NPR

Comedian Joan Rivers Is A Real 'Piece Of Work'

There aren't many topics Joan Rivers shies away from when writing her material.

Over her 50-year career, the salty comedian has poked fun at -- among other topics -- her many face lifts, her husband's suicide, her bankruptcy, and the sacrifices she made as a female performer.

Now 77, she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that her material has only gotten stronger with age.

Joan Rivers - A Piece Of Work

  • Director: Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern
  • Genre: Comedy, Documentary, Biopic
  • Running Time: 84 minutes
Rated R for language and sexual humor

"I am so much freer now," she says. "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."

Rivers, who started out writing gags for Candid Camera in 1965, was a regular guest host on The Tonight Show and frequently starred on The Carol Burnett Show and Hollywood Squares. She wrote 10 books, mainly about comedy -- and made frequent cameos in films, often playing a brash, New York-based comedian.

In more recent years, she has hosted pre-awards shows on E!, sold items on QVC and appeared on several reality shows, including Big Brother, Celebrity Apprentice (which she won) and How'd You Get To Be So Rich?

All are fodder in a new documentary about a year in the life of Rivers, called Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The film follows Rivers around during her 76th year as she fights to still make people laugh -- while dealing with the rejections and disappointments that are part of the comedy business.

Rivers says that even 50 years after she began her career, she's still trying to open doors for younger comedians.

"Comedians always go, 'Oh, you let women get on stage and say things. You let women look attractive on stage,'" she says. "I don't think there'd be a Tina Fey now if I hadn't tried to look good in the beginning. But I think of opening doors not just for women comedians -- I never think about women. I think just [that I'm] always trying to push for myself, push the boundaries [and] make them listen. Make them listen to the truth and laugh about it."


Interview Highlights

On being one of the first comedians to make jokes about abortion

"I just think you open up the doors and you laugh at everything. I was the first one to discuss abortion, and it was very rough. ... And I couldn't even say the word abortion -- I had to say, 'She had 14 appendectomies.' ... Everyone went to Cuba to get appendectomies. Or went to Puerto Rico to get appendectomies. That was a big thing. ... And by making jokes about it, you brought it into a position where you could 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."

On stage fright

Joan Rivers: "I lived to be on stage, and I'm terrified. Terrified before every show. Terrified to come out here and sit down with you. I'm always nervous. Always nervous. And I'm a super preparer."

Terry Gross: "That's kind of a paradox to me that you live to be on stage and, at the same time, that there's this dread of being on stage."

Joan Rivers: "Not a dread of being on stage. A dread of not doing well. Of disappointing them."

On the worst thing that ever happened to her on stage

"Once somebody died in Las Vegas in the audience, but that wasn't the worst thing. I've died several times on stage. That's not like the worst. But one of the worst -- someone died at Caesar's Palace and they got that guy out so fast because they don't want anyone upset about anything and they rolled him out. The worst thing that ever happened to me on stage is someone ran forward to tell me they loved me and projectile vomited all over the stage. It was horrible. And I said to the audience, 'Shall we continue or shall we clean the stage?' And the audience said, 'Let's continue.' And I said, 'No, let's clean the stage.' That was horrible. Oh, God, it got on everything. The orchestra was gagging. Once somebody starts to vomit, everybody joins in. It was awful."

On being a working mother in the 1960s

"When I was pregnant, I was sitting with a very famous comedienne and her little girl in the park, and her little girl fell down and cut her knee -- and ran to the nanny. And I said right then and there, 'My child will run to me.' And I, from the beginning -- we stopped everything at 6 p.m. We always had a family dinner even if we went out afterward and had another dinner with friends. Everything stopped at 6. I would take the book and cross off everything that didn't have to do with Melissa. I was a Brownie Scout mother. And those uniforms. 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."

Her thoughts on suicide after her husband committed suicide

"I still am angry. I work very hard with suicide survivors, as does [my daughter] Missy. 'Cause what it does to you -- the anger never leaves you. There's the sadness. 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. You never get over that and missing 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 and what you've done -- you've just left all the pieces. And gone -- and you took the easy way. And it's not an easy way. It's very brave to do it, but it's a terrible, terrible, terrible thing to do to a family. It sends a bad message to the family, but it sends a lot of jokes if Mommy's a comedian. 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. Haven't missed a day.' And that's how I get through life, Terry."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Joan Rivers, is the subject of a new documentary called "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." Although she was one of the first really successful women comics, subbed for Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" and paved the way for many women comics, the documentary is largely about what her life is like now, why she's driven to keep performing and how she's had to reinvent herself in order to do it.

The movie was shot over about 14 months during 2008 and 2009. We recorded our interview yesterday. Let's start with a clip from the documentary.

(Soundbite of film, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work")

Ms. JOAN RIVERS (Comedian): 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 (BEEP) yourself. I'm still opening the doors.

GROSS: 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: And you've just turned 77.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah, I know.

GROSS: Yuck, you said yuck. Is that how you're feeling about it?

Ms. RIVERS: Well, no, I just don't believe what 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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 some of the doors that you feel you're still opening?

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, I don't think I never thought about it until the documentary came out. You know, but comedians always go, oh, you let women get on stage and say things. You let women look attractive on stage. I don't think there would be a Tina Fey if I hadn't tried to look good in the beginning.

That's the kind but I think of 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.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Probably. Yes, I'm sure I did. I'm sure I am. Yeah, but everything now you can I just think you open up the doors, and you just laugh at everything. If you laugh at it, you can live with it.

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

Ms. 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: Now, 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, she needed a vacation, or she had to get some minor surgery done.

Ms. RIVERS: Right, she had an appendectomy.

GROSS: She had an appendectomy, exactly.

Ms. RIVERS: Everybody went to Cuba to get appendectomies or went to Puerto Rico to get appendectomies. That was a big thing.

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

Ms. 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 could 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, and that's what I still do.

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

Ms. RIVERS: Just that my friend had 14 abortions, and she was lucky because she was Jewish, she married, finally, one of the abortion doctors. It ended up happy for her mother. My daughter married a doctor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Ms. RIVERS: Half the people would laugh, obviously, because and half the people would go - oh.

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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: And I'd get half the people laughing, but it was 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: And people said: You can't say that. You can't talk about things like that. But in those days, that was pushing the envelope. And it's so funny because I opened things for women that were then able to talk about.

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

Ms. RIVERS: Good question. It 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? 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?

Ms. 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, how horrible it was but making people laugh about it at the same time.

I talk about how I truly, I hate whiners. 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 use the term purposely cripples. And if you're crippled, just get out of the room right now because 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 okay.

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, and you're making a joke and...

Ms. RIVERS: Northern Wisconsin.

GROSS: Thank you.

Ms. RIVERS: You know what I mean? Wisconsin with fir trees. Yeah, so northern Wisconsin. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of film, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: I hate children. Eww. The only child that I think I would have liked ever was Helen Keller because she didn't talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: That isn't very funny.

Ms. RIVERS: It's just yes it is, and if you don't, then leave...

Unidentified Man: It isn't funny if you have a deaf son.

Ms. RIVERS: I happen to have a deaf mother. Oh, you stupid ass, let me tell you what comedy is about.

Unidentified Man: Go ahead and tell me about it.

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, please, you are so stupid. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. RIVERS: My mother is deaf, you stupid son of a bitch. Don't tell me, and just in case you can hear me in the hallway, I lived for nine years with a man with one leg. Okay, you ass(BEEP). I was going to talk about what it's like to have a man with one leg, who lost it in World War II and never went back to get it because that's (BEEP) littering.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. 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.

Ms. RIVERS: But first of all...

GROSS: And, 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.

Ms. RIVERS: A deaf son.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. 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 okay. Your son would laugh at that.

My mother at the end was deaf, absolutely couldn't hear anything, and we used to laugh about 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 on stage?

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

GROSS: Right.

Ms. 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 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 deal with bankruptcy? How do you deal with your 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: Now in the documentary about you, we see you booking as many dates as possible. Your schedule is just astoundingly complicated.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: You're always traveling from one place to another. You have, like, four things lined up in a day. I mean, I don't know how you deal with that amount of travel and work. I mean, most people would be trying to decrease that a little bit, yeah.

Ms. RIVERS: Go look at, over the years, who you've spoken to and see who has survived and who hasn't, and it's the ones that work and keep on working and take whatever there is to take that's I will look at some of the people that were on my late night shows, that were on my daytime talk show, and you say whatever happened to? You can't rest on your laurels.

I hate to tell you, but Snookie(ph) from whatever that is, "Jersey Shore," better get busy because Snookie ain't going to be around in 15 years unless Snookie understands she's got to work. She can't sit around and expect a white limo to pick her up in four years.

GROSS: Now, there seems to be, like, two things really driving you, one you know, driving you to, like, keep working extra-super-hard. One is that you love performing and you love being on stage and you want to keep being there.

And the other is money. You want to maintain your lifestyle, and that requires plenty of money. So, does either of those two things take priority in terms of what's driving you to work so hard?

Ms. RIVERS: Yes, unfortunately, I give up the lifestyle for the art, whatever the art is. I have always they'll say to me, come do they did come do a play in San Francisco for three weeks in a little, tiny theatre called the Magic Theatre that holds 90 people. Off and gone and running.

I love the art. I love whether it's the writing of a show or performing something. So that takes priority. But do I like my creature comforts? Love my creature comforts. Have I ever asked anybody for a nickel? No. So if I want to buy a nice pair of shoes, I buy me a nice pair of shoes.

If I want to live well, if that's my joy, and I would rather go to Wisconsin and work for that weekend and live well and be able to pick up a check for some friends, that's my priority, and I'm delighted to do it.

So it's two-way, but art comes or whatever you want to call it the profession, the performing comes first.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that you had gone bankrupt. So that's one nightmare you've already lived through. When did that happen?

Ms. RIVERS: That was I never declared bankruptcy because I thought that was very naughty, and I hate these ads now that you see all the time: Bankruptcy is a new beginning. Oh, come off it. You owe everybody. Pay up, you idiot.

But after Edgar committed suicide and I was fired from Fox, I couldn't get work for a year and a half. And, you know, the bills continue. And there's no money coming in, and you're selling stuff, and you're cutting back, and it got very, very hairy there for a while.

So you sell stuff. You go to Sotheby's and you sell. You kiss a couple of Faberge frames goodbye, which killed me because they were my husband's, and you say so long (unintelligible), beautiful and his art touched you.

GROSS: My guest is Joan Rivers. She's the subject of the new documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Rivers, and there's a new documentary about her called "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." So for you who want to perform all the time, does life not measure up to performing?

Ms. 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 Lawrence 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. And 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?

Ms. RIVERS: I lived to be on stage, 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, like, 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.

Ms. RIVERS: Not a dread of being on stage, a dread of not doing well, of disappointing them. I you know, I always you think I have one friend who's a very good, very, very famous comedian, comic, who once said to me: I give them five minutes. If they don't like me, I go on automatic.

And I thought: They have bought the tickets, 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 has a deaf son, and nobody can deal with it. But there are also it was a 4,000-seat house. There were 3,999 other people that I did not want them walking 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. So where do you go from there?

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, my darling. You just start talking fast, and you start finding where will they start to relax and laugh again? And it's almost like, you know, when you start a car, 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, and boy, that guy at the beginning, wasn't he something? And that's what I did, till 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?

Ms. RIVERS: The worst thing that's ever happened to me, once somebody died in Las Vegas, but that wasn't the worst thing.

GROSS: In the audience?

Ms. RIVERS: In the audience. Oh, yeah, I've died several times on stage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: But no, so that's not like the worst. But one of the worst someone died, and it was at Caesar's Palace. They got that guy out so fast because they don't want anyone upset about anything high-roller, and they rolled him out.

The worst thing that ever happened 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.

Ms. RIVERS: It was horrible. And I said to the audience: Shall we continue or shall we clean the stage?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: And the audience said: Let's continue. And I said: No, let's clean the stage.

GROSS: Did it get on you?

Ms. RIVERS: That was horrible. Oh god, it got on everything. The orchestra was gagging. And when somebody starts to vomit, you know, everybody joins in.

GROSS: Oh, no.

Ms. RIVERS: It was awful.

GROSS: So what happened?

Ms. RIVERS: We stopped everything, and I right away was just why I have to still work at 77 said, everyone have a drink on me, I'll be back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: And everybody had a drink on Ms. Rivers.

GROSS: So what was the bill?

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, the bill was a couple of thousand dollars.

GROSS: Oh, gosh, wow.

Ms. RIVERS: My husband was still alive then. He said, are you crazy?

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

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

GROSS: That's my motto.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Have at least three Mackie gowns.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: But it was oh, my shoes got and they came forward to say I love (unintelligible)...

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Ms. RIVERS: I said I brought out matches. So I was lighting matches all the way out, to get the smell out of the place. And then we and the 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: My guest, Joan Rivers, will be back in the second half of the show. The new documentary about her, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," opens in New York, L.A., and San Francisco this weekend and in other cities over the next few weeks.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Joan Rivers. She's the subject of the new documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." It follows her through a year of her life as she tries to get as many comedy and TV dates as possible, in spite of her age. She turned 77 yesterday. The film also looks at how her focus on her career has affected her personal life.

Now, the film explores, among other things, your relationship with your daughter, Melissa.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: And she talks about how when she was growing up, it was as if your career was her sibling because it was such a presence in the family's life, and you were so preoccupied with it. Were you aware that she felt that way when she was growing up?

Ms. RIVERS: We were very aware that it was a company business, and we always called it the career, and Missy talks about that. I could have also been in the, I don't know, the camera business, and it would have been the cameras or - it was the family business.

And we were all involved in it, to the point when Melissa has her own career in the business. And it gave us everything, it ran everything, and it was very generous to all of us. And we had to work hard.

And I think the good thing, by letting Melissa know how hard we worked on the career my husband was involved in it, I was involved in it, Missy was involved in it Melissa, to this day, is very much a workaholic. Melissa got that nothing came easily, that work brought you things. And I think that was a wonderful thing to see in the family household.

GROSS: And you became partners in the career for a long time, doing the red carpet events together.

Ms. RIVERS: And still are. We're on E!. We do "The Fashion Police" together, and we're making a deal now to do a weekly series together with E!. Yeah. And we have another series that we're doing together on WE.

So she also saw disappointments, which my husband and I were very keen -and I use that word because he was English - to let her see the bad part of the business, let her see it's not all gee, mommy and daddy own a Mercedes and a big house and have servants.

GROSS: Now, you were on "Celebrity Apprentice" together last year.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And in the movie, you say that on "Celebrity Apprentice," you don't want to out-shine your daughter and that you're very careful about that. And I want to play what Melissa has to say in response.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Yes.

(Soundbite of film, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work")

Ms. MELISSA RIVERS: I believe that consciously, she would believe that, and then even if I did win, she would say she held back. But I don't think she really could.

Ms. RIVERS: Okay, see you later.

Ms. MELISSA RIVERS: In the business, you have to put yourself first. You've got to protect yourself. And my mother will tell you that she only wants me to win, but then she'll do something without realizing it that is very destructive. And I think it's a very tough dynamic, because I truly think it's completely subconscious with her.

GROSS: So, Joan Rivers, what do you think about when you hear your daughter say that?

Ms. RIVERS: I think she is so smart, because these are things she doesn't say to me. She's absolutely right. I'm sure of that. I'm a total survivor. But I know on a conscious level, as a parent, the only one you want to be younger, thinner, prettier and more successful is your daughter, the only one.

I'm always the one that says if there's one dress, let Melissa have it. If there's time for one hairdo, let them do Melissa. On a conscious level, I totally acquiesce to my daughter. On the subconscious level, I'm sure I'm a killer.

GROSS: So she says that, you know, when you're a performer, you have to put yourself first. And I'm wondering, 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, because many more women were full-time, you know, mothers and homemakers then.

Ms. RIVERS: I did something from the very beginning because I had been sitting when I was pregnant with a very famous comedienne and her little girl. It 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 six. I was a Brownie Scout mother, ack, in those uniforms.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: 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 talked about that, and it was such fond memories. She talked about growing up backstage in Vegas, where sitting on a stool, we sat her 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. You know, I'm not a trust-fund baby. I had to make a living.

GROSS: My guest is Joan Rivers. She's the subject of the new documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Rivers. There's a new documentary about her, and it's called "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."

In the movie, I think it's you who say and 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.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: When did it cross over into joke?

Ms. RIVERS: Probably with my first bad plastic surgery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Probably when I talked about it too much. I should have been like everybody else and not said a word and deny it, which is what they all do.

GROSS: So why did you talk about?

Ms. RIVERS: I talked about it from the very beginning. But I'm a comedian, so of course you walk out 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. And 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 -that people thought that's all I did.

But I was very glad I talked about it. It's 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 saying should I get it fixed? And all her friends are lying to her and saying don't do it, Betty. And I was saying: Betty, do it. If you want to feel better about yourself, do it.

GROSS: So I want to play a clip from when you were on "Nip/Tuck." And "Nip/Tuck" is the FX series about two plastic two very, like, high-end plastic surgeons who do a lot of, like famous people. And so you play yourself on this. And you come in, and you're sitting with the plastic surgeons, and they ask you their standard question, which is: What don't you like about yourself?

And then you explain to them that you have a very kind of special, unusual request to make of them, and that you're not even going to tell them what that request is until they sign a confidentiality agreement in which they promise not to divulge what the surgery is until after you're ready to reveal it. And I'm going to play the clip in which you explain what the surgery is that you're going to request they do.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Nip/Tuck")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIVERS: (as herself) I'm not just my career. It's also my grandson, Cooper. We have the most amazing relationship. It's probably the most honest relationship I've ever had with anybody in my whole life. He loves me exactly the way I am.

Mr. DYLAN WALSH (Actor): (As Dr. Sean McNamara) So why change?

Ms. RIVERS: (as herself) Because it's a goddamn lie.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIVERS: (as herself) Look, I know I'm the one that brought plastic surgery into the mainstream. I know I'm the one that convinced all those thousands of housewives out there that if you don't like your face, then do something about it. Change it. But now I want to send out a different message.

My grandson is so pure. He's so happy with himself the way he is, and I want him to stay that way. I don't want him to grow up hating the thought that he's going to get older. I don't want him to care if he gets acne at 20 or if his hair starts to recede at 40. I just want him to know there's nothing to be ashamed of. It's the natural order of things.

Oh, boy. It'll get me some magazine cover. People - oh, my God. Before? After? No one's ever done something like that. It's gold, and I could use a cover. I haven't had one since 1994, those sons of (beep).

Come on, what about it? I am offering you the mother of all plastic surgeries. Will you do it?

GROSS: That's Joan Rivers from - a scene from "Nip/Tuck."

Ms. RIVERS: "Nip/Tuck."

GROSS: So, you know, I watched that scene, and it made me wonder: Did you ever feel that way? Feel like, you know, maybe it's sending the wrong message to my grandson, you know, all the plastic surgery.

Ms. RIVERS: Are you kidding? The message to my grandson would be to get plugs for your hair, and quick, get to a dermatologist and fix your skin. No, no, no, get it planed. No, no, it's pure fiction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, who...

Ms. RIVERS: But I do worry that I will get I will die and go to heaven, God won't recognize me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Who are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think a lot of performers are this amazing mix of ego and insecurity, and I'm wondering if you feel that you are.

Ms. RIVERS: I think I'm much more insecure than ego, but at this age, the ego is beginning. At this age, I really feel, in my 70s now, that I'm performing at the top of my game, that when you come to see me live - and I don't mean to sound so egotistical I think you're seeing the best you can see in women's comedy today, or in comedy today.

I think I'm performing just great live. I wouldn't have said that probably six years ago. Age frees you. So there is ego with that, but the insecurity never stops, never stops.

I won't walk into a room if I don't know somebody, I ain't going in there. Uh-uh. I will never go anyplace alone. And as I said in some article recently, I am the hostesses' nemesis, because they always think Joan will be funny at that end of the table. And Joan, if she doesn't know you, is the world's biggest bore at the end of the table.

GROSS: You're a big bore if you don't know the person next to you?

Ms. RIVERS: If I don't know the people next to you, I'm not going to do a joke. I'm just not going to say anything.

GROSS: Right, right.

Ms. RIVERS: I don't know who you are, and I'm not going to sit there and confide in you.

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.

Ms. RIVERS: Well, it's also 20 years, and you can 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, and I married him four days later.

GROSS: Four days later?

Ms. RIVERS: Four days later. He was crazy about me. I just knew he was perfect for me, and he was.

GROSS: Perfect in what way?

Ms. RIVERS: 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, a great marriage. Was I madly in love with him, thumpy, thumpy, thumpy, thumpy, thumpy? No. But as my mother always said: They should like you more than you like them. They worry where you are. Don't you have to worry so much where he is.

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

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah. Oh, he thought I was the cutest chickie walking around. But he had very bad eyesight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Ms. RIVERS: Killed himself, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah - 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.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

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

Ms. RIVERS: Totally.

GROSS: But I guess I'm wondering if maybe he wasn't, like, depressed before that and if maybe...

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, of course.

GROSS: ...depression wasn't interfering with his relationship with the network, and if it all kind of...

Ms. 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 that choice on a Thursday, and 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. It was - everything was just very, very bad. Andy 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 debts, because he wasn't a good businessman. So it sounds like you were, you know, horrified that he killed himself, but also angry with him.

Ms. RIVERS: Beyond angry. Still I'm 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.

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 - missing 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 and 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?

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

GROSS: Right. Yeah.

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: 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?

Ms. RIVERS: Because it's so - life in the - in the documentary, there's one scene where they show this girl that I bring a meal to from God's Love We Deliver that's sitting there in a chair with MS or - you never ask what it is. It's either MS or something very bad.

And then we do a flashback where we show her on television as a hip, sharp New York reporter. And you realize 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: Now, do you ever get senior moments on stage where you just kind of blank out for a second?

Ms. RIVERS: No. And that's a great question and that terrifies me. The only time - I adlib so much on stage and I mix my act around so much that sometimes I worry terribly, have I said that already?

Because I am so free form onstage that I wonder when I do two shows in one night have I already talked about death. Have I already talked about Melissa's giving birth and me being in the operating room? That's the only - I worry about things like that.

GROSS: So one more thing. You said that you think you're at the top of your game right now.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah, in comedy, yeah.

GROSS: In comedy. So if we took like second best, like, what's another, like, favorite part of your career?

GROSS: Anytime I've done a Broadway play, anytime I'm on the stage acting, it's just glorious. Whether it's doing a joke and you're all laughing with 5,000 people, that's a great moment. When you're all laughing, including me, that's just great.

And the same thing - when I did, say, "Broadway Bound" and I was - or Sally Marr that I was nominated for a Tony for a few years ago. When you do a moment where the whole audience is silent with you and you know you're all experiencing that, oh, this is why I was born.

GROSS: Well, Joan Rivers, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. RIVERS: A pleasure. Great talking with you again. Thank you so much.

GROSS: The new documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" opens in New York, L.A. and San Francisco this weekend and in other cities over the next few weeks. You can see three clips from the film on our website, freshair.npr.org. Rivers reality show, "How'd You Get So Rich," concludes tonight on TV Land.

The new season of HBO's vampire series "True Blood" starts Sunday. Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli�has a review. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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