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With Age, Joan Rivers Learned To Say Anything: 'It Has Freed Me Totally'

The comedian died Thursday at the age of 81. Rivers talked with Fresh Air is 1991, 2010 and 2012 about how her comedy evolved -- and why she didn't care what others thought of her.

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Transcript

September 5th, 2014

Guest: Joan Rivers

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. On today's show, we pay tribute to Joan Rivers who died Thursday at age 81. As a standup comedian, she broke onto the scene aggressively and impressively in the '60s, turning brief appearances on such programs as "Candid Camera" and "The Ed Sullivan Show" into star-making turns. Her standup act evolved into an intentionally brash showcase of can we talk confessionals. But Joan Rivers had much more up her sleeve and much more ambition. In 1973, she wrote a very clever made-for-TV movie starring a then-unknown Stockard Channing titled "The Girl Most Likely To."

It was a revenge fantasy about an unattractive college girl who after an accident has extensive plastic surgery and emerges as a thinner, sexier version of herself and sets out to seduce and punish all those who had made fun of her in school. On "The Tonight Show" as both a guest of and substitute host for Johnny Carson, she was reliably quotable and popular until she left that nest to start her own talk show on Fox, a program that officially launched that network back in the '80s. With her willingness to talk openly and candidly about even her Hollywood peers, Joan Rivers opened up other avenues for herself, as well. Her obsession with fashion led to decades as a Red Carpet staple, all but inventing the form of the pre-show interview while reserving the right to be negative as well as flattering. Entire cable networks have been built on her padded shoulders or by copying and emulating her approach. And you could even argue that Joan Rivers both pre-dated and pre-figured the Internet by commenting on every hot celebrity and current topic and saying exactly what she thought even if those thoughts often were brutal and caustic.

But unlike the anonymous posters on the Internet, Joan Rivers always delivered her one-liners as herself with full attribution and with nowhere to hide. She owned whatever she said. And for decades, whether talking about her looks or her family or her fellow celebrities, she never held back. That was true, too, whenever she appeared on FRESH AIR to talk with Terry Gross. Today, we'll hear excerpts of the three interviews Terry conducted over the years with Joan Rivers. One of them was in 2010 after the release of the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work." Let's start with a clip from that film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK")

JOAN RIVERS: Age, it's the one mountain that you can't overcome. It's a youth society, and nobody wants you. You're too old, you're too old, you're too old. If one more woman comedian comes up and says to me: You opened the doors for me and you want to say, go (BEEP) yourself. I'm still opening the doors.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

That's Joan Rivers from the new documentary about her. Joan Rivers, welcome to FRESH AIR, and happy birthday. We're recording this on your birthday.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: Yuck. Thank you very much. Yes, we are.

GROSS: And you've just turned 77.

RIVERS: Yeah, I know.

GROSS: Yuck, you said yuck. Is that how you're feeling about it?

RIVERS: Well, no, I just don't believe what I am, and people say what are you going to do on your birthday? I say I'm 77. I'm going to get my 77th facelift. That's what I'm going to do.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So in the clip that we just heard, you talked about how you opened a lot of doors, and you're still opening doors. You were one of the first women comics to really make it, the first woman to host a late-night show. And you also had different material. You made jokes about abortion, jokes about sex.

RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: What was it like early on when you were telling the kind of blue joke that other women weren't saying?

RIVERS: Well, I was the first one to discuss abortion, as you just said, and it was very rough. And we show in the film, I couldn't even say the word abortion. I had to say she had 14 appendectomies. Everybody went to Cuba to get appendectomies or went to Puerto Rico to get appendectomies. I was the first one that dared to make jokes about it. And by making jokes about it, you brought it into a position where you could look at it and deal with it. It was no longer something that you couldn't discuss and had to whisper about. When you whisper about something, it's too big and you can't get it under control and take control of it, and that's what I still do.

GROSS: So what did you have to say about abortion that first time?

RIVERS: Just that my friend had 14 abortions, and she was lucky because she was Jewish, she married, finally, one of the abortion doctors. It ended up happy for her mother. My daughter married a doctor.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: Even discussing that my mother wanted me desperately to get married and had a sign up - it sounds so silly now - she had a sign up: Last girl before freeway.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: And people said: You can't say that. You can't talk about things like that. But in those days, that was pushing the envelope. And it's so funny because I opened things for women that weren't then able to talk about.

GROSS: Has what was you think is funny or what you want to talk about on stage changed with age?

RIVERS: Good question. It changed tremendously with my age because I am so much freer now because I always say: What are you going to do? Are you going to fire me? Been fired. Going to be bankrupt? Been bankrupt. Some people aren't going to talk to me? Happened. Banned from networks? Happened. So I can say anything I want, and it has freed me totally, totally.

GROSS: So what can you talk about now that you wouldn't have dared to before?

RIVERS: I lived with a man for nine years that had one leg. So I do a lot of things about how I hate - I use the use the term purposely cripples. And if you're crippled, just get out of the room right now because I've had nine years of pushing somebody around. And half the audience gets crazy, and half the audience loves it because you're saying things people don't want to say, and it's never the person in the wheelchair. People in the wheelchair laugh about it. It's the people that are scared to face something and laugh about it and make it okay.

GROSS: Can I just pick up on that and play an excerpt that I found really amazing from the documentary about you? And you're on stage doing comedy in Wisconsin, and you're making a joke and...

RIVERS: Northern Wisconsin.

GROSS: Thank you.

RIVERS: You know what I mean? Wisconsin with fir trees. Yeah, so northern Wisconsin. Go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: All right. So anyway, so you're talking about children here, and I'll just let the clip play.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK")

RIVERS: I hate children. Eww. The only child that I think I would have liked ever was Helen Keller because she didn't talk.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That isn't very funny.

RIVERS: Yes it is, and if you don't, then leave...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It isn't funny if you have a deaf son.

RIVERS: I happen to have a deaf mother. Oh, you stupid ass, let me tell you what comedy is about.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Go ahead and tell me about it.

RIVERS: Oh, please, you are so stupid. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot.

(APPLAUSE)

RIVERS: My mother is deaf, you stupid son of a bitch. Don't tell me. And just in case you can hear me in the hallway, I lived for nine years with a man with one leg. OK, you ass(BEEP). I was going to talk about what it's like to have a man with one leg who lost it in World War II and then went back to get it because that's (BEEP) littering.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: So don't you tell me what's funny.

GROSS: So that's Joan Rivers in a clip from the new documentary about her, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." Wow, you really gave it to him.

RIVERS: But first of all...

GROSS: And, by the way, I should say, in case people couldn't hear what he was saying: That's not funny if you have a deaf son.

RIVERS: A deaf son.

GROSS: Yeah.

RIVERS: But that is funny because you - first of all, where are we going to start? I was doing a thing about noisy children, how I hate noisy children on an airplane. And then I said the only child I would like would be Helen Keller. It's a joke. I'm a comedian you paid $60 to make you laugh. It's a silly joke. He obviously had such anger and emotion in him and took it so personally, and it just made me afterwards terribly sad. But you have to say to him: It's funny. It's OK. Your son would laugh at that. My mother at the end was deaf, absolutely couldn't hear anything, and we used to laugh about it. And you laugh about it, you deal with it. You better deal with life and get over it and make it funny because otherwise, it's so sad.

GROSS: What are some of the most painful things that have happened to you that you've ended up making jokes about on stage?

RIVERS: Oh, where do you start? My husband's suicide.

GROSS: Right.

RIVERS: Some man, 60 years old, that couldn't take the business and went and killed himself. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with that when you've got a 16-year-old daughter who gets the call? Huh? And I'll tell you how you deal with that. You go through it, and you make jokes about it, and you continue with it, and you move forward. That's how you do it, or that's how I do it. Everyone handles things differently. How do you make jokes about - how do you deal with bankruptcy? How do you deal with you're fired from Fox when your numbers were still good, and you can't get a job for a year and a half? You do it. And I do it by making jokes.

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. After a break, we'll continue with an earlier conversation from 1991. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Today’s show is a tribute to comic Joan Rivers, who died yesterday at age 81. She was famous for saying what she really thought, even when the topics were unusually dark or intensely personal.

When Rivers was on FRESH AIR in 1991, it was just four years after her husband Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide. Terry asked her about returning to stand-up comedy after such a tragic event. After all, so many of her jokes had been about Edgar.

GROSS: Now, you say that your audience didn't want you to be sexual when you went back to comedy. What kinds of jokes weren’t going over?

RIVERS: You know, I'm not a sexual person, certainly on stage and they loved hearing about my sex life when I was married. They didn't want to see a 52-year-old woman at that point talking about dating and - they just didn't want to hear it. And there was just one joke which is so indicative. I had written this joke saying, I don't think I'm good in bed, I said to a man last night - why don't you call out my name while we’re making love? And he said, I don’t want to wake you up. And that got such a gasp from the audience. So I changed the joke to say, I don't think I was good in bed when I was married. I once said to my husband, why don’t you call out my name would while we’re making love? And he said, I don't want to wake you up. And it got a big response. And I realized right then and there they didn't want to hear dating jokes or any kind of - any innuendo about sex from me - currently. Not that there was any, but you know, you're writing a joke.

(Laughter)

RIVERS: You write these jokes - you know, you come up - well, I’ll do a whole thing on going out with a man, he tries to make out with me - you know, something like that. Or, I try to make out with him. And I realized they didn’t want to hear that from me.

GROSS: Now, so much of your material over the years has been about how you look - you know, about feeling unattractive, about being too heavy, about not being sexy. Yet for years, you’re onstage look has been positively glamorous. You have gorgeous clothes, you're incredibly thin. You’ve gone through plastic surgery. I mean, you look terrific. So does it ever feel like the material is out of sync with who you really are, who you’ve really become?

RIVERS: Oh - No, no, no, no, no. You try - everybody tries. Look, I don't know one person listening out there that gets up in the morning and says, I think I’m going to pick the ugliest outfit and I'm going to try to look really unattractive today. We all try to look the best we can and I’ve just done the best I can with this package, you know? But, I still diet all the time and I try to look good and the wrinkles are coming on. No, I don’t look hot at all. I look good - good for what I started out as, but that's it. They look at me on stage and they go, yeah, she’s right - she is a pig. There’s no question about that.

GROSS: So your self-image is still in keeping with the kind of jokes you tell about yourself?

RIVERS: Oh, yes. Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Do you still tell jokes about being heavy?

RIVERS: Of course. I get on a scale twice a day. And I am still heavy - I’ve seen myself in a bathing suit. This is not thin - you know, skinny-mini over here. My thighs - a family of 18 could live on them for a year if you put ketchup on them.

GROSS: (Laughter). See, I think that's a very funny joke, but I look at you and I think that you know, you’re seeing somebody different in the mirror than who you really are.

RIVERS: I hope so. I hope so because what I see in the mirror - boy, I don't like.

GROSS: Why did being overweight and feeling, you know, that you weren’t attractive have such a profound effect on you?

RIVERS: Well, I think it has a profound effect on everybody. I mean, when they write in your yearbook here comes fat-fat the water rat, you don't forget that. That ruined your yearbook. You don’t forget it when you come down the stairs in college and a blind says out loud to the guy standing next to him, why didn't you tell me? These are things that scar you very, very deeply. And stay that way, you know - that’s it.

GROSS: How did you feel about the recent TV Guide cover story on celebrity plastic surgery - and the cover had a before-and-after picture of you on it?

RIVERS: I don't get plastic surgery. Celebrities will tell you they were raped by their mothers, they were beaten, incest - I mean, they will tell you the most - one comedian you know would say how her parents took excrement and put all over her, you know? And you say to them, did you have a facelift? What me? Never.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: And everybody has done it. And I just think people should - see and I get taken - tell the truth. What is so terrible to say I want to look better and I had my nose thinned. I want to look better and yes - I mean, Jane Fonda - who was into exercise, as we all know has had the facelifts, has had the boobs done, has had God knows what and that's fine. Why are we playing this game? I don't get it. So I was delighted to come out and say to my audience I'm going in now because my eyes look like hell and I'm getting a really bad under the chin look - delighted to do it.

GROSS: I’ll tell you the problem I have with plastic surgery and tell me what you think of it. I think that we’re just creating this just impossible ideal. And I think of like, the young Joan Rivers who was uncomfortable with how she looked. Imagine if she felt she had to live up to the kind of body and face that could only be created by surgeons?

RIVERS: Let me just tell you something - and that’s very nice to say and I’m already bored to death. Let me just tell you something - we’re in a business where you have to look good. Where they fire people because they're getting old. And it's very easy to say, let's grow old - the public doesn't want to see an old puss giving the news and you know it - and talk to Jane Pauley at 40.

GROSS: I was interested to read about the working method that you developed early on for writing your jokes. You said that you can't just sit down and write jokes, you needed to like, work off somebody. So you used to have Rodney Dangerfield come over.

RIVERS: Yes, yes. We were all very young in those days.

GROSS: So tell me how you would work together; what the process was like.

RIVERS: Process is just - I come out of Second City which is all you know, verbal, verbal, verbal. We would sit and just start saying, OK - answering machines. Let’s do jokes on answering machines. Well, OK, my answering machine - I'm so boring, my answering machine doesn't even pick up. No, that’s not good enough. OK, let’s do answering machine - all right, how about - I'm so boring, my answering machine put me on hold. Good. I mean, you just keep - the process is you just bounce from one another, bounce from one another until you find something you like.

GROSS: So Rodney Dangerfield was somebody good to bounce off of?

RIVERS: Wonderful - he was wonderful. Another man named Marshall Brickman, who wrote all of the early Woody Allen movies with Woody, who’s now writing himself and directing himself. Marshall’s a joy because you would come in and sit and laugh until you found something good.

GROSS: Have you ever had people writing for you?

RIVERS: Oh, of course. And anyone out there that thinks they’re funny, please send me some jokes. I’d pay 10 bucks for every joke that I use.

GROSS: Gee, that’s not a lot.

RIVERS: It is when I buy the joke and pay for it before I’ve even tested it.

GROSS: Oh, you mean like, if I send you any lousy old thing, you’d pay me $10?

RIVERS: Oh, no, no, no. They send me like, a bunch of jokes and I’ll say let me - I think I'll try this one, this one, this one, this one. I think I’ll try four. So I’ll send them a check for $40 then I take those four jokes and try them out. And if you're lucky, one joke out of 15 works, one joke out of 20 works, one joke out of 100 really works. It's very hard. Everyone sees different ideas of what is funny. And when I write jokes myself and they don't work, it's very hard for me because I think, but that's funny - why aren't you laughing?

GROSS: When you were subbing for Carson, did his writers write any of your opening monologues?

RIVERS: No because his writers - and they were right to do that - would give me the jokes they didn't want to give Johnny, which means Johnny got the good jokes. Johnny was paying them. If you write a brilliant joke, who are you going to give it to? The guy that’s paying you or the girl that comes in once a week, who has nothing to do with your life or your future? So they didn't give me good jokes so I would come in with my own.

GROSS: Well, also there's something that so much like, from a woman's point of view about your jokes - I'm sure all of his writers, or at least most of them certainly, were men.

RIVERS: And again, the funniest jokes of course come from me. It truly ends up what I think is funny - my perception of something always is the strongest in my act.

GROSS: When you started to perform did you look up to the few women who were in the field, like Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Selma Diamond?

RIVERS: No. I never think in terms of comedy as male or female-oriented. I looked at Lenny Bruce because he told the truth. He told the truth. And as a very impressionable young woman and right out of college, the first time I saw him I went - but he’s saying what I’m thinking. Maybe not with those words because in those days you just didn’t say the words that he said, but - he’s saying what I’m thinking and that's what I want say on stage.

GROSS: What was your early material like before you’d really kind of developed the Joan Rivers persona?

RIVERS: Very shocking in those days. I played my first record, which really was my successful record from 1966 called “Mr. Phyllis And Other Stories,” which is about my hairdresser. And I played it for Melissa and the record in those days was like - did you hear what this girl has on a record? I mean, you know, they didn't even know my name at that point. And my daughter and I said, isn't that sweet? In 1966 to say you are having an affair with a married man and while he was engaged to me his wife became pregnant, which is one of my jokes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RIVERS: My joke was, while he became engaged to me, his wife became pregnant so I don’t think he’s sincere, was my joke. This shocked audiences and my daughter and I said, isn't that cute? So what was shocking then is not shocking now. But I was always shocking, within the framework of the time period.

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers, speaking to Terry Gross in 1991. We’ll hear an excerpt from their most recent conversation recorded two years ago in the second half of the show.

I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli in for Terry Gross back with more of today's tribute to Joan Rivers, who died yesterday at age 81. The last time Terry spoke with Joan Rivers was in 2012 after the publication of Joan’s new book. Its title was “I Hate Everyone, Starting With Me.” But fortunately talking with Terry on FRESH AIR was not one of the things Joan hated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: 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, 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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. 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: 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?

GROSS: Since you didn't grow up in an apartment building, I think you really missed out on something, because you talk about making a scene. I grew up in an apartment building. I heard so many fights from my neighbors - really, really, like, loud fights. And I'd sometimes put my ear - I shouldn't confess this, but I'd sometimes put my ear to the wall or to the floor to better hear, like, what is this about, why are they going at each other like this.

God forbid my family would be like that or that I would be like that. It was just so - it was like theater. It was like theater of argument.

RIVERS: Yes, yes. And then you meet them, they're smiling. And you go: I know you hate each other. I hate, not so much - I hate things like - 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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?

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: How old was Myrtle? What size was your wife? My God, I'm the same size as Isabel.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about a guest shot that you did on Louis C.K.'s show.

RIVERS: I love him.

GROSS: Oh, so do I, so do I. And we had him on the show. I asked him about this scene. So now I want to ask you about the scene. And let me just set it up. I'm going to play a clip. So in this - and Louis C.K. is a great comic, and he has his own show called "Louie," and Anyways, in this scene, from the second season, he's working, doing standup at the lounge, at a Trump casino in Atlantic City, and he's actually told jokes about Donald Trump that didn't go over big with the manager. So the manager asked him to, like, cut the jokes or leave.

And Louie refuses to compromise his principles as a comic, so he quits, and then he runs into you because you're performing in the main nightclub. And you're shocked that he quit, and then you have this conversation in which you give him some advice. So here's that conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOUIE")

RIVERS: (As herself) So you're in the lounge.

LOUIS C.K.: (As Louie) I was.

RIVERS: (As herself) You were fired?

LOUIS C.K.: (As Louie) I quit.

RIVERS: (As herself) What do you mean you quit? Nobody quits.

C.K.: (As Louie) I quit.

RIVERS: (As herself) Are you crazy? Are you a trust-fund baby, that you quit?

C.K.: (As Louie) No, it's just that they got upset because I was saying stuff about the casino and I was making fun of Trump, and...

RIVERS: (As herself) You're in a Trump hotel. You don't make fun of the owner of the hotel. Are you crazy? He's not going to hire a comedian who's going to say (bleep) Donald Trump.

C.K.: (As Louie) I know, but I just...

RIVERS: (As herself) Now, this is not an easy business. I mean, you want to try my life sometimes? I work in Arizona, how about that, in Indian casinos. Do you think that's easy? You tell a joke, they don't like it, instead of a tomato, they throw a tomahawk. What do you expect? I mean, you got a job. How lucky are you, for goodness sake?

C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah, but come on, you're in the nice theater here. They got me in the (bleep) lounge.

RIVERS: (As herself) I was in the (bleep) lounge, sweety-puss, two years ago. For all I know, I'll be back in the (bleep) lounge two years from now, and you'll be in the main room. Things change. That's the business. Look at the perks you're getting. You've got a job. You got a card for the free food in the employee cafeteria. I mean, stop bitching and go buy yourself a pocketbook that's lined in plastic and throw food in when they're not looking.

C.K.: (As Louie) Yeah, great.

RIVERS: (As herself) You know what's wrong with you guys? You don't know when you're lucky.

GROSS: That's Joan Rivers in a scene from Louis C.K.'s comedy show from the second season. So Joan Rivers, have you actually given this pep talk to younger comics?

RIVERS: No, because I hate younger comics...

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: Because they're taking work from me. But I love Louie. He knows his craft. But it's really true, you do not leave a job. In our business, you do not quit ‘cause you don't know where the next job is coming from.

GROSS: Did anyone ever give that advice to you?

RIVERS: No one gave me any advice. Nobody ever thought I was going to amount to anything.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: I was the last one in my group to go through. I was in a group with George Carlin and Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand and Simon and Garfunkel and Bill Cosby. They all got through ahead of me, all got through ahead of me. Nobody said to me maybe you're too rough, you're too wild, you're too whatever. No one gave me any advice.

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Today we’re paying tribute to Joan Rivers, who died yesterday at age 81. Let’s get back to Terry’s interview with Joan Rivers from 2012, they last time they spoke on FRESH AIR.

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 that's what I was telling Louis C.K.: You go through the doors, and you don't know which is going to be the one.

"Fashion Police" is the big show that I do now. I didn't want to do "Fashion Police." I thought: This is stupid, it's beneath me. Who wants to talk about fashion? It has taken off. We're number one in England on E! We're the number one show on the network. I mean, who knew? I try everything. I'm also known as a whore.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: You can - isn't she wonderful, she tries everything. Or she's the biggest whore in the business.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: 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 and she died laughing. 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.

(LAUGHTER)

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: How old were you?

RIVERS: About 24.

GROSS: You were still living at home when you were 24? It's a little old to run away.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: Well, it was a different age. You stayed home till you got married.

GROSS: True, right.

RIVERS: It was different times.

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.

(LAUGHTER)

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: You have a real confidence as a comic and performer and writer. Does that confidence carry over into your private life?

RIVERS: No. And let me tell you, the confidence came in the last seven months.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: I'm not making - you know when it came? I'm 79 years old and about four years ago I said I don't give a damn anymore. I'm going to say what I want on stage. I'm going to just do what I want to do on stage. And I'm so happy to be on stage and I love what I'm doing, and I think I'm doing the best ever and I've never felt this way before. But it's like a question of a - I think it's because when they started to put me on the shelf, you know, and again, they're all the young comedians say, you've broken the door down. And I want to say, sweetheart, look out, I will show you now what you do on stage. But that's the only place I'm confident. I can't pick a piece of fabric for my apartment. I don't know which shoe to put on. I'm totally...

GROSS: You're very indecisive and insecure? Mm-hmm.

RIVERS: ...insecure about everything. And insecure about the material until I've done it in front of an audience.

GROSS: Do you feel like you can comprehend how you could be both so insecure and so confident at the same time?

RIVERS: No. Nor do I care.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

RIVERS: You know, I'm not a deep person. I never analyze. Never analyze. I went to do the book, the oral book, you know, the book on tape, whatever you call it, the CD, and I read it and they kept saying, well, you're not laughing. I kept saying, well, I don't think it's funny. I don't know if it's funny. I don't know until an audience tells me it's funny.

GROSS: Let's end with something that you hate, which I think is an appropriate way to end this interview. You hate when people say, oh, I'm only 89 years young.

RIVERS: Oh, I hate when people brag about being, oh, I'm 89 years old. You want to go, and you smell. Yeah. Or when they, people treat older people with disdain. I was on "The Today Show" and Al Roker said to me, you are - here's Joan Rivers. She's 79 years young. And you want to go, And here's Al Roker, he's 320 pounds thin.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: So I do not like the way people treat old people, with great disdain.

GROSS: OK. I need your advice on something. Is that OK?

RIVERS: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: OK. So I was at a restaurant just a couple of weeks ago and the waiter said to me - he said to my husband, what would you like to order? And then he said to me, and what about you, young lady?

RIVERS: Ah!

GROSS: And I thought like, I just like gritted my teeth and I said I'm not going to say anything. I'm going to be nice. I'm not going to say anything. I'm going to be nice. And suddenly I heard myself saying, I hope you understand the meaning of what you said.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: Good for you. Oh.

GROSS: And I said...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I was really embarrassed but I said, you know...

RIVERS: Good.

GROSS: ...when you call somebody a young lady who really like isn't young, it's actually really condescending because you are implying that they are, like, so old that you have to call them young and that you even think that that's flattering because they're ashamed of their age. And I said, like, I don't mean to insult you, but I just want you to know, like, it has all this meaning that you probably don't know.

RIVERS: I'm thrilled that you said that because I'm the only one that says that. I'm thrilled. I love you so much for saying that.

GROSS: And then, I was so embarrassed. And then, I put my hand on his arm and I started saying I'm so sorry. I apologize. I'm so sorry.

RIVERS: Yes, yes.

GROSS: I didn't mean to offend you. And then, he told me he was from a military family and he didn't know. Like, he's gotten kind of, like, pushed back for calling women ma'am. And he said to me....

RIVERS: Well, ma'am, I think, is very chic. I love the...

GROSS: Do you love ma'am? I don't like ma'am very much.

RIVERS: Oh, yes, ma'am. When it's a young boy, it's a little - yes, sir, no sir, that's okay. But young lady or when they say, how's my girlfriend, which means you are old and disgusting, I get so angry. Or when they say to you - this is the worst. They say to you - they look at me and they go, 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, think I would want to go near you?

GROSS: So can I ask you another serious question?

RIVERS: Sure.

GROSS: One of the issues when you get to the age of 79 is that you've outlived a lot of friends.

RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: And relatives. So...

RIVERS: It's awful.

GROSS: Yeah.

RIVERS: And I was 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. 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, congratulations on the book. It's really funny.

RIVERS: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers speaking with Terry Gross in 2012 after the publication of her book, "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." There’s more to come including a very funny story about an un-staged disaster. That’s after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Joan Rivers today with excerpts from a number of interviews she did with Terry Gross. Let's get back to the conversation they recorded in 2010.

GROSS: Some people who are great performers still get stage fright. Did you ever have that or did you live to be on stage?

RIVERS: I lived to be on stage. And I'm terrified, terrified before every show, terrified to come and sit down here with you, always nervous, always nervous, and I'm a super preparer.

GROSS: So, like, that's kind of a paradox to me that you live to be on stage and at the same time, there's this dread of being on stage.

RIVERS: Not a dread of being on stage, a dread of not doing well, of disappointing them. I - you know, I always - you think - I have one friend who's a very good, very, very famous comedian, comic, who once said to me: I give them five minutes. If they don't like me, I go on automatic. And I thought: They have bought the ticket, they have paid for a babysitter, they have come out to see you. They want to have fun. I want them to walk out of a show and say, that's the best show I've ever seen. I fight to the end. I worry to the end, worry are they having a good time? Worry when I had that heckler in Wisconsin, you know what I worried about? I was terribly upset about him because you understand that he's coming from a household that has a deaf son, and nobody can deal with it. But there are also - it was a 4,000-seat house. There were 3,999 other people that I did not want them walking away not having a good time. I had to get that audience back, and that takes a lot to get an audience back.

GROSS: I'm glad you said that. How did you get them back because this was a moment of uncharacteristic anger on stage. So where do you go from there?

RIVERS: Oh, my darling. You just start talking fast, and you start finding where will they start to relax and laugh again? And it's almost like, you know, when you start a car, and finally the motor goes, and it took me about four minutes to get them back. And then I did a little extra-long show because I wanted them to walk out totally forgetting that and just going, wow, that was fun, and boy, that guy at the beginning, wasn't he something? And that's what I did 'till I really felt they had a good time.

GROSS: We were talking about your nervousness before going on stage. What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you on stage?

RIVERS: The worst thing that's ever happened to me, once somebody died in Las Vegas, but that wasn't the worst thing.

GROSS: In the audience?

RIVERS: In the audience. Oh, yeah, I've died several times on stage.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: But no, so that's not like the worst. But one of the worst someone died, and it was at Caesar's Palace. They got that guy out so fast because they don't want anyone upset about anything high-roller, and they rolled him out. The worst thing that ever happened to me on stage, someone had ran forward to tell me they loved me and projectile vomited all over the stage.

GROSS: Oh my God.

RIVERS: It was horrible. And I said to the audience: Shall we continue or shall we clean the stage?

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: And the audience said: Let's continue. And I said: No, let's clean the stage.

GROSS: Did it get on you?

RIVERS: That was horrible. Oh god, it got on everything. The orchestra was gagging. And when somebody starts to vomit, you know, everybody joins in.

GROSS: Oh, no.

RIVERS: It was awful.

GROSS: So what happened?

RIVERS: We stopped everything, and I right away, which is why I have to still work at 77 said, everyone have a drink on me, I'll be back.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: And everybody had a drink on Ms. Rivers.

GROSS: So what was the bill?

RIVERS: Oh, the bill was a couple of thousand dollars.

GROSS: Oh, gosh, wow.

RIVERS: My husband was still alive then. He said, are you crazy?

GROSS: So did you have anything to wear when you took off the dirty clothes?

RIVERS: Oh, yes, you always have several Mackie gowns in the dressing room.

GROSS: That's my motto.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: Have at least three Mackie gowns.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: But it was oh, my shoes got and they came forward to say I love (unintelligible)...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what's the first thing you said when you came back on stage?

RIVERS: I said I brought out matches. So I was lighting matches all the way out to get the smell out of the place. And then we - and the first thing I said is - because they brought - it was a woman and they brought her backstage. I said, first of all, she's fine. And she's thinner.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: And I probably said, the bitch just lost four pounds. I'm so jealous.

(LAUGHTER)

RIVERS: And then we just went on. But it's - you never know what's going to happen in a live show.

GROSS: Well, Joan Rivers, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

RIVERS: A pleasure. Great talking with you again. Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. The pioneering comic and TV personality died yesterday at age 81. We'll miss her.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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