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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The comedian Joan Rivers offers no apologies for her brand of humor - it's bawdy, it's self-deprecating, it's funny and yes, we should warn you, it can also be offensive.

Ms. JOAN RIVERS (Comedienne/Talk Show Host): Paul and Heather McCartney - I called that a year ago. Oh, he hasn't got a leg to stand on. Ha ha ha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: No (unintelligible).

NORRIS: For Joan Rivers, almost everything is fair game - race, sex, death and, of course, her life. Tonight, she opens in her autobiographical play, "Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress." It's at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

We spoke to Joan Rivers from her apartment in Los Angeles about her play, her comedy and her life. I asked her if things were tougher when she started out in the 1960s as a female comedian.

Ms. RIVERS: I never thought about that. I never worried about women. I've never worried about any of that stuff. If there were a few women, good, I stood out more. You know, when people say, oh my God, you're a woman, how difficult. Baloney. If Hitler came back - I swear to you - if Hitler came back, Michele, with seven good jokes, we would say, you know, there was a whole other side to Adolf we didn't realize. Anybody that's funny, they'll accept.

NORRIS: Was that in some ways a weapon for you to deal with the rough stuff in life?

Ms. RIVERS: Totally. It still is. I still laugh about everything. Last night, they pulled me over for drunken driving. I was coming from having dinner with my daughter and my grandson in a Chinese restaurant.

NORRIS: When you say they, you're talking about the men in blue.

Ms. RIVERS: Yes. LAPD. They got me out, they were having me walk the line and touch my nose. And I just found it hilarious. And they said, touch your nose. I said, I can only touch part of it, the rest is in New York with a plastic surgeon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: And he just stared at me like, oh, this lady really is drunk. But I've spent my whole life, comedy is such a great way of getting through anything, anything in life. Everything - my mother's death, my husband's suicide, the first time I came back on air or in a nightclub after my husband's suicide, I said that it was my fault, because we were making love and I took the bag off my head. And everybody gasped. But that got me through my husband's suicide.

NORRIS: You've always talked so openly and frankly, so much, about your husband's death.

Ms. RIVERS: Well, it was a major thing in my life, and I work very hard — we're talking seriously now — for suicide survivors. And I think that I've become, in a way, a very good example of life goes on, you will be happy again, and mainly, it ain't your fault.

NORRIS: You know, Joan, a lot of your humor is very - is self-deprecating, and sometimes you turn the mirror on yourself, and you do it for laugh, but the knife that you use is very sharp. How do you draw the line there, if you're the butt of your own joke, to make sure that you walk off that stage with yourself intact, with your head held high.

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, my head is never held high.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: I just go for the joke, my God. I am so bored with everybody worrying, will this offend? I am so bored with political correctness. I mean, I play a lot of these wonderful Indian casinos, and I talk about how ugly Pocahontas was. And, you know, every once in a while the elders would get a little upset. But, you know, that's why Lewis and Clark ran across the country because she was running behind them, wait for me guys. You know, it's just funny. Things - everyone should just calm down.

Filipinos do eat dog. I have a Filipino neighbor who says, I don't eat dog and she's standing there with a leash hanging out of her mouth. It's okay. It's okay. It's a national custom. That's fine.

NORRIS: I'm listening to you; lord, I can imagine the letters that we're going to get.

Ms. RIVERS: I know. But so what? I don't get it. If everyone would just relax, we'd all be much happier.

NORRIS: How do you choose your subjects? Because I remember there was a time when you really had it in for Elizabeth Taylor.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah. We'll everybody did. But I…

NORRIS: Oh, no. You really had it in for Elizabeth Taylor.

Ms. RIVERS: I had the best Elizabeth Taylor jokes. Yes. I was the first one to say she's fat.

NORRIS: Actually, I remember the joke. The joke that I remember is you said that she would stand in front of a microwave…

Ms. RIVERS: And yell, hurry. She went to Sea World, she saw Shamu. She said, does he come with mustard? I don't know. You know - there were a million jokes. But you know, I never wanted to hurt her. And she's a very good friend of a friend of mine, Ronnie McDowell, the actor, and I said, ask her. If it's really annoying her, I'll stop. And she said - she had such self-confidence - and she said, tell Joan, it doesn't hurt me where I live.

NORRIS: Are people afraid of you?

Ms. RIVERS: Not the smart ones.

NORRIS: Hmm.

Ms. RIVERS: You know, I mean, I love being on the red carpet and Julia Roberts would come over and say to me. Okay, say it to my face. Or Sarah Jessica Parker would say, look at the shoes, are they ridiculous or what? Those are the ones that you adore.

NORRIS: You know, I'm curious because you - you know, there are a lot of people who stand on your shoulders. And I wonder what you think of the younger crop of female comics that are working today.

Ms. RIVERS: Let me tell you something…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: I could take them all on with one hand still.

NORRIS: Well, smell you.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah, I know. But you have to - you'd have to know I'm truly working the best angle, and that's age. Age has freed me that I don't have to hold back on anything. I've never worked so strongly and so freely in my life. And that's because I have nothing to lose. I've already been fired. I've already been bankrupt. I've already had the suicide. I've already had my daughter not talk to me for a while. I've already done all kinds of things, had things taken from me. It's okay. So I might as well say what I think.

NORRIS: Well, now you're doing this four-character, autobiographical play.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

NORRIS: Is this something that you've been carrying around with you for a long time?

Ms. RIVERS: Well, I found out when I looked back, I write a play every 10 years. Every decade.

NORRIS: And we should say that this takes place in a dressing room…

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

NORRIS: …and there's a producer there. And you're in a dressing room and it's particular, this is dressing room B, not dressing room A.

Ms. RIVERS: This is dressing room B. They didn't give me the star dressing room. And I do say one thing which I love, at the very start of the play, which is absolutely true. If you want to know what management thinks of you, when you walk in to your dressing room, you check your cheese plate. Because the cheese plate will tell you everything. And you know about your ratings, you know about your popularity, you know about your next contract negotiations, all you have to do is check your cheese.

NORRIS: And - okay. So on the set, what does your cheese plate look like?

Ms. RIVERS: I have Laughing Cow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: When you have to unwrap it. You know already, Michele, that you're not number one, when somebody…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: But you know exactly what I'm telling you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: When the bathroom's down the hall, honey, you ain't it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Joan Rivers, this has been more fun than someone should have when they're on the clock. Thank you very much.

Ms. RIVERS: Thank you. A pleasure.

NORRIS: Joan Rivers' autobiographical play, "Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress," opens tonight at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. For a sneak preview, go to our Web site, npr.org. And, of course, the views expressed by Joan Rivers are her own and not those of National Public Radio.

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