Joan Rivers: Funny or Die

6.2.2010

By Michael Musto


Whenever well-meaning female comics approach Joan Rivers to gush, 'You opened the door for us!' the veteran funny lady sees blood. 'Opened the door?' Rivers blares, reenacting her righteous rage. 'Darling, I'm still opening the doors. Don't put me in the past tense! Sit down and watch me work now. I'm still ahead of you!'

Being a legend just isn't enough for the 76-year-old comedian, who would rather roll over and die than rest on her laurels -- not when she can nab some creative catharsis, make money in the process, and enjoy 'the love you get from the audience. It's like being at a great dinner party.'

One of those entertainers for whom relaxation is far from relaxing, Rivers's worst nightmare is an empty calendar page, so she tries to fill each one while realizing that a comic is only as good as her last joke. 'When I was guest hosting Johnny Carson years ago,' Rivers remembers, 'I said to a producer, 'If I did three shows that weren't funny, you'd never use me again, right?' He paused and said, 'Two.''

Since then, Rivers got her own show, was banned by Carson from NBC late night, suffered the suicide of her husband, Edgar, reemerged as a funnier-than-ever provocateur, and continues to both wear feathers and ruffle them. To stay relevant, Rivers even allowed cameras to follow her for a year for IFC's new documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, which shows the tireless tongue-wagger continuing to triumph over taste all over the country. The film's most memorable moment has a horrified audience member saying Rivers's Helen Keller joke 'isn't funny if you have a deaf son,' to which our star shrieks back, 'Comedy is to make everyone laugh and deal with things, you idiot!'

Rivers, naturally, didn't like the film at first. 'I hated every minute of it,' she admits. 'I thought I looked fat and old, and they didn't show I have friends and a private life. Then the reviews came in, saying Ricki's a genius. Suddenly, I said, 'I knew she was a genius!' And it's true -- she did an amazing job. She found a storyline.' That plot involves an ambitious New York woman who may be brimming with neuroses but who turned the dark feelings outward, routinely addressing abortions, adultery, and other taboo topics that were deemed unladylike in the '60s. 'I never was aware that I was radical,' Rivers contends. 'I only knew I was saying things that should be said.'

Nowadays she gets to push an even wider envelope, gleefully making jokes about things like 9/11 widows cashing in -- an edgy choice especially since daughter Melissa lost three friends on 9/11. 'But anything really dark, I shine the light on it.'

'Life is so tough and so mean,' she says, explaining her spin-comedy-from-despair formula. 'I certainly got that gene: I feel your pain. I feel everybody's fucking pain here, and I can't stand it!' But might she be adding to the pain by making relentless fun of certain celebrities? 'No,' she insists. 'I'm saying, 'It's silly. What are you gonna do?' And I'm fat!'

Rivers thinks gays are extra appreciative of her humor -- so she always tells the box office staff to give them better seats. 'They're willing to laugh,' she says. 'It's OK to them that Jennifer Aniston doesn't douche!'

And even if it isn't, the saucy septuagenarian is always prepared to go to the trenches and try out new material. 'Thank God there will always be a Kate Gosselin with a big uterus,' she exults. 'There'll always be a Jesse James who'll fuck a Nazi. I'll be doing this until I can't remember the act, and then I'll quietly go kill myself.'

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will be released June 11.

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