We thought we knew Joan Rivers: that loud comedian from the red carpet and the talk shows, the one you either love or hate. But this year's documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work showed us a side of Rivers we hadn't seen before. Behind the brassy persona we glimpsed a human being, touchingly insecure after all her success in show business. We also glimpsed a disciplined artist, still crafting edgy jokes in her mid 70s.
Rivers comes to Overture Hall this Saturday on a roll. A Piece of Work won her new respect-a remarkable achievement after five-plus decades in show business. The woman who fears an empty date book (a poignant scene in the documentary) has all the work she needs, including a new hosting gig on E!'s Fashion Police.
Even at great-grandmother age, Rivers has one of the most hilariously dangerous mouths in show business. You'll hear it in her standup set at Overture, but I got a preview during a recent phone interview. Boy, did I.
Have things changed for you since A Piece of Work came out?
Not changed, but it's so fun to be in a movie! I was on a plane last night with Al Pacino, and he said, "I loved the movie!" And you go, "I can't stand it! Al Pacino actually knows who I am!"
You did earn a lot of respect for the documentary.
Well, I'll lose all that respect when they see my act at the Overture Center!
You certainly haven't gotten any less edgy over the years.
I think more. Comedy has gotten much rougher, and I think it's very healthy.
Do you think you've influenced other female comedians?
I don't even want to talk about this, because I am not over with, and this will be discussed when I'm dead. I'm right there, still in the ring, and I'm punching my weight with the rest of them. If I influenced somebody and they take my jobs, I say go fuck themselves!
Is it true you go onstage unsure of what the jokes will be?
Always. I think it's the only way to go. It keeps it very fresh. You see who's in the audience, and you tell jokes or stories that they would be interested in.
What is your process for writing?
It's all oral. I come out of Second City, which is improvisational. I tape every show I do. If there's new stuff in it that I said onstage, I pull it off and look at it the next day. Then I write it on cards. You'll see, in Wisconsin, there'll be cards all over the stage. And that's the new jokes and the new ideas I want to try. If those jokes work three times, they go into the act.
How much attention do you devote to your standup act nowadays?
A lot. Every Wednesday night when I'm in New York, I go into a little club it's called the West Bank Theater -- and work on new material. It's to keep fresh and relevant. And there's so much to talk about. I look forward to doing it every time I'm in New York. Everyone there is very young, and we all have a lot of fun. Whatever happened that morning, whether it's Lindsay Lohan or whatever, that's what you talk about.
Do you ever work with a writing staff?
Every time I have a [TV] show I have a writing staff. On The Fashion Police on E!, we have three writers that sit and work with me. You have to. If you look at Jon Stewart, he has 12. If you look at Conan, 12. You look at Letterman, I think there are 14. Nobody is that brilliant solo -- trust me. The sad thing is when you see a Leno with 108 and he still sucks.
In the documentary you mentioned that Johnny Carson banned you from The Tonight Show after you left for your own talk show. Has Jay Leno continued the ban?
Absolutely. I couldn't care less. I find it so dull and so boring, and my career is so good without him, who gives a fuck, really. If it was someone I respected, I would kill myself. But I ain't missin' nothing.
How have things changed for women in comedy?
I think women are much more accepted as creative, and much more accepted as writers. Tina Fey has done that. In the old days, they always had the one woman writer on a show, to give you the woman's voice. And now you're either good or bad whether you're a man or a woman or a transvestite or Chastity Bono, it doesn't matter.
Do you think you played a part in opening some doors?
I really don't know. I know I was a good writer when I wrote for Johnny Carson, I wrote for Bob Newhart, I wrote for Phyllis Diller. I was always writing. And I didn't find any barriers, really, at that point. I think if you're a good writer they're going to find you.
In the documentary you referred to yourself as an actress first and foremost. Does that suggest that the persona of Joan Rivers is a sort of actor's creation?
Well, isn't everybody onstage somebody else? Robin Williams is not that crazy loony-toony. We all are so many people. The one onstage is part of me, but it's certainly not the only woman I am. I just love the idea that the one onstage can yell and scream. You have to be very strong onstage or people don't pay attention to you.
The documentary suggested that the comedian's life comes with a certain amount of pain...
Let's not go into sad clowns here. We have one job, and our job is to be funny. I'm very aware that the audience got babysitters, and they paid to park their cars, and it's a lot of money for tickets, and I want them to go out saying, "That was a great evening."