Now the salty 79-year-old comedian is turning her observational eye even further inward. Her new book I Hate Everyone, Starting With Me details the things Rivers can't stand, from her appearance to obituaries to younger comedians who steal her gigs.
Why things she hates?
"Because it's so politically correct now," Rivers tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Everybody is so uptight to say anything, so I started making jokes about anything to my friends, and one of them said, 'Just jot it down. There's a book in this.'"
Unsurprisingly, I Hate Everyone, Starting With Me starts with Rivers aiming her observational zingers directly at herself.
"I was not an attractive child," she reveals. "When I didn't use my Girl Scouts uniform as a uniform, I used it as a tent. I watch the television show Glee. That wasn't my high school. In my high school, the fat girl was not popular. In my high school, the homosexual was running. But not running and dancing — he was running for his life. I just find that most of us went through very rough times growing up."
But Rivers' book doesn't stick to serious topics for long. She reveals that she hates obituaries — but loves a good funeral because it's a good place to pick up newly single men.
"You can talk to the bereaved husband immediately," she says. "Like 'Boy, you really know how to carry a shovel.' I always let them know that I'm the same size as the wife, so then they don't have to give away the clothes."
While channeling her inner hater, Rivers also shares stories about trying to catch a break in the comedy world, where women have long struggled to find work.
"I was smart enough to go through any door that opened," she says. "I wrote [the] Topo Gigio [sketches] for Ed Sullivan. A friend of mine said, 'They want me to write this stupid thing for Ed Sullivan. It's beneath me.' And I said, 'I'll do it!' And my first real writing thing was Topo Gigio – that little stupid [puppet] mouse on Ed Sullivan."
Rivers got $500 for each of those sketches.
"For $500, I'll write for Hitler," she says. "Five hundred dollars when you're starving and you've got a car payment due? Here's what I'm saying: 'You go through any door that opens.' In the beginning, you go through the doors. You don't know which is going to be the one."
Joan Rivers started her career writing the "Topo Gigio" sketches on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Topo Gigio may not have been prestigious, but it did open doors: Rivers eventually got writing gigs with Phyllis Diller and Bob Newhart, which led to work with the Second City troupe and standup in the Village, which eventually led to regular roles in movies and on TV.
And Rivers says what she learned from Topo Gigio — to never turn down a gig — has helped her stay in show business for so many years.
"Fashion Police is the big show that I do now," she says. "I didn't want to do Fashion Police because I thought, 'This is stupid, this is beneath me, who wants to talk about fashion?' It has taken off. We are the number one show in England on E! Who knew? I try everything."
On calling women ma'am
"Ma'am is very chic. When it's a young boy, [and they say] 'Yes sir, no sir' that's okay. But when they say, 'Young lady' or 'How's my girlfriend?' [it] means you are old and disgusting and 'I wouldn't screw you for anything in the world.' I get so angry. Or when they say, 'You know, even though you're 79, I'd still do you.' And you want to say, 'You know, you may be 40, I wouldn't touch you if you were the last man on Earth.' How dare you, you disgusting person, would think I would want to go near you."
"I enjoy life when things are happening. I don't care if it's good things or bad things. That means you're alive. Things are happening. My husband used to say, 'It is never dull around here.' And that is good. We never looked at each other and went, 'I am so bored.'"
On the people she brought home to meet her parents
"I was bringing home Woody Allen before he was Woody Allen, Richard Pryor before he was Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin before she was Lily Tomlin. These are weird people walking up the driveway. This is not a nice boy from Yale. You ever shake Woody's hand? Put your hand in a glass of water and then shake your hand. Woody was very weird and very brilliant, but they didn't see that far."
On her career
"I am so out of the loop. I am never honored. My career is hilarious to me. I am either under the radar or over the radar."
On reading obits
"That's how I meet new men. The minute it says 'Sadie Schwartz' I know, 'Go to that funeral.'"
On her parents
"My parents just didn't like me. Till I was 9, my mother was trying to get an abortion. That sticks with you. That hurts. She said to her doctor, 'Is there any possible way to get rid of this thing?'"
"I hate younger comics because they're taking work from me. But I love Louie [C.K.] I think he's going to be major. I think he should be writing movies. He knows his craft."
On her cohorts
"I was in a group with George Carlin and Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand. And [Simon and Garfunkel]... that was all the group, we were all in the Village. And Bill Cosby. They all got through ahead of me. And nobody said to me, 'Maybe you're too rough. You're too wild.' No one gave me any advice. [But] I didn't have a choice. I knew this is what I wanted to do. And I would get every 10th show, there'd be a great audience and you'd go, 'I do have what it takes.' And then there'd be nine audiences that would spit in your face."
On reality shows
"I hate reality shows that are not reality. I do not believe that all that housewives do is sit down, spit in each other's face, you slap each other and then you go to a party together. You want to say: 'C'mon!' Those reality shows, I just think are so stupid. Our show, one of the conditions that we did is that we would have cameras following us around all the time. Because enough happens in everybody's life that it's interesting. And I don't want to stage [my daughter] Melissa walking over and spitting in my face and then going, 'Oh that'll be good.' I don't have to worry because somewhere in the 24 hours, she will do that."