Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, chronicling Rivers' career over the past five decades, begins with a tight close-up on the subject's makeup-less face. But according to Stern and Sundberg this wasn't the footage that Rivers, whose done-up look and love of plastic surgery has become a pop culture punch line, took issue with when she saw the film. "At first she was happy with it," Stern says. "But then she got obsessive and came back with pages and pages of notes. She was most worried she might hurt people's feelings." This is the Rivers -- one who wonders aloud to assistants if telling one of her Celebrity Apprentice opponents to 'kiss her Jewish ass' via Twitter, is going too far -- from whom the film mines its strongest scenes. We talked with Rivers recently about testing boundaries, her ousting from NBC, (a network she appeared on regularly through her appearances on The Tonight Show) her short-lived late night career on Fox, who allegedly fired her because Rupert Murdoch and Rivers' late husband Edgar Rosenberg couldn't get along, and abortion jokes.
The documentary focuses a lot on your exhausting schedule. Do you ever envision retiring and taking up a hobby?
Never. I love what I do. Why would I stop? At this point, I'm so programmed. I got up this morning and was sitting in bed with me New York Times and I still did some work first. I always feel a little guilty if I don't do a little work every day. If hard work brought you to where you are, then that's what you have to do twice as hard to stay where you are. The climb isn't the difficult part; it's staying.
You want the spotlight for as long as possible.
For as long as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a performer and in the spotlight. Be in the theater, be an actor, be a director. This is what I wanted, so why shouldn't I want it now when I'm still being given the opportunity?
You've also said you'll keep working as long as you're not considered an icon.
Yes. When I'm dead, it would be nice to be remembered as an icon. Icons don't get jobs. Whenever an audience stands, that means they think you're going to die. If you ever see someone come on stage and everyone stands, I think, 'That person's going to die. They all spoke to her doctor.' Stand up at the end, after the act. Don't ever stand up when I walk on.
People should never give you a standing ovation?
No. That really means you're over.
Not a lot of people know that you and your daughter, Melissa, created the celebrity red carpet interview.
People totally forget. That always makes Melissa and me laugh because we did it. Nobody wanted to do it. We said, 'No no no! It's a great idea.'
How do you break the ice when a celebrity won't warm up to you on the red carpet?
You can't. A lot of them are so programmed and they're just not going to tell you the truth, but then they shouldn't be walking the red carpet! And now it's gotten to be so slick that they have a PR person right next to them to jump in and say, 'We're not talking about that!' Or, 'Tom will come over, but you can't ask him if he's gay.' You're given so many preconditions. The red carpet is not what it used to be.
So how do you feel now when you see these huge hours-long red carpet specials leading up to awards ceremonies? Do you think 'I created that?'
No, I'm such a fan. I'm doing exactly the same stuff everyone else is doing at home -- sitting there going 'Oh look! There's so and so. She looks good,' or, 'You think he's drunk? You think she's drugged?'
Do you think George Clooney was drunk at the Oscars this year? There was some speculation.
I don't think so. George Clooney can do no wrong. He's a throwback to movie stars. I got out to California in late '70s, when they still had a couple of them around. They'd walk into a room, and you knew it. I remember the first time I saw Rock Hudson -- he filled the room. Cary Grant filled the room and you'd think, ' There's a movie star here!' Now they all walk in, they weigh three pounds, they're teensy-tinsy, and they don't want to be noticed. You think, 'You're not a movie star, go away.'
You describe yourself as someone who 'just wants to be loved' but you're in an industry that's based on rejection. How do you find peace in that?
I prefer the word 'joy.' The joy I have for my work helps me overcome that. Nothing is perfect in life. You'd better enjoy the good spots, because the bad spots are coming. People always say that women forget childbirth, that the part they remember most clearly is, 'Now I've got the baby!' I think that's exactly the same principle here. I love my career, I love what I do, and if I have to go through shit to get there, then I'll go through shit to get there.
What is the meanest thing that anyone has ever said to you in Hollywood?
They're always saying, 'Oh you're too old.' If I get that one more time. But you just laugh at that now. Too bad, I'm old. That's the way it goes. I think, actually.... not the meanest, but the saddest thing was, three or four years after the Fox thing had happened, I couldn't get work. I bumped into Jamie Kellner, who was the president of Fox when I was fired, and he said to me, 'You know, we always made money on you.' Which, after going through so much with Fox and Rupert and Edgar not getting along, to hear that verified just ripped me to shreds. And still does. Being fired and having your whole life taken away just sucks, but if you were doing a good job, and they still take away everything, that really hurts.
Do you see any similarities to your experience of being ousted from NBC by Johnny Carson when you went to Fox and what happened with Conan O' Brien?
Conan was going, 'Boo-hoo, boo-hoo. They pushed me out. All I ever wanted to do was do this, and they pushed me out.' Then he goes over to TBS and he pushes out George Lopez. He did the exact thing to George Lopez that Leno did to him. He's just as big a tough guy as Leno. You have to be tough in this business.
But George Lopez doesn't seem like he was put out by Conan.
His numbers were shitty just like O'Brien's were. He's probably glad to be in second position.
For all of the jokes you tell at the expense of others in the documentary, you sometimes worry you've gone too far. There's a scene where you're telling your assistant to go on your Twitter account and write about Annie Duke [Melissa's Celebrity Apprentice rival]. You dictate, 'Annie Douche should kiss my Jewish ass, but not with those non-kosher pig lips.' Then you immediately ask, 'Was that too rough?'
If you really look at my act, there are very few people I come down very hard on who aren't in the public eye. If you're in the public eye, you're open to things. But I will never, ever hurt anybody in the audience. I will never make a fool of a civilian. That's not fair. When someone gets all dressed up to come and see you, you don't pick on them.
You're heckled during your stand-up routine in the documentary. That still happens when you perform?
I'm very seldom heckled. That was a boon for the documentary, may I add. I don't think I've ever had anybody like that for the last 14 years. This is comedy, you idiots, relax! I had somebody die in the audience once, but I don't think that's a personal rejection of my act.
How do you bounce back on the rare occasion that you do get heckled?
It derails everything, and you've gotta say to yourself, 'There are 3,000 people in this auditorium and I can't let one person ruin this. I've gotta get the other 2,999 people back on track.' And it's so tough to shut that person out and then bring the others back to have a good time.
When you were first starting out in the '60s and on television doing stand-up, you once told a thinly veiled joke about abortion. Your then-manager Jack Rollins told you, 'That's not what women should talk about.' What did you say to him in response?
I listened and told him he was totally wrong. It's exactly what women should have been talking about. Female comedians' jokes then were so centered on, 'I don't like housework,' which is also part of our lives, sure, but women were players in those days, too. We were going out, we were working. It wasn't just about finding the matching sock anymore. And I knew he was wrong. Jack, whom I adore by the way, was 20 years older than I was. He was coming from a very different perspective of what a woman should talk about on stage.
Do you watch Mad Men?
I watch a little bit of Mad Men, but I lived that era. I get very angry because it's not that accurate. Calm down! Yes, we all wore poofy skirts. Get over it. But my assistant lives for Mad Men. If I ever had to choose between Mad Men and Curb Your Enthusiasm, though, I'd go for Larry David.
Does Curb Your Enthusiasm ever put you one edge? It's such a spectacular cringe-fest.
It is so bad! And that's why I loved Seinfeld. I look at it as a writer and both of those shows' episodes come together perfectly at their ends. You wanna kill yourself they're so perfect.
A Piece of Work also reminds us that you were one of the first women comedy writers. And you still keep all of your jokes filed away on note cards in your house.
Yeah, a lot of them.
Do they still make you laugh?
A lot do, a lot don't. A lot you needed to have been there. I was looking at the documentary, and I was thinking, 'People were laughing at that on Ed Sullivan?' It was a different time, and they laughed at different things.
But some of your jokes still hold up. Your joke that asks why a woman should bother being a good cook...
Why would a woman want to be a good cook? So her husband can tell some hooker, 'My wife makes a delicious shortbread cake?' (Laughs.)
What do you hope people will take away from this movie about you?
I just hope that they have a good time. I'm from the school that if you pay to go see a movie, you damn well better come out and say, 'That was worth it.'
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens June 11.