You may not like her penchant for vagina and Nazi jokes or the fact that she liberally spreads insults around the entertainment landscape. But it's hard not to admire—outright envy—the drive and energy of an octogenarian like Joan Rivers, who made her debut on The Tonight Show in 1965, and has been working pretty much nonstop since. In addition to doing stand-up gigs all over the country, Rivers, who turned the big 8-0 last summer, has been shuttling between her New York home and daughter Melissa's in Los Angeles, where the two star in the WE TV reality series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?. Rivers also hosts her weekly E! series Fashion Police, as well as a web interview show, In Bed With Joan—and, of course, she still hawks her jewelry and clothing lines on QVC.
Rivers spoke with DAME Magazine en route to a gig in San Diego. The legendary comic was as funny, brutally honest, and outspoken as ever, talking with us about her return to The Tonight Show for the first time since Johnny Carson banned her in 1986, when she got her Fox late-night show; her real feelings about Lena Dunham—a comic actress and writer she admires—and Jennifer Lawrence; why she'll never retire, and what it feels like to be an octogenarian.
Amazing. I kept myself very much in check because I wasn’t going to make it an emotional evening. It wasn’t about me the first night, it was about him. So, I just didn’t allow myself to think anything. Then I got into my car when I got out and I started to cry. It was beyond emotional. It was 48 years to the day that I’d first been on 'The Tonight Show.' I’d been on 'The Tonight Show' after seven years in the Village with everyone telling me, “You’re not going to make it. You’re too outrageous.” And three weeks before the show my agent had said to me, “You’re never going to make it. Everyone’s seen you. It isn’t going to happen.” Then three weeks later, bingo. So all that came flooding back and all the emotions came back and all the 48 years to think what that young girl walking in 48 years ago was going to go through. And yet, able to come out on the other side of it and be back on the show. It was an amazing moment.
After he stopped having me on … never having me on the show, that idiot.
Yeah, which is insane. Insane.
Well, how about Debbie Vickers, his executive producer [after Kushnick]? I got her a job on 'The Tonight Show.' I insisted they hire her. And she and he together were the ones that rejected me for 28 years. I don’t know. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. It was insane. There is no reason. I never met Leno except once to say hello years ago. There was no bad blood, there was nothing. It made no sense and how stupid and how evil and how petty. And how dare you? Who the fuck are you to stop somebody from having a career? I mean just madness. It made me very strong and I said I’m going to go in another way and the ban will not end my career. I just started again, like I’m prone to do and have done many times and just got in another way.
I was around very marginally for a long time, trust me. When you’ve been hosting 'The Tonight Show,' if you know what I’m saying, that’s a big platform. You move down to a syndicated show. It was fine. I had such a good time and I’m not making it up. Such an amazing career, such a good time, always managed to come out and make a living, support everybody.The only anger is at Leno and Debbie Vickers.
Because comedy is very rough and tumble now, as is the world. When Miley Cyrus can come out with her nipples showing and rub up against a married man and become a star out of it, it’s a different arena. Where the Kardashians do a porn tape and become the Kardashians. I mean you’re dealing in a different arena. Thank God whatever the reason is with me, my comedy always seems to reflect the time. I didn’t even think about it. I just wanted to do a very strong shot and I knew that would be a great, funny joke to start with.
Yeah. Oh, Russell Crowe. As I say, Rusty and I now, we are going to definitely exchange Christmas cards. To make Russell Crowe laugh, you just go this is great.
Well, I’ll tell you what made me very happy: Henry Bushkin's book [about Johnny]. You how it is when you're spitting in the wind and nobody will listen to you and you would say he wasn’t that warm, he wasn’t that nice, he wasn’t this. And everyone would say, “Oh, stop it. Stop it.” I would say, “I called him.” “No, you didn’t.” “I called him twice.” “No you didn’t." That kind of stuff. I feel very—how about this one?—sorry for him. I can’t hold a grudge. I say what I think—except Jay Leno—I get it out and I move on, move on. Don’t waste the energy. He held a grudge for 26 years and he would see me in a restaurant and walk past my table after my husband committed suicide and I was fired from Fox. Who are you to cut this poor person off? I mean what anger do you have that’s so immense? When his son, Ricky, died I sent him a note and I said, “Whatever happened between us shouldn’t happen and I’m terribly…” He never answered me. I’m terribly sorry for him because he was a lonely guy. But I’m also going to tell you, he was the best straight man ever. When he says, “How fat was she?” He knew; you didn’t have to worry he was going to cut you off. He was going to wait until you were finished telling him how fat she was. He was a great, great, great feeder.
Oh, humor carries you through everything. I don’t care what it is. My mother’s death, which is probably the most, of all the tragedies I’ve had in my life, and there haven’t been that many, but my mother’s death, even more than my husband’s, was the one that affected me the most. And was the hardest. And even that I kept in humor. I went back to work seven days after my mother died. I just went right back. And if I could have gone back the next day I would have gone back the next day. If I could have gone back the same day she died I would have gone back. That’s what keeps me going. I see everything with humor. I was just with Bob Saget yesterday and he's the closest to me that anyone’s ever been in that sense and everything, the more tragic it is, the funnier he will turn it around in order to make it palatable. I’m always doing funny … I can’t help it. I think that way. I find myself making things livable by making them funny.
Two things: You have to acknowledge the dark times and you have to also be able to give people a way of living through them and that’s where the humor comes in. Tragedy plus timing is comedy and I just don’t … I was in New York on 9/11 and literally was doing 9/11 jokes almost the same night because it was so bad. People would come up and say, “Thank you. That’s the first time I’ve laughed since the towers went down.” You feel it’s your job. And it gives you 45 minutes or an hour of not having … I always say, don’t worry your troubles will be there when you go home. Relax. If you can have a good time, have it for God’s sakes.
It stems from nine years of not being able to make a living in the business and being rejected. You know, of disappointment, after disappointment. I have never had the luxury ever of having a show that you knew was going to run two years or three years. Letterman, 32 years. That’s some rock to sit on. As I always say, you don’t know. You think the next step is quicksand. When you’re on Fox and you’re on Thursday night and they tell you you’re finished on Friday you suddenly realize there’s no support. So I work very hard. I love the business, adore the business. Nothing like it. I can’t tell you how much I love the work. I don’t believe that there’ll ever be another job.
Every job to me is the last job. I find myself pleading, like today I finished on the set and they came over to me and said thank you. I said, “I hope you’re going to use me in the next movie.” I go to myself you’re 80 years old and you’re still begging. Instead of saying you’re welcome and waiting for them to say we’d like to use you again, I’m already down on my knees praying to them to use me again. That just goes back to no security.
Never crossed my mind. I don’t understand why David Letterman is doing it. I don’t understand. It never crossed my mind.
Makes me very, very sad. I think he’s had 32 years. I think he’s one of the unique comic point of views in late night, absolutely unique. I think it will be very missed.
Oh, I think women own it now. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham. Are you kidding? I think now I feel sorry for the poor, schmucky guys.
Not really. But you know, again, I believe in what I said. I really don’t want to turn on a TV and see a big fat, boobies flapping around. If I wanted to see that I’ll look in the bathroom mirror.
Oh, well, let’s not go there. Snooki defended her. Tell Snooki to cut her nails.
It’s just, don’t make me say it’s okay. It’s just not the picture you want. I don’t want the young girls to think this is okay. It’s okay to fuck around and it’s okay to sleep with everybody. It’s not okay. Let’s have some morals here.
No, that’s not so. I think she is one of the really good actresses. I mean go back to 'Winter’s Bone.' This girl is a terrific actress. I’m just saying, don’t talk about how looks don’t count and being natural is important when you are so airbrushed we can’t even find your nostrils in the Dior ads.
I don’t like hypocrisy. Don’t tell me one thing and do the opposite. That’s all. You know what I’m saying? It’s the same thing that I have found if I ever found out that Mother Teresa got pedicures. It would have killed me. She never did.
It feels like nothing. Nothing. Everything is working. Everything is ticking. I just did a Disney movie this morning. It’s all about teenagers and it’s called 'Mostly Ghostly Part 2.' Apparently there are going to be six parts to this because it’s a big children’s series. I was sitting there with all the kids and everything else and feeling totally at home and you look in the mirror and you go "Oh!" I truly never think about it. I don’t feel it. My friends are every age group from 27 up to 80. You know what I mean? You don’t feel it. You don’t think about it.
I think my grandmother was raped by a Cossack. It is not a Jewish intellectual family energy. My relatives, after 6 p.m., have trouble even walking over to get a book [Laughs]. They’re not athletes. “If you’re going in the next room, could you bring me a book?” Melissa has some of [the energy]. I had an aunt that had this insane drive, this insane energy so it obviously runs on my mother’s side.
You know, I’m one of those people when they say, “When were you happiest?” I always go, “Now.” I live in the present and I think my comedy is the present and that’s how I’ve survived. You know, I had a friend that said, “When were you happiest,” and she gave me a date in 1987. A date. You go, “Are you out of your mind?” You know, what age would you like to be. I’m happy with where I am, so I think that’s what makes me survive is I’m very happy in the present.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m very shallow but I always know I’m lucky in the present. I have a wonderful life and I know it and I also truly believe your life is a movie and you can make it. You’re the star of your own movie. I’m always telling Melissa that. You’re the star of your own movie. You can make it a comedy, you can make it a tragedy.