TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're beginning a holiday series featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year. We're starting with Joan Rivers. After a long period of ups and downs and comebacks, she became kind of iconic after the release of the 2010 documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which showed how obsessive she is about comedy and described the constant obstacles she's had to overcome to stay on or even close to the top.
She was one of the first really successful women comics. She played Greenwich Village cabarets and borscht-belt hotels until becoming best known for appearing on "The Tonight Show." Eventually she became Johnny Carson's guest host and then launched her own late-night talk show.
I spoke with Joan Rivers in June, after the publication of her book "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." Joan Rivers, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is great to have you back.
JOAN RIVERS: And it's great to be back. I always know you're a good interviewer.
GROSS: Thank you. So why did you want to write a book about all the things that you hate, maybe not all the things, there's probably even more things that you didn't have room for.
RIVERS: No, there's a second book coming.1
GROSS: "More Things that I Hate"?
RIVERS: This is going to be the "50 Shades of Grey" of hatred.
GROSS: Well, good for you.
RIVERS: I was going to call it, after my legs, "48 Shades of Blue," but I figured I'll stick with - I'll stick with what I have because it's so politically correct now. Everybody is so uptight to say anything. So I started making jokes about everything to my friends, and one of them said: Just jot it down. There's a book in this.
GROSS: Now, aren't you supposed to mellow with age?
RIVERS: Not in this society. Tell me that when they're stripping me down at the airport.
GROSS: So you start with some things you hate about yourself.
RIVERS: Oh, God.
GROSS: You say, like, you looked like your father when you were young. I doubt that.
RIVERS: I looked like my father, especially the moustache. No, I was not an attractive child growing up. I mean, my Girl Scout uniform, I didn't use it as a uniform. I used it as a tent. I was a fat child.
RIVERS: And it was difficult. You know, I watch "Glee," the television show "Glee." That wasn't my high school. My high school, the fat girl was not popular. 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.
GROSS: So you say your parents hated you making a scene when you were growing up. What kind of scenes did you make?
RIVERS: Well, not so much scenes. My parents just didn't like me. You know, until I was nine years old, my mother was trying to get an abortion, and that sticks with you. That hurts.
RIVERS: What she'd say to the doctor: Is there any way possible to get rid of this thing?
GROSS: You write that your mother used to holler at you: Joan, the neighbors can hear. Stop it, don't make a scene. So I wondered, did you grow up in an apartment building?
RIVERS: We grew up partly in an apartment building, and then the majority of my childhood was in Larchmont, and - which is a suburb outside of New York. And that's, you know, very suburban and very WASP-y and all that. And I was - my mother looked back, she said: You were a very difficult child.
And I was very frustrated. I knew what I wanted to do. From the beginning, I wanted to be in show business as an actress. And the frustration of just waiting to grow up was extraordinary for me.
GROSS: Huh. Well, we'll get to some of that stuff again a little later. I just want to hear about a couple of other things that you hate. But I have to say: Since you didn't grow...
RIVERS: Oh, where do you want to start? I'll tell you what. I hate obituaries. They don't tell you the truth.
GROSS: So you read obituaries, like, every day. It's one of the first things you do.
RIVERS: Sure, because that's how I meet new men.
RIVERS: The minute it says Sadie Schwartz, I know go to that funeral. But I hate when they don't tell you how the person died, you know? It's like cheating you. Come one, come on, come on. Why can't they just say: Murray Weintraub, 58, mumps. Then you know. It makes sense to me.
GROSS: You also don't like sex when you're old or sex with an old man.
RIVERS: Or sex - anybody that's old, just to get the guy on top of you is a week.
GROSS: And faking orgasm?
RIVERS: You can ruin your back.
GROSS: Faking orgasm with a man who's old?
RIVERS: No, I always faked anyhow, but you have to remember which is the good ear they can still hear in, otherwise he's missed the whole thing.
GROSS: I like that.
RIVERS: If you're groaning in the wrong ear, they hear nothing.
GROSS: So you write that you hate obituaries, but you love funerals. You say to you a funeral is just a red-carpet show for dead people.
RIVERS: Yes, it's great. Funerals, there are things you can talk to the bereaved husband about immediately, like, boy, you really know how to carry a shovel. Wow.
RIVERS: I always let them know that I'm the same size as the wife because then they don't have to give away the clothes.
RIVERS: How old was Myrtle? What size was your wife? My God, I'm the same size as Isabel.
GROSS: Have you spoken at a lot of funerals?
RIVERS: No, nobody asks me to do anything. I am never invited to speak at anything. I am never invited to speak at a college commencement. I spoke at one, that was my daughter's, University of Pennsylvania. And people still come up to me and say to me: God, that was a good speech.
I am so out of the loop on both sides, on - I am never honored. It's very - my career is hilarious to me because I am so either under the radar or over the radar, never asked to do anything.
GROSS: That's really odd. I'm shocked.
RIVERS: Yeah, I am shocked too. Never...
GROSS: Do you think people are afraid of - that you're going to say something that they will consider inappropriate and tasteless?
RIVERS: Probably. Meanwhile, I've been invited to the royal weddings, command performances to the Queen of England. It's just so funny where you're embraced and where you're ignored. Haven't been to the White House since the Reagans, and I've been to the royal weddings, and I go to Buckingham Palace at least twice a year. And I just say to myself: You know, somewhere they love you, somewhere they don't.
GROSS: So when you did the command performance for the queen, so what does that mean exactly? She's at Royal Albert Hall in the audience...
RIVERS: No, wherever it is, wherever it is. Sometimes it's in London, sometimes it's outside. I did one outside, in Windsor and one in England - in London. She comes, and it's always for a great charity, and it's - and I'm sorry you're an American, it doesn't matter. They play "God Save The Queen," and you just melt. You know, it's just oh my God, look where I am. I'm a Jewish girl from Brooklyn.
And then you do your - you do your act, and then afterwards they come down the receiving line, they meet and they chat with you, and they talk to you, and it's just - it's amazing. It's amazing.
GROSS: So did you choose your material knowing that the queen was in the audience?
RIVERS: Yeah, you're a little more careful. I did slip, and I said - and get ready, because you have to believe it. I said the word (bleep), and I said it, and I turned to her in the box, I said: Behead me now.
GROSS: So you always knew you wanted to be in comedy. What was the first comedy show...
RIVERS: I knew I wanted to be an actress. The comedy was making secretaries laugh so I could get in to see the agent. And finally one secretary said to me: You're very funny, you should do stand-up. And I at that time was working obviously as an office temporary daytime, and I thought, well - and she said you can make $8 a night in the comedy clubs. I thought that's better than being an office temporary. And that's how I started doing stand-up, to make a living to be an actress.
And then, as I said, the comedy started to take over, and then the writing started to move. And I was smart enough to go through any door that opened. I wrote Topo Gigio for Ed Sullivan.
GROSS: Are you kidding? Did you really?
RIVERS: No, a friend of mine said to me: They want me to write this stupid thing for Ed Sullivan. It's so beneath me - a friend of mine, a writer. And I said: I'll do it. And my first real writing thing was Topo Gigio, that little stupid mouse on Ed Sullivan.
GROSS: Oh, I - forgive me - I love you, but forgive me for saying this: I hated Topo Gigio.
RIVERS: Yeah, well, I got $500 a shot.
GROSS: Well, I love that. I'm glad you were rewarded. Glad it gave you a leg up in your career. But Topo Gigio was this, like, little puppet mouse, and Ed Sullivan...
RIVERS: This little stupid puppet mouse from Italy.
GROSS: Yeah, and Ed Sullivan would talk to it and go: Oh, Topo Gigio. And it was so - like bring on the Beatles, get rid of the mouse, yeah.
RIVERS: At the end you'd also say give me a kiss, Eddie. And Eddie would give you a kiss. And America loved it. Give me a kiss, Eddie.
GROSS: Were you frustrated that you had to write Topo Gigio, and that's what actually - that's where the money was for you?
RIVERS: Five hundred dollars? I'll write for Hitler. Five hundred dollars when you're starving and you've got a car payment due? Here we go, that's what I'm saying: You go through any door that opens, and you don't know which is going to be the one.
GROSS: So what did Topo Gigio lead to?
RIVERS: It led to my writing for Phyllis Diller and Bob Newhart. And so I was making a living writing one-liners. And then I began, as I said, to go - then I went to Second City, and then I came back to New York, and I worked in - all over the Village, where I met everybody. So one thing does lead somehow to another.
GROSS: It's great that you wrote for Phyllis Diller because one of her things was, like, her husband Fang, and she'd always tell, like, her husband jokes. And you told a lot of husband jokes. So I imagine a lot of her husband jokes were actually yours?
RIVERS: But the difference was she made fun of her husband, and if anyone ever listened closely to mine, which they did not - because they'd always say to my husband, Edgar, oh, does she make an idiot of you - I was always the idiot in the joke. You know what I'm saying? I was the one. I came out of the bath who had no breasts. I came out of the bathroom on my wedding night, and he said: Let me help you with the buttons. And I said: I'm naked. So I was the idiot.
RIVERS: But poor Edgar, till he died, people would say, boy, does she give it to you. Whoa. He'd go listen, I'm not giving it to him. I'm doing it to me.
GROSS: My guest is Joan Rivers. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Rivers. She has a new book called "I Hate Everyone: Starting with Me." It's a book about all the things she hates, and there's plenty of them. Were your parents funny, and did they appreciate comedy? Could your mother or father tell a joke?
RIVERS: My dad was a doctor. I think comedy truly is in - it's go look in your DNA, and they're going to find a comedy gene. My dad was a wonderful doctor. To this day people will come up and say your father was my mother's doctor, she died laughing. My father was a funny, funny man, as well as an incredible doctor.
My sister is a lawyer and I think still the youngest woman law school graduate at Columbia University. And she, I think she wins her cases because she makes them laugh, besides being very smart. We're all funny. The family is funny.
GROSS: So if your parents were funny, did they approve of you going into show business? Did they appreciate your sense of humor?
RIVERS: No. A sense of humor, yes. No, it - and you remember, you have to look at the time it was. My sister wanted to be a lawyer, and we were smart kids, you know, we're Phi Beta Kappa, the whole stuff. If I had said I want to be a surgeon, my father would have said this is fabulous. If you want to be an engineer, this is fabulous.
When I said I want to be an actress, the family went into shock, because in my father's generation, whenever a prostitute would come into the office, they would say I'm an actress. So I was saying I wanted to be a prostitute. Of course, he should've looked at me: I couldn't have made a living.
RIVERS: The fleet was out, as far as I was concerned. But no, they were very upset. I had to literally leave home. I literally ran away from home, very dramatic, ran away from Larchmont and lived for a year before I came back.
GROSS: So were you considered like a loose woman because you were living alone and trying to make it in the world of entertainment?
RIVERS: Yeah, they just didn't know what I was. I was bringing - when I got friendly with them again and went back to Larchmont a little bit - 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 cup of water, take it out and shake your hand.
RIVERS: Woody was very weird, and brilliant, but they didn't see that far.
GROSS: Was he comfortable around your parents?
RIVERS: Nobody was comfortable around my - I was from a very upper-middle-class suburban home. And you know, I wasn't comfortable for a while. And then of course we all started doing well. And my parents, lucky for me, thank God, lived to see me successful. That's so important for a parent to know a child is going to be OK.
GROSS: Did coming from a, what did you say, an upper-middle-class suburban...
GROSS: Did coming from that background helped or hurt you in any way as a comic?
RIVERS: It doesn't matter if there was pain in the house or pain in your own mind. And as I said, going back to your first thing that we talked about, I was this lumpy fat child that wanted to be an actress. I stole my picture off the piano when I was eight years old and sent it to MGM.
GROSS: Did you really? Seriously?
RIVERS: Yes. And my mother kept saying, where is the frame with Joan's picture in it? I sent them with the frame.
GROSS: That's so funny because the picture that was framed over the piano of me and my brother when I was growing up, if I was sending a picture to MGM, I certainly wouldn't want them to see that picture, which was your...
GROSS: ...you know, you're kind of like photo house hack, photo, you know what I mean? It was like...
RIVERS: Was it colored in?
GROSS: It was colored in with that fake coloring.2
RIVERS: Yes. Of course. Yes. Yes.
GROSS: It was like bad oil colors were something.
RIVERS: Yes. Yes. Yes. Exactly. The lips are a little too pink.
GROSS: Yes. Exactly.
RIVERS: The cheeks are a little too pink.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. It was horrible. I can't believe you sent that. Did you get a response?
RIVERS: Not a word.
GROSS: I'm not surprised.
RIVERS: They didn't even send the frame back. Come on.
GROSS: I can't believe you sent it in the frame.
RIVERS: I was so stupid.
GROSS: Did you write a letter?
RIVERS: Just yeah, like (unintelligible) as much as you could write it eight or nine: I really think I could be a good actress.
GROSS: It's interesting, you sent it directly to MGM and not to an agent.
RIVERS: Yeah, I didn't know - at nine, who's an agent?
RIVERS: I thought they were going to say, look at this little fat pig here. We could use her in a farm movie.
GROSS: So did you at some point say I have to lose weight?
RIVERS: No. Still haven't. Still haven't.
GROSS: Come on.
RIVERS: I try and I'd starve all day and then I'd eat Milk Duds.
GROSS: Yeah, but you are so thin. I mean...
RIVERS: No, I'm not. Truly, I'm not being cute.
GROSS: Oh, no, no. Let's not go there.
RIVERS: No, let's not go there. You know, like you sit with these thin women that say I can't, I don't eat. You want to say, you eat two meals, one going down and one coming up.
GROSS: Right. I hear what you're saying. But you had your issues with food and dieting, didn't you?
RIVERS: Always. Always. And I am a closet bulimic. Right after my husband committed suicide, all I did was throw up, and someone explained to me that was, of course, that was the only control I had over my life at the moment. Maybe. You know, I know I look good.
GROSS: Have you ever wished that you didn't care that much about how you look?
RIVERS: Wrong society.
GROSS: Wrong business too, I guess.
RIVERS: Wrong - any business.
GROSS: So when you were getting started, what was the balance between feeling a sense of camaraderie with other young performers, like Woody Allen, and who else did you mention?
RIVERS: Oh, Dick Cavett, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, we were all running around. Babsie as I call her behind her back, Babsie S., Barbra Streisand, we were all down there at the same time in the Village. Bob Dylan.
GROSS: So - OK, so you weren't directly competing with Bob Dylan because you were doing different things.
GROSS: But what was the balance between camaraderie and competition that you felt with this circle of people?
RIVERS: Well, first of all, I was the only girl down there, so they didn't really feel they were competitive with me. But what they didn't get was I didn't think of myself as a girl. I just thought of myself as I'm funnier than you, you know, so it was very interesting. So where they perhaps were not as competitive with me, I was beyond competitive with them.
But we all were friends and we all had a great sense of not taking each others' material, and that was a wonderful moment because up to then, you know, the generation before us, they stole each other's - if somebody - and there's some people now, I'm not want to mention names, that come down and see young comics and just take their material.
GROSS: It must be hard way not to take other people's material because sometimes - I know with myself sometimes I'll think of something and I'm not really sure, did I come up with that or did I hear it somewhere?
GROSS: I think I came up with it but it sounds a little familiar to me. Maybe I heard it somewhere. And sometimes you honestly don't know.
RIVERS: Oh, you don't know. I very seldom go to comedy clubs because I don't want to have to walk up to somebody after a show and say, you're not going to believe this but I'm doing good joke that is just about the same. They will never believe that. And on my reality show, "Joan and Melissa," which is renewed for our third year...
RIVERS: And - thank you. Oh, you have no idea. Thank you. Thank you. I'm so happy. I have a big fight with Lynne Koplitz, who is a friend of mine, very good standup comedian who claimed she was doing a joke, and we did it in the reality show. And I said, Lynne, I've been doing this joke for six months, and she says, well, I've been doing it for a year. Well, the point is I didn't know. So I'm very careful sometimes not to go and see young comics.
GROSS: So can I ask you another serious question?
GROSS: One of the issues when you get to the age of 79 is that you've outlived a lot of friends.
GROSS: And relatives. So...
RIVERS: It's awful.
RIVERS: And I have beyond amazing health, and I'm running around on stage. Someone said you work like a rock star, you know, just all over the stage. You - the loss is horrific, and when I go upstairs at night - this sounds so stupid - I always turn to my living room and I say, goodnight Orin. He was the man I lived with for nine years. Goodnight, Orin. Goodnight, Edgar. Goodnight, Uncle Tommy, who was my best friend.
And it's terribly sad. You cannot - that's the only sad thing about age. You can't bring back the ones you really loved, and that is why, little miss sunshine, when I have a fight with a friend, I never - two negatives. I never do not make up with them. I make up with up with them immediately if I care for them. I will not let a day go by. Life is too short these days. How about that for a nice serious stupid note?
GROSS: That's a nice note. I mean, I appreciate that sentiment. So it's been so wonderful to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
RIVERS: I love talking to you. Every time they say, you want to talk to her? I go, yes.
GROSS: Well, good. Thank you so much. I'm so glad you came back and congratulations on the book. It's really funny.
RIVERS: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
GROSS: Joan Rivers recorded in June after the publication of her book "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." You can read an excerpt of it on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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