe their own publicity—that they really were a pizza waitress rather then being “discovered” on their knees in front of some producer. No one says no to them because they’re so spoilt. We have people on Fashion Police who come with lists of demands longer than Schindler’s List. I can’t say who.
TT: Do you expect cosseting yourself?
JR: I think “my people,” as they say, in quotes, try to shield me but I want to know. Comedians are in the trenches, the ones that get out of the trenches are ones in trouble. You cannot have dinner with Oprah and then do a joke about her and Gayle, so you’d better choose what side you’re on. I have no cosseting and protection, nor am I invited to the same parties. I’m always shocked when I get an invitation. People are always shocked when they see me at a party.
“I am definitely going to be cremated. I’ve said to Melissa, ‘Sell anything and everything you don’t want. Don’t feel beholden to my possessions.’”
TT: So, regardless of your own riches…
JR: I have no riches.
TT: Come on, Joan, you are quite well off.
JR: No, I’ve always been salaried, I’ve never owned anything. I’ve done very well, lived very well. Sweetheart, I’m still working at Indian casinos in Omaha.
TT: You seem terrified of not working.
JR: With comedians, you’re as good as your last joke.
TT: Where does the fear come from?
JR: It being over, and I can’t get a job in Macy’s selling hats.
TT: You could live off your money?
JR: I don’t have money to do that. I could pull my living in and live OK, but I don’t want to live OK. I’m very happy to live in my penthouse, very happy I can pick up a check, very happy to have a great life, and be able to spread my wealth a little bit.
TT: You like pop culture?
JR: I love Vines. You make this 6.4-second drama, and you can reach 6 million viewers, and make people laugh. I find it so fabulous.
TT: Does being famous and being talked about matter to you?
JR: Yeah, it gives you friends. It’s good to have people all day long saying, “You make me happy, you make me laugh.” Fame is so wonderful. When my husband committed suicide, I was in Chicago. In the middle of the night at an airport someone told me they had lit a candle for me. How wonderful is that? Fame makes the whole world your neighbor. Fame gives you a great card to live your life and make it easier. Nancy Reagan [Rivers’ longtime friend] got Edgar’s body out of Philadelphia for me.
TT: Whaaat? How?
JR: Edgar killed himself in Philadelphia and I couldn’t get the body out of there. My daughter was going mad. I thought, “I’ll call the White House.” It was 2 a.m. there. I said, “It’s Joan Rivers and it’s an emergency. I must speak to Mrs. Reagan.” They woke her up.
JR: You don’t forget this, honey-bunny. I said, “I can’t get Edgar’s body out of Philadelphia.” She said, “Let me see what I can do.” The next day, his body came back to L.A. You don’t ever forget that, especially when the chips are down. She’s older now. I’m going to California next week, and I’ll see her.
TT: You told me once you were furious with Edgar for killing himself. Does one ever recover from a partner or loved one’s suicide?
JR: I moved on to a point. I can’t really remember what Edgar was like. I lived with [banker and socialite] Orin Lehman for eight years, and can’t remember what he was like. You remember them but they all become fuzzy and wonderful. You no longer miss their sharp wit, you miss an idea. It changes tremendously and probably for the better.
TT: After Edgar died, you considered suicide yourself.
JR: Oh, absolutely. It was about eight months later. Melissa wasn’t talking to me, my career was in the toilet, I’d lost my Vegas contracts, I’d been fired from Fox [where she had a talk show]. Carson and NBC [she had appeared on the Tonight Show for years] had put out such bad publicity about me. I was a pariah. I wasn’t invited anywhere. I was a non-person. At one point I thought, “What’s the point? This is stupid.”
What saved me was my dog jumped into my lap. I thought, “No one will take care of him.” It wasn’t a friendly dog—only to me. I adored this dog. He was theoretically a Yorkie, his mother cheated. His name was Spike. He was the way you want your dog to be, devoted only to you. I was sitting in this big empty house in Bel Air, with a phone with five extensions which we no longer needed. I had the gun in my lap, and the dog sat on the gun. I lecture on suicide because things turn around. I tell people this is a horrible, awful dark moment, but it will change and you must know it’s going to change and you push forward. I look back and think, “Life is great, life goes on. It changes.”
TT: Do you ever think why Edgar did it [he overdosed on prescription drugs]?
JR: When I was fired, he knew it was his fault [he was her manager], and he committed suicide. I always think of Samson pulling down the temple. Edgar just took all the columns away and pulled it down. We were all down in the rubble, and he didn’t want to dig himself out. I understand it, and feel terribly sorry for him, but I wonder if I’d be sitting here today talking to you if he had not killed himself, if we wouldn’t have ended up just a very bitter couple in a house on the hill somewhere.
TT: Do you really think that?
JR: He would have said, “That’s it, they can all go to hell, and we’ll just pull ourselves in.” After he died, because there was nothing, I had to strike out again. A friend of mine at his funeral said, “He’s freed you.” I thought that was very interesting. And in a way he did, ’cause I had to really start again, thank god.
TT: You’ve had relationships since. Why did you and Orin Lehman break up?
JR: He cheated on me. His accountant called me. The lady he had been seeing had been making purchases using his money. The accountant thought it was me and was calling to tell me to go easy. I finished with him the very same day, which was stupid. He called me every single day for a year, but I was so hurt and so betrayed.
TT: Did you want to marry him?
JR: We didn’t want to marry. I still had six eggs left and thought, “Oh, I’ll just make an omelet.” He was a wonderful companion. He lived another three years after that. I miss someone saying, “I’m going downstairs now. Do you want a sandwich?”
TT: Did you reconcile before he died?
JR: Yes, to a point. I saw him a couple of times. When I see friends finishing a relationship I say, “Just be careful, don’t shut every door. What upsets you in July will not affect you that much in November.”
TT: How about dating now?
JR: No, the hotel is now closed completely. I look so bad in a bathing suit I kick sand in my own face. I’ve reached the point in my life where you think, “That’s it.”
TT: You don’t miss sex?
JR: You look at yourself and say, “How can you get a minus-44 dark room, pitch black and then some. Maybe if Stevie Wonder called I’d say “OK.”
TT: But you still get horny, right?
JR: Yes, but it’s not worth it. Old men have too many physical problems. And with younger men, as my mother always said, “You need to be the good-looking one.” I miss being able to say to someone after a party, “Can you believe what that person said?” But I’m not bitching. If life is 100 percent, I’ve got 90.
TT: Do men flirt with you?
JR: Yes, it’s the most disgusting thing when they say to an older woman, which I am, “How’s my gal doing?” Go fuck yourself, I’ve had more good times than you’ll ever know, so don’t you dare patronize me.
TT: You love your grandson Cooper very much.
JR: I’m crazy about him. He’s turning into good kid. He’s 13. He broke his wrist—oh, it makes me cry—breaking up a fight between two friends. He’s such a good guy and he’s funny, thank you God. And we can laugh almost on an adult level. And it’s all due to Melissa, who is an amazing mother.
TT: And you and Melissa?
JR: We’re very close. We have nobody else: She has me and I have her. I think it’s going to be very difficult when I die, very hard for her.
TT: You think about your own death?
JR: Constantly. In your 80s, you’d be foolish not to think about that. I am definitely going to be cremated. I’ve left money so the dogs can be taken care of. I’ve said to Melissa, “Sell anything and everything you don’t want. Don’t feel beholden to my possessions.” I feel almost hysterical on that. I don’t want them to have a sense of guilt.
TT: How did you cope with your sister’s [Barbara Waxler] death last year?
JR: There goes your link to your childhood and she was the memory bank of our family. I have no one to call up and say, “Do you remember that time Daddy punched out our neighbor?” “Do you remember the time that Mummy bought the mink coat and didn’t tell Daddy?” I am trying to be a good “mother” to her children, but they’re in their 30s. We weren’t very close, but we were sisters. We fought, we made up. I miss not having “my sister.”
TT: You joke about celebrities on Fashion Police, but very noticeably not your co-hosts Kelly Osbourne and Giuliana Rancic, who are always in the tabloids—Kelly’s love life, Giuliana’s very thin body. Are they off-limits?
JR: We really like each other, and we’re very close. We close ranks. If someone isn’t nice to any of them, they’re dead in the water, fucked. Giuliana has the thinnest body, but she eats, she really eats, so what the hell are you going to yell at her about? I love Kelly, and as for her love life, I tell her to not do all this at 45, to get it out of her system now. What’s she got to lose? She’s young, successful, and pretty. This is the time to screw around.
TT: What about Melissa’s love life?
JR: I want to marry her off, so I know she’ll be taken care of. I’m worried about her.
TT: You mean, you dying and leaving her alone?
JR: Totally. Your child is never not your child. You can be 90 and your mother 120, but your mother is still worried about you. I worry about Melissa. I look at everyone who she dates and think, “That one’s not right, that one’s not right.” She’s dating a businessman in his mid-40s who wants to retire to Bali. He’s made his money. But her career (as a producer) is going so well. You look and think, “Somebody’s going to have to make a compromise here.” As long as she’s happy, I don’t care.
TT: What about you and retirement?
JR: Ha. Never. Do what? What fun is this, to wake up and say, “I don’t have a minute free today?” It’s fabulous. I had dinner last night with Barbara Walters, who’s an old friend, and looking forward to retirement. I said, “You’re crazy.” I bet Barbara, who is very driven, within two months will say, “Ooooh, I’ll do a special.” She told me, “I’m retired. I’m going to have lunch and enjoy myself, I’m going to travel.” I said, “Barbara, call me again in October.” It’s nonsense. What are you gonna do? Take your dog for a walk? You’re Barbara Walters, you don’t want to retire. You’re gonna watch one person on TV be an ass and say, “I could have done a better job.”
TT: What should they do with The View?
JR: Bring back Elisabeth, Joy, Barbara, Whoopi, and Sherri. Don’t fix what ain’t broke. I think they’ve blown it out of the water. It was perfect the way it was. Elisabeth represented America and conservatism. Joy was great with her funny remarks. Barbara gave it gravitas. She’d be a fool to go back unless ABC gave her a ton more money and a slice of the network.
TT: You don’t seem to slow down?
JR: It’s so exciting now. On In Bed With Joan I can say anything, there’s Twitter and Vine. This is what it was like when we went from radio to television. I feel we’re absolutely in the Wild West. It’s great.
TT: Which actress gives you the most material?
JR: Oh well, Gwyneth Paltrow, my little Gwennie-Wennie, and her two children, what is it…Apple and Sardine? Everything she says is wrong, and the arrogance… The Kardashians are the gift that keeps on giving. Just Kim’s wedding… I said I’d caught Kim’s bouquet, the first thing I ever caught from Kim that I didn’t have to get a shot of penicillin for. And Beyonce and Solange. Solaaannnggge. And Shia LaBeouf. I want to introduce him to Amanda Bynes…they’d get married but couldn’t hold hands during the vows because [Rivers is cackling] of the restraints in their jackets.
TT: You make a lot of jokes about the alleged sexuality of Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
JR: Tom Cruise’s tombstone is going to say, “Here lies Tom Cruise—allegedly.”
TT: Why are A-list stars still closeted?
JR: I think Ricky Martin did it right: Make your money and say, “Guess what, this is my partner.”
TT: But that shows the intolerance of Hollywood that you can’t be out as a star in your prime, rather than later.
JR: I know, but do you sacrifice your life for others?
TT: Well, very brave people who have fought for gay rights have sacrificed their lives for others.
JR: Good for them, I don’t know if I’d have gone that step if I were gay. If I were an actress and young teens loved me, would I have come out and said, “I hate young boys.” I don’t know. I work very hard for gay, lesbian, and transgender teens who’ve been kicked out of home. I get both sides. It’s very difficult.
[Rivers sees I haven’t eaten a caviar-splodged canapé.]
JR: Eat the caviar, eat the caviar. Kenneth Battelle, one of my great hairdressers…he did Jackie [Kennedy], Barbra Streisand’s, and Gloria Vanderbilt’s hair in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Ladies would send him caviar and he hated caviar. He would call me up and say, “Jackie just sent me big thing of Petrossian. Ugh.”
TT: What do you want to do that you haven’t yet?
JR: Everything. I want to bring back [her 1994 Broadway show about Lenny Bruce’s mother] Sally Marr… and Her Escorts. I was nominated for a Tony for it, but lost out to Diana Rigg, that slut-whore-tramp who happened to do Medea, and I had no children to set on fire. Everyone kept telling me they’d voted for me. I really thought I was going to win. Bill Blass made a dress for me. But I say the same to everyone else now. Nobody’s going to vote for me now, I’m never going to win anything. I’m too abrasive. I’ve not been invited to the Vanity Fair [Oscars night] party. The woman who cleans my toilets gets invited to the Vanity Fair party. It’s hilarious. But I think comics should be on the outside. If you’re on the inside, it’s over.
TT: You’ve been rude about so many people.
JR: No. I told the truth. I don’t think it’s rude. I haven’t been invited to the White House since the Reagans were there. I’ve never been on Saturday Night Live.
TT: Why are you still an outsider?
JR: I don’t know.
TT: How do you feel about what’s happening in late-night talk shows now?
JR: It’s so full. If I did a show now, it would be in the late-late-late slot, between 3 and 4 a.m. I’d call it, Nobody’s Watching At That Time, So Go Fuck Yourselves.
TT: Why aren’t there women in the top hosting jobs?
JR: You need a strong personality to do that job. It’s not to do with male or female, but you’ve got to be tough yet soft, familiar yet in control. I also found it incredibly boring after a while. You have to ask the same questions of the same starlets all the time. “Did you have fun on set?” “What’s it like working in Rome?” [Rivers makes a snoring sound.]
TT: You need to go, I know. What advice have you given Cooper about girls?
JR: Don’t trust them. They’re very needy. Smack her below the collarbone, it won’t show up in court.
TT [horrified]: Joan, that’s… [Rivers laughs.]
TT: What does Cooper say when you say stuff like that?
JR: He knows my sarcasm. He just laughs. “My grandmother’s crazy.”