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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Joan Rivers


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's continue our end-of-the-decade series of interviews featuring some favorite interviews of the decade as chosen by our staff. Up next, Joan Rivers - one of the first really successful female comics. Even now after her death, she continues to have a big influence on comedy. Just consider the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." Rivers broken to comedy in the 1960s. She became a popular guest on "The Tonight Show," then a regular guest host, subbing for Johnny Carson. Her love of fashion and her snarky humor made her a popular host of red carpet shows.

The interview we're going to hear was recorded in 2010, after the release of a documentary about her called "Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work," which was about how driven she was, how she had to keep reinventing herself and how she was determined to keep performing. Four years after our interview, Rivers died at the age of 81. We started our interview with a clip from the documentary.


JOAN RIVERS: Age - it's the one mountain that you can't overcome. It's a youth society, and nobody wants you. You're too old. You're too old. You're too old. If one more woman comedian comes up and says to me, you opened the doors for me - and you want to say, go [expletive] yourself. I'm still opening the doors.


GROSS: And that's Joan Rivers from the new documentary about her, which is called "Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work." Joan Rivers, welcome to FRESH AIR. And happy birthday. We're recording this on your birthday.

RIVERS: Ugh (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter).

RIVERS: Thank you very much. Yes, we are.

GROSS: And you've just turned 77.

RIVERS: Yeah, I know. And as I said today...

GROSS: Ugh - you said ugh because that's how you're feeling about it (laughter).

RIVERS: Well, no. I just don't believe that I am. And people say, what are you going to do on your birthday? I say, I'm 77. I'm going to get my 77th facelift. That's what I'm going to do.


GROSS: So in the clip that we just heard, you talked about how you opened a lot of doors, and you're still opening doors. So what are the - some of the doors that you feel you're still opening?

RIVERS: Oh, I don't think - I never thought about it till the documentary came out. But I think I'm opening doors not just for women comedians. I never think about women. I think just always trying to push - for myself, push the boundaries. Make them listen. Make them listen to the truth, and laugh about it.

GROSS: And some of the doors that you opened earlier in your career - I mean, you were one of the first women comics to really make it, the first woman to host a late night show. And you also had different material. You made jokes about abortion, jokes about sex.


GROSS: You may have been the first famous woman comic to tell vagina jokes (laughter).

RIVERS: Probably. Yes, I'm sure I did.

GROSS: So what was it like early on, when you were telling the kind of blue joke that other women weren't saying?

RIVERS: Well, I was the first one to discuss abortion, as you just said. And it was very rough, and we show in the film I couldn't even say the word abortion. I had to say, she had 14 appendectomies.

GROSS: No, wait. Wait. Wait. I'm going to stop you because I thought you said that because no one would say they had an abortion. People were always going away for, like, mysterious - oh, you know...


GROSS: She needed a vacation or she had to get some minor surgery done.

RIVERS: She had - right. She had an appendectomy down in Cuba.

GROSS: She had an appendectomy, exactly.

RIVERS: Everybody went to Cuba to get appendectomies or went to Puerto Rico to get appendectomies.

GROSS: So anyways...

RIVERS: That was a big thing.

GROSS: So I interrupted your thought there, so continue with what you were saying.

RIVERS: No. So I was the first one that dared to make jokes about it. And by making jokes about it, you brought it into a position where you can look at it and deal with it. It was no longer something that you couldn't discuss and had to whisper about. When you whisper about something, it's too big and you can't get it under control and take control of it.

GROSS: So...

RIVERS: And that's what I still do.

GROSS: So what did you have to say about abortion that first time?

RIVERS: Just that my friend had 14 abortions, and she was lucky because she was Jewish. She married, finally, one of the abortion doctors.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RIVERS: They ended up happy - for her mother - my daughter married a doctor.


GROSS: So how did this kind of material go over?

RIVERS: Half the people would laugh, obviously 'cause - and half the people would go, (gasping). I had another joke. I was having an affair with a married professor. And one of the jokes early on in my act is while he was engaged to me, his wife became pregnant, so I figured he wasn't sincere.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RIVERS: And again, (laughter) half the people laughed. But it was...

GROSS: (Laughter).

RIVERS: You just didn't talk about things like that. It was never discussed. Even discussing that my mother wanted me desperately to get married and had a sign up - it sounds so silly now. She had a sign up - last girl before freeway.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RIVERS: And people said, you can't say that. You can't talk about things like that.

GROSS: Has what you think is funny or what you want to talk about on stage changed with age?

RIVERS: Good question - changed tremendously with my age because I am so much freer now because I always say, what are you going to do? Are you going to fire me? Been fired. Going to be bankrupt? Been bankrupt. Some people aren't going to talk to me. It's happened. Banned from networks - happened. So I can say anything I want, and it has freed me totally, totally. And I talk much more freely now than I ever dared to talk before.

GROSS: So what can you talk about now that you wouldn't have dared to before?

RIVERS: Oh, I talk about terrorism. I talk about - I was talking about 9/11 on 9/12 and talking about it, making jokes about it and how horrible it was but making people laugh about it at the same time. I talk about how I truly - I hate whiners. If - I lived with a man for nine years that had one leg, so I do a lot of things about how I hate - I use the term purposely - cripples. And if you're crippled, just get out of the room right now 'cause I've had nine years of pushing somebody around.

And half the audience gets crazy, and half the audience loves it because you're saying things people don't want to say. And it's never the person in the wheelchair. People in the wheelchair laugh about it. It's the people that are scared to face something and laugh about it and make it OK.

GROSS: Can I just pick up on that and play an excerpt that I found really amazing from the documentary about you? And you're on stage doing comedy in Wisconsin.


GROSS: And you're making a joke, and...

RIVERS: Well, northern Wisconsin.

GROSS: Thank you (laughter).

RIVERS: You know what I mean? Wisconsin with fir trees.

GROSS: Oh (laughter).

RIVERS: Yeah, so northern Wisconsin. Go ahead.

GROSS: All right. So anyways - so you're talking about children here, and I'll just let the clip play.


RIVERS: I hate children. The only child that I think I would have liked ever was Helen Keller 'cause she didn't talk. It is just...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It is very funny.

RIVERS: Yes, it is. And if you don't believe...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's not very funny if you have a deaf son.

RIVERS: I happen to have a deaf mother.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

RIVERS: Oh, you stupid ass.


RIVERS: Let me tell you what comedy is about.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go ahead and tell me.

RIVERS: Oh, please. You are so stupid. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot. My mother is deaf, you stupid son of a b****. Don't tell me.


RIVERS: And just in case you can hear me in the hallway, I lived for nine years with a man with one leg, OK, you [expletive]? Now we're going to talk about what it's like to have a man with one leg who lost it in World War II and then went back to get it because that's [expletive] littering.


RIVERS: So don't you tell me what's funny.

GROSS: So that's Joan Rivers in a clip from the new documentary about her, "Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work." Wow. You really gave it to him.

RIVERS: But first of all, you know...

GROSS: By the way, I should say, in case people couldn't hear what he was saying - that's not funny if you have a deaf son.

RIVERS: A deaf son.

GROSS: Yeah.

RIVERS: But that is funny because you - first of all, where are we going to start? I was doing a thing about noisy children, how I hate noisy children on an airplane. And then I said the only child I would like would be Helen Keller. It's a joke. I'm a comedian. You paid $60 to make you laugh. It's a silly joke. He, obviously, had such anger and emotion in him and took it so personally. And it just made me, afterwards, terribly sad. But you have to say to him, it's funny. It's OK. Your son would laugh at that. My mother, at the end, was deaf, absolutely couldn't hear anything. And we used to laugh at it. And you laugh about it. You deal with it. You better deal with life and get over it and make it funny because otherwise, it's so sad.

GROSS: What are some of the most painful things that have happened to you that you've ended up making jokes about onstage?

RIVERS: Oh, where do you start? My husband's suicide.

GROSS: Right.

RIVERS: Some man, 60 years old, that couldn't take the business and went and killed himself. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with that when you've got a 16-year-old daughter who gets the call, huh? And I'll tell you how you deal with that. You go through it, and you you make jokes about it. And you continue with it, and you move forward. That's how you do it, or that's how I do it. Everyone handles things differently. How do you make jokes about - how do you deal with bankruptcy? How do you deal with - you're fired from Fox when your numbers were still good and you can't get a job for a year and a half. You do it. And I do it by making jokes.

GROSS: So for you, who want to perform all the time, does life not measure up to performing?

RIVERS: No, life does not measure up to performing. And that's a brilliant question. No. No, performing is perfect. Isn't it a perfect hour? You go on stage. They love you. They want to be there. You want to be there. You all work together to have a great evening. That's - Laurence Olivier, the great English actor, once said, that is my space. I met him once at a party. He said, that is where I belong. Sinatra once said to me, you see? He pointed at the stage in Vegas. See that center spot? That's my life. Now...

GROSS: So...

RIVERS: I get it. It's perfect.

GROSS: Some people who are great performers still get stage fright. Did you ever have that or did you live to be on stage?

RIVERS: I live to be on stage. And I'm terrified - terrified - before every show - terrified to come and sit down here with you; always nervous, always nervous. And I'm a super preparer.

GROSS: So that's kind of a paradox to me - that you live to be on stage and, at the same time, there's this dread of being on stage.

RIVERS: Not a dread of being on stage - a dread of not doing well. I've not - I'm disappointing them. I have one friend who's a very good - very, very famous comedian - comic, who once said to me, I give them five minutes. They don't like me, I go on automatic. And I thought, they have bought the ticket. They have paid for a babysitter. They have come out to see you. They want to have fun. I want them to walk out of a show and say, that's the best show I've ever seen.

I fight to the end. I worry to the end. Worry - are they having a good time? Worry - when I had that heckler in Wisconsin, you know what I worried about? I was terribly upset about him because you understand that he's coming from a household that there's a deaf son and nobody should deal with it. But there were also - it was a 4,000-seat house. There were 3,999 other people that I did not want them to walk away not having a good time. I had to get that audience back. And that takes a lot to get an audience back.

GROSS: I'm glad you said that. How did you get them back? Because this was a moment of uncharacteristic anger on stage.

RIVERS: Oh, my darling.

GROSS: So where do you go from there? Yeah.

RIVERS: You just talking fast. And you start finding, where will they start to relax and laugh again? And it's always like, you know, you start a car - (imitating car turning over). And finally the motor goes. And it took me about four minutes to get them back. And then I did a little extra-long show because I wanted them to walk out totally forgetting that and just going, wow, that was fun. Boy, that guy at the beginning, wasn't he something? And that's what I did. I really felt they had a good time.

GROSS: We were talking about your nervousness before going on stage. What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you on stage?

RIVERS: The worst thing I've had happen to me on stage - someone had ran forward to tell me they loved me and projectile vomited all over the stage.

GROSS: Oh, my God.

RIVERS: It was horrible. And I said to the audience, shall we continue or shall we...


RIVERS: ...Clean the stage? And the audience said, let's continue. And I said, no, let's clean the stage.

GROSS: Did it get on you?

RIVERS: Oh, God. It got on everything. The orchestra was gagging. When somebody starts to vomit, you know, everybody joins in.


GROSS: Oh, no.

RIVERS: It was awful.

GROSS: So what happened?

RIVERS: They - we stopped everything. And I, right away, which is why I have to still work at 77, said, everyone have a drink on me. I'll be back.


RIVERS: And everybody had a drink on Ms. Rivers (laughter).

GROSS: So what was the bill?

RIVERS: Oh, that was a couple of thousand dollars.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. So did you have anything to wear when you took off the dirty clothes?

RIVERS: Oh, yes. You always have several Mackie gowns in the dressing room.

GROSS: That's my motto.


RIVERS: Have at least three Mackie gowns.


GROSS: So what's the first thing you said when you came back on stage?

RIVERS: I said - I brought out matches. I was lighting matches. We had to get the smell out of the place. And then we just - I - first thing I said is - because they brought - it was a woman and they brought her backstage. I said, first of all, she's fine and she's thinner.


RIVERS: And I probably said, the b**** just lost four pounds. I'm so jealous.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RIVERS: And then we just went on. But it's - you never know what's going to happen in a live show.

GROSS: Now, the film explores, among other things, your relationship with your daughter Melissa when she was young and you were establishing yourself in show business. Did you have a conflict between career and motherhood, which so many women go through now trying to balance the two? But not that many women were going through it when you were 'cause many more women were full-time, you know, mothers and homemakers then.

RIVERS: I did something from the very beginning because I had been sitting when I was pregnant with a very famous comedian. And her little girl was in the park. And the little girl fell down and cut her knee and ran to the nanny. And I said right then and then, my child will run to me. And I, from the beginning - we stopped everything at 6 o'clock. We always had a family dinner, even if we went out afterwards and had another dinner with friends. Everything stopped at 6. I was a Brownie Scout mother in those uniforms.


RIVERS: You don't know what I sacrificed for my daughter. I mean, Terry, please - a Jewish woman in a khaki dress, not to be believed. No. I think I was as good a working mother as you can possibly be. I was also lucky. I was in a position where I could take my daughter to work. When I was on Broadway, Melissa sat in a dressing room which she now talks about. And she would color and crayon in the dressing room. And she talks about that with such fond memories.

She talks about growing up backstage in Vegas, where - sitting on a stool. We sat around on a stool right offstage and where she could watch me. And every night, she was allowed to write one joke that I would say on the stage, no matter how terrible the joke was. And so she was always included, totally included as much as I could. But I also had to make a living.

GROSS: In the movie, I think it's you who says - I'm trying to remember whether you say it or somebody else says it - but I think you say that you were perceived as an advocate for plastic surgery, then the poster girl and then the joke.


GROSS: When did it cross over into joke?

RIVERS: Probably my first bad plastic surgery (laughter). Probably I - when I talked about it too much. I should have been like everybody else and not said a word and deny it, which they all do.

GROSS: So why did you talk about it?

RIVERS: I talked about it from the very beginning. But I'm a comedian. So of course you walk on stage and say, I just had my eyes done. And let me tell you, the doctor - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah - and you start doing jokes. And it was in those days shocking to talk about it. Like everything else, things have evolved. And that was a very shocking thing to discuss. And then it became - because I talked about it so much - people thought that's all I did.

But I was very glad I talked about it. It goes back to what we started out talking about, which is by talking about it, maybe there's some woman somewhere in North Dakota who hates her nose. And she's - should I get it fixed? And all her friends are lying to her and saying, don't do it, Betty. And I'm saying, Betty, do it. You want to feel better about yourself? Do it.

GROSS: In the documentary, you say about your late husband Edgar, who had also been your manager and producer, you say, was I madly in love with him? No. Was it a good marriage? Yes. And I guess I was surprised to hear you confess that, that you weren't madly in love with him.

RIVERS: Well, it's also 20 years. And you could look back. I thought he was wonderful. I thought he was very funny. I thought he was so smart. I just knew he was right for me. I met him. I married him four days later.

GROSS: Four days later?

RIVERS: He was crazy - four days later. He was crazy about me. I just knew he was perfect for me.

GROSS: Perfect in what way?

RIVERS: And he was. Perfect in every - smart, funny, terrific, got the business, got me, had a great time together, both wanted the same things. We had a great marriage, great marriage. Was I madly in love with him? Thumpy (ph), thumpy, thumpy, thumpy - no. But as my mother always said, they should like you more than you like them.

GROSS: So was he thumpy thumpy over you? Is that what you're saying?

RIVERS: Yeah. Oh, he thought I was the cutest chicky (ph) walking around. But he had very bad eyesight.


GROSS: So I think most people know that, you know, he took his life after...

RIVERS: Killed himself.

GROSS: Yeah, after - and this was not long - it was like a few months after your late night show which he was producing on Fox was canceled. And apparently the network asked him to leave. You opposed that, and then the whole show got canceled.


GROSS: And you in the movie say that you blame Fox for...

RIVERS: Totally.

GROSS: ...His death. But I guess I'm wondering if maybe he wasn't, like, depressed before that and if maybe depression wasn't interfering with his relationship with the network and if it all kind of...

RIVERS: If you're tap-dancing, everything is wonderful. And something bad happens, you're not going to kill yourself. But this was the big thing. And he was producing the show. And they said to me, you can say he can go. He has to go. And he - I had the choice on a Thursday. I said no. Then I go with my husband. And we were off on Friday. And he knew what it did to my career.

So he had not only gotten us out of a job, my whole career was smashed. Everything was just very, very bad. And he had had a major heart attack. And he had a four-way bypass. And he was coming out of that. And he was depressed over that. And he just couldn't continue, couldn't do it.

GROSS: In the movie, you say that he left you high and dry and left you with a lot of because he wasn't a good businessman.


GROSS: So it sounds like you were, you know, horrified that he killed himself, but also angry with him.

RIVERS: Beyond angry, still am angry. I work very hard for suicide survivors - with suicide survivors, as does Missy, because what it does to you - the anger never leaves you. There's the sadness. There's that ennui that sets in that, you know - when Melissa walked down the aisle, and it was 10 years after her father killed himself, we both cried because daddy wasn't there to walk her down. I mean, you never get over that - Missy and that part of it.

But you're still so furious what you did to us, what you did to your daughter, the selfishness of a suicide. What you've done - you've just left all the pieces and gone. You took the easy way. And it's not an easy way. They're very brave to do it. But it's a terrible, terrible, terrible thing what it does to a family, terrible thing what it does to a family.

GROSS: Do you feel like it sends a knowing message to the family?

RIVERS: It sends a bad message to the family, but it sends a lot of jokes if mommy's a comedian.

GROSS: Right. Yeah.

RIVERS: My first joke was my husband killed himself and left a message that I have to visit him every day, so I had him cremated and sprinkled him in Neiman Marcus.


RIVERS: I haven't missed a day. And that's how I get through life, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, God. Now, how do you think of something like that?

RIVERS: Because it's so - life is so difficult and so cruel that you better laugh at it because you don't know what's going to hit you next.

GROSS: Joan Rivers recorded in 2010. She died at the age of 81 in 2014. Tomorrow, we continue our series of favorite interviews from the decade as selected by our staff. We'll feature highlights of three of our shows with musicians that included interviews and performances. We'll hear from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band that includes Rhiannon Giddens and plays music in the black string band tradition. Katherine Russell - a great jazz singer who does a lot of early jazz songs. Her father was Louis Armstrong's music director in the '40s. And pianist Jon Batiste, who leads the band on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." Great music to start the new year.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a healthy and fulfilling 2020. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.