Joan Rivers interview: “Excuse me, I’m funnier than ever!”

30th July 2008

Ahead of her darkly humorous Edinburgh show, comedian Joan Rivers talks about being thrown off a TV talk show and why only Charles and Camilla are safe from her acid tongue. First published in the Daily Telegraph, July 30, 2008.

Taking tea with America’s most famous comedienne at the Ritz, I keep thinking: “Where’s the old lady?” Joan Rivers turned 75 last month, and it’s 50 years since she first pounded the streets of New York looking for an agent, determined to make it in showbusiness.

Yet the woman sitting opposite me has the golden sheen of youth. There’s not a wrinkle on her face.

One knows, of course, that this is all down to the magic of plastic surgery: Rivers has been persistently open about her many “jobs”. Yet the effect isn’t as grotesque as you might suppose.

Rather than feeling that some outrageous fraud has been perpetrated on nature, you’re swiftly persuaded that the outer shell reflects the inner woman. Rivers radiates energy from within: grande dame she may be, but in terms of vitality, she’s quite the petite fille.
We meet in the wake of her abrupt removal from the ITV daytime talk show Loose Women recently, after she called the actor Russell Crowe a “f—ing a—hole”. It was pure Rivers: pushing it too far yet exuding a sort of devil-may-care attitude.

The decision to eject her felt like a shaming over-reaction on the part of a shallow, prurient programme – and a perfect instance of the hypocrisy that Rivers has made it her life’s work to ridicule.

Anyone who suspected that the whole episode – which yielded tons of media coverage – was a calculated stunt to boost sales ahead of her first Edinburgh Fringe theatre show needs to know that the public humiliation brought Rivers to the brink of tears.

“My first reaction was, ‘Don’t you dare cry – you’re too old,'” she says, her voice much softer and less rasping than it is on stage. “I was really shocked, but I thought, ‘Don’t let them see this has upset you.'” Within minutes she was cracking jokes.

That’s as much a conscious act of will as a natural reflex, she says. “You make yourself go from ‘Don’t cry’ to ‘Ha, ha, ha.’?”

Her capacity to turn misfortune around is one of the threads running through the autobiographical play she’s bringing to the festival.

Entitled A Work in Progress by A Life in Progress and starring Rivers herself in a four-person cast, it deals with a lot of the dark stuff that’s happened to her, above all the suicide of her TV producer husband and the grim day her business partner absconded, leaving her in debt to the tune of $37million.

But there’s no wallowing in any of it, she says. It’s going to be joke-heavy not doom-laden, she insists.

“It all begins with my dealing with an incident that happened just before the Academy Awards six years ago.

It’s about what I did and what the other people in the dressing room were like. I come in and out of the action, go back and forth.” There’s a script and a structure, but plenty of room for ad libs. “When I love the audience, the show can easily run to a couple of hours.”
She has a slightly noxious reputation as an incorrigible poster girl for American capitalism, a reputation she does little to dispel by boasting that she’s now flogged “half a billion pieces” of her jewellery range on the shopping channel QVC.

But there’s a cultivated so-and-so behind the brash motor-mouth exterior. This is her third play; her second, Sally Marr… and Her Escorts, about Lenny Bruce’s mother, earned her a Tony Award nomination in 1994.

And, if she’s out when friends call her in Manhattan, they should “go walk the streets of Broadway,” she says – she’s always scouting for theatrical pleasures.
As a comedian, she reckons she’s still sharpening up her act. “People come up to me and say, ‘You still got it.’ Excuse me?! ‘Better than ever,’ I say. Age has freed me to say what I want.”

And it’s true. To watch Rivers on stage these days is to behold an unbridled force of nature. No one is too high and mighty to fall under her withering gaze. She has a wholly refreshing contempt for unearned piety, pretension and, her favourite no-no, political correctness.

Unprompted, she delivers a withering assessment of the American presidential candidates: “I despise Obama. I shudder and get hives at McCain. They’ve spent half a billion dollars knocking each other instead of taking care of our country. That’s obscene.”
The only people who appear to be safe from her ire are her firm friends the Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

“I adore Prince Charles and I adore Camilla,” she says. “She gets a bad press, but in 20 years’ time – I won’t live to see it – they will love her the way they loved the Queen Mum.”
Besides this show, Rivers is busy: two books are in the offing as well as a US sitcom called Z-Rock, about a heavy-metal band who pay their way by playing kids’ birthday parties.
There’s no letting up – and that, she thinks, goes right back to the immigrant energy of her Russian-Jewish parents: “Always there’s that fear of the wolf at the door.”

Does she count the hours, wondering how long she’s got? “I do think, ‘If I want to do something, I won’t wait a few years to do it; I’d better hurry.’ I get crazy when people go down memory lane, talking about ‘the good old days’. I say, ‘Are you crazy? These are the good old days! Let’s enjoy them.”

This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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