Saturday, November 9, 2013

Funny Business: Mark Griffin Interviews Joan Rivers

photo credit: Charles William Bush
She is New York City in a dress.  She's fast talking, all revved up and unapologetically in your face.  Joan Rivers is an inexhaustible powerhouse who has built her long and multi-faceted career on telling it like it is and letting it all hang out.

"For me, the fun of being on stage is that I can say everything that everyone else is thinking but wouldn't ever dream of saying aloud," says Rivers.  "Being on stage gives me the opportunity and the privilege of saying, 'Are you crazy?  Come on, this one is a bitch and this one is a tramp and exactly who are we kidding here?"

Outrageous and unsparing, Rivers is packing up her trademark pink boa and heading for the last place you'd expect to find a Phi Beta Kappa turned Vegas headliner turned QVC queen: Southern Maine.  When Rivers lands at Merrill Auditorium on November 22, her appearance will be the highlight of a diverse season of Portland Ovations presentations.  But how will audiences accustomed to the likes of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain respond to the uncensored Rivers at full throttle?

"Sweet, darling, tranquil Maine has cable and everyone there is part of the audience that's watching me on Fashion Police or tuning in to Breaking Bad," Rivers says.  "So I'm not worried for a second about how I'll be received.  Maine has gone universal and everything has become so global now.  In fact, I'm sure there's a great bagel shop somewhere in Portland, Maine.  And I'll bet there's someone eating sushi in Maine right now as we're talking.  Everything is so one world now that it's frightening.  I find it hilarious that when I'm in some remote place like Peru, someone will rush up to me and say, 'Oh, we love you, Joan!' and I'm thinking...Peru? The whole world has now become like one small village."

photo credit: Charles William Bush
Rivers, who turned 80 earlier this year, is a self-described "small industry."  She regularly rakes celebrities over the coals on the E! Channel hit Fashion Police. "God bless the Kardashian girls.  God bless Rihanna.  God bless Miley Cyrus," Rivers says of the tabloid fixtures that have inspired some of her most memorable zingers.  Never one to sit still, Rivers teams with her daughter, Melissa for the WE-tv reality show, Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, which was recently renewed for a fourth season.  And Rivers's no holes barred web chat show, In Bed With Joan, has her hitting the hay (so to speak) with everyone from RuPaul to Carmen Electra.  If all that weren't enough, next year the comedian embarks on her highly anticipated "Before They Close The Lid" tour.  So what makes Rivers run?

"I'm in a business where there is no guarantee on anything," says Rivers.  "A friend of mine literally didn't know that his television series had been cancelled until his agent called him up and said, 'I'm sorry but it's already in the papers...' There is no security in our business, unless you're very lucky like a Jerry Seinfeld and you own a piece of a humongous hit...But I've been lucky, too.  I'm one of those few people that found what they love to do and I've been doing it all my life and I never stop enjoying it."

For Rivers, the road to multi-media domination has been long and winding.  After graduating from Barnard College, the demure English lit major from Larchmont who dreamed of being an actress realized that she had a gift for making people laugh.  Rivers began refining her stand-up technique in seedy nightclubs ("We'd pass the hat and sometimes the hat wouldn't come back") and strip joints, where she was billed as "Pepper January - Comedy with Spice." 

In 1959, Rivers appeared in an off-off Broadway play entitled Driftwood.  Also featured in the show was an aspiring young actress from Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall High School named Barbara Streisand.  "It wasn't so much off Broadway.  It was actually above Broadway, as in six flights up," Rivers remembers.  "My poor parents had to climb six flights to see this terrible play.  The playwright had turned his living room into a theatre on East Forty-ninth Street.  And I was there with my little friend, 'Babsie' Streisand.  She was still Barbara Streisand then, with all three a's in her first name and I was still Joan Molinsky.  It was such a bad play.  They had originally offered it to Geraldine Page, who was then married to an actor named Ralph Meeker. Both of them could read, so they turned it down.  Then the director started to look for smaller names - a lot smaller - and they ended up with Barbra, who was still a senior in high school and they couldn't get anyone to play the male lead.  I read the script and I said, 'Can't we make this about two women?  Turn them into lesbians!'  And this was very edgy for the time.  So I became Barbra Streisand's lover in Driftwood."          

Rivers next became a "girl writer" for The Ed Sullivan Show and Candid Camera.  In 1965, after what Rivers describes as "seven years of rejection and humiliation," she made an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and the host predicted on air: "You're going to be a star." 

Eventually Rivers would become the first and only permanent guest host of The Tonight Show and she says Carson taught her an important lesson about holding back until show time.  "He believed you should always 'save it for the screen.'  He'd walk right past you in the make-up room and barely say hello to you before the show,' Rivers recalls.  "He wanted all of that energy out there on the set.  Because if you've already blown all of the good stuff like 'How's your wife?' or "I heard your dog isn't well...' then what are you going to talk about on camera?"

photo credit: Charles William Bush
Rivers says Carson never spoke to her again after she left The Tonight Show to launch her own ill-fated late night venture on the Fox Network in 1986.  Only months after Rivers was ousted from her own show, her 62-year-old husband-manager Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in a Philadelphia hotel room.  Though devastated by the tragedy, Rivers soldiered on.  "I had bills.  I had professional commitments.  Though what truly pulled me through was my obligation to my daughter, Melissa," Rivers says. "I had to be there for her.  What a legacy that would have been otherwise.  'Surprise, surprise.  Your daddy killed himself and look, now mommy killed herself, too...Now go out and have a good world.'  I just had to keep going for her."

The day after her Portland Ovations appearance, Rivers will headline back to back shows at Boston's Wilbur Theatre.  Carol Ann Small, a motivational humorist based in Melrose, Mass., bought her tickets minutes after they went on sale.  Small, the founder of Laughter With A Lesson, is hoping to meet her idol backstage between engagements.  "As a funny lady and a fellow blonde - notice that I didn't say 'natural blonde' - Joan Rivers has always been an inspiration to me," says Small.  "To this day, Joan continues to pave the way for women in comedy and I'm thrilled that she's finally being recognized as a pioneer."

So does Rivers see herself as a trailblazer?  "I see myself as a desperate woman trying to slap Kathy Griffin and Whitney Cummings out of the way so that I can get back on the stage," Rivers admits.  "I feel so competitive.  Whenever another comedian says to me, 'You're an icon' or 'You're a legend,' I want to say, 'And darling, I can still take you with one hand tied behind my back.'"

Rivers says that's she counting on two things when she arrives in Vacationland: "I'm delighted to come to Maine and I bet it's going to be filled with snow, which I'm very excited about.  Also, they tell me that I'm going to have the equivalent of the gay men's choir up there, which I hope is true."  Rivers readily acknowledges that the gay community has always been a key component of her fan base.  "I think they like me because I'm outspoken and then on a serious level, I was the first performer to come out fighting against AIDS when it was still being called 'Gay Pneumonia.'  I did the first benefit and we got such hate mail that we had to have armed guards on stage.  We even got death threats.  I think somehow the community remembers that I lived through that with them. And beyond all of that, I just think that I am a gay man living in a fat Jewish woman's body."

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