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Comedian Joan Rivers, Still A 'Piece Of Work'

Few topics are off-limits for the brash comedian: She has joked about her many face lifts, her husband's suicide, her bankruptcy and the sacrifices she made as a female performer. The documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows the comedian as she fights to still make people laugh.

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Other segments from the episode on December 31, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 31, 2010: Interview with Sarah Silverman; Interview with Joan Rivers.

Transcript

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Sarah Silverman: Playing The Dummy For Laughs

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting
in for Terry Gross. Happy new year.

We wrap up a week of our best interviews from 2010 and herald the new
year with two female comics who broke barriers a generation apart.
First, Sarah Silverman.

Her fearless social comedy turns off some people but has also won her
devoted fans. On the surface, her comedy may seem offensive to Jews,
African-Americans, Latinos, gay people, but that's because she's in
persona as someone who is clueless, uninformed but certain in her
beliefs. Her Comedy Central series, "The Sarah Silverman Program," ended
a three-season run this year.

Not being shy about herself, Sarah Silverman has titled her new memoir
"The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee." Terry Gross
spoke to her last April, when the book was published.

A little later, we'll hear about the bedwetting problems that plagued
her when she was growing up, but let's start with a clip from "The Sarah
Silverman Program." Sarah is in a restaurant, at a table with her sister
Laura, who is played by Silverman's real sister Laura, and Laura's
boyfriend, Officer Jay McPherson, played by Jay Johnston.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Sarah Silverman Program")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JAY JOHNSTON (Actor): (As Jay McPherson) Did you tell Sarah the
news?

Ms. LAURA SILVERMAN (Actor): (As Laura Silverman) Oh, it's nothing.

Mr. JOHNSTON: (As Jay) Nothing? What, have you flipped your lid or
something? Come on, tell her.

Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Laura) Well, I'm creating a Holocaust memorial for
Valley Village.

Mr. JOHNSON: (As Jay) How adorable is that?

Ms. SARAH SILVERMAN (Actor): (As Sarah Silverman) Why would you have a
memorial for something that never happened?

Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Laura) That's not funny, Sarah. You know, a joke
like that just demonstrates that you don't understand what it really
means to be a Jew.

Ms. SILVERMAN: (As Sarah) I think I know what it means to be Jewish,
Laura. Check this out. Excuse me, these pancakes are ishy.

Mr. JOHNSTON: (As Jay) Laura is right. You really should be more
interested in the Holocaust. I mean, I'm not even a Jew, and I love the
Holocaust, uh, love reading about it because it's so interesting and
stuff, the things that happened.

Ms. L. SILVERMAN: (As Laura) You know, you should really think about
becoming more invested in our history. You know, there's a great class
that you could take...

Ms. SILVERMAN: (As Sarah) Oh, Yawn Kippur. You know, Laura, I am getting
extremely bored at you, and I will not tolerate it, never again.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Sarah Silverman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So I have to ask you, are
you good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

Ms. SILVERMAN: I'm good for the Jews, I believe.

GROSS: How do you know? How do you know?

Ms. SILVERMAN: I think that whenever a Jew has any kind of notoriety,
good or bad, the Jews find it to be good. You know, it's like - you know
Son of Sam? Jewish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know, so I think Jews tend to hold me in fairly high
regard. I don't think that I - you know, and also because Jews tend to
be able to take a joke. You know, it's kind of like there's a difference
between...

GROSS: When it's coming from Jewish people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, or it's good-hearted.

GROSS: I want to play another example of your humor, and this was,
people might remember in the 2008 presidential campaign that in support
of Barack Obama you did a video called "The Great Schlep" to get out the
older Jewish vote in Florida. And the excerpt we'll play explains the
premise of "The Great Schlep." So here it is. This is Sarah Silverman.

(Soundbite of video, "The Great Schlep")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SILVERMAN: If Barack Obama doesn't become the next president of the
United States, I'm going to blame the Jews. I am, and I know you're
saying, like, oh my God, Sarah, I can't believe you're saying this. Jews
are the most liberal, scrappy, civil-rightsy people there are.

Yes, that's true, but you're forgetting a whole large group of Jews that
are not that way, and they go by several aliases: Nana, Papa, Zaidie,
Bubbe, plain old Grandma and Grandpa. These are the people who vote in
Florida, and the Florida vote can make or break an election.

If you don't think that's true, why don't you think back to two
elections ago, when a little man named Al Gore got (bleep) by Florida?
I'm making this video to urge you, all of you, to schlep over to Florida
and convince your grandparents to vote Obama.

GROSS: So that's Sarah Silverman. So what kind of reaction did you
actually get from the two audiences that this was aimed at, the
grandchildren who were supposed to convince their grandparents to vote
and the grandparents who were supposed to be convinced to vote for
Obama?

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know what? It was universally positive. It really
was. I don't remember...

GROSS: Wow, have you ever had anything that was universally positive
before?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: No, no. And you know what? I mean, I said stuff like: Get
off your fat Jewish asses. And you know what I mean? And like I made -
but I guess you're right. Coming from a Jew, you know, it eases the
blow.

GROSS: Okay, so you've titled your book "The Bedwetter," and some of
your book is devoted to the fact that when you were young, you used to
wet your bed just about every night, which was a horrible humiliation
for you, particularly for, like, sleepover parties, camping trips. How
long did this last?

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know, I was a bedwetter until I was about 15, and it
was humiliating. You know, I was sent to sleepover camp since I was six,
and you know, it's a recipe for disaster. But, you know, I guess the
silver lining is there's not much to lose after that in life, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: I think, you know, doing stand-up when I got a little
older, the prospect of bombing was like - who cares? You know?

GROSS: As long as you're not peeing on stage accidentally.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Please, yeah.

GROSS: So what did you do to cover up when you were young, and you were
going to sleepover parties or summer camp?

Ms. SILVERMAN: A lot of it was just denial. I think I pretended it
didn't happen more often than not. You know, at camp I would just make
my bed over it. I would take my clothes off and put it deep into the
hamper, and I probably reeked of pee.

At sleepovers, I would kind of pinch myself awake and try to not drink
anything too late. Eventually your body gives in when you're a little
girl and you fall asleep even deeper than ever. So it was usually
unfruitful - or fruitful in a bad way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Silverman, and she
has a new book called "The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and
Pee."

In your book, you write about how, before you were born, your parents
had a baby who died as an infant. The baby was staying over at your
grandparents' house and got accidentally strangled in the crib, by the
way it...

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah, it was a faulty crib, and yeah. He - it had broken,
and the baby had slipped down into the corner and had suffocated in that
space.

GROSS: A really horrible thing. Did your parents talk to you about this
as a child?

Ms. SILVERMAN: You know what? Maybe they did. The way I remember it is
my oldest sister, Susan, who was older than Jeffrey, she knew the story,
and we were all very young, and she kind of told my sister Laura and I,
told it to us almost like a ghost story. You know, we were kids.

And that chapter's actually called "The First Time I Bombed" because
it's about how, you know, my father taught me how to swear when I was
little, and I saw how adults would be shocked but give me - you know, I
got approval from it. And it was addicting.

You know, I saw this way that I could get approval, and I killed all the
time, you know, as a very young kid. And I call that chapter "The First
Time I Bombed" because my sister told us the story of Jeffrey, and
shortly after, my grandmother, who picked us up for our Sunday breakfast
at a local diner, and she said, everybody buckle up, and I - thinking I
was going to kill, I said, yeah, we don't want to wind up like Jeffrey.

And just silence. And my sisters turned and looked at me like I was
crazy, and my grandmother just burst into tears, which I had never seen
before, and I thought - what did I do, you know?

GROSS: That interested me so much, since so much of your humor is about
saying things that seem horribly inappropriate and potentially
offensive, but it's not personal in the way that this is.

I mean, your grandparents felt so guilty because the baby died at their
home. And so this was hurtful in a way that your humor now is not. What
did you learn from that experience?

Ms. SILVERMAN: I think, you know, I've been called edgy, but you know,
in all honestly, I think that there is a safety in what I do because I'm
always the idiot. And unless you're listening to the buzzwords and not
really taking into account the context or the content of it, you see
that I'm the idiot always, the ignoramus in the scenario. So no matter
what I talk about or what tragic event or, you know, off-color, dark
scenario is evoked in my material, I'm always the idiot in it, you know.

GROSS: Because your persona is the idiot, yeah.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So can I ask you a personal question? Do you want to have
children?

Ms. SILVERMAN: Probably. I love children. I'm embarrassingly baby-crazy.
I could be in the middle of any intense conversation, and if somebody
walks by with a baby, I'm gone, you know, just - but and also, you know,
I'm - I'm not going to have a baby. You know, I happen to think that
there are already tons of perfectly good babies out there already born,
and I don't necessarily need to see a little me and, like, do it right
this time. I'm already trying to do it right this time with me.

You know, so I can see myself adopting. I'm not in a rush to do it. I'm
39, I know, but I do love kids, and I'm very good - I've got a lot of
really good moves.

Like, a three-year-old girl, that age, around three to five or six, I've
got a really great move. This is what I do. I go: I'm going to tell you
something, but you can't tell anybody - and I know you're not supposed
to tell kids to keep secrets, but that's part of the rebellion.

And then they go okay, and I say: I'm a princess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: But I dress normal because I want people to treat me
regular. And their brains explode. It's really fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SILVERMAN: And I went really far with it with my friends Sam and
Nicki's daughter. I did that whole thing where I say I'm a princess and
don't tell anybody, and I said when I come visit you in New York, I have
some of my old princess stuff that doesn't fit me anymore. Would you be
interested in it? Yes, yes I would.

So I came to New York, and I bought a bunch of three-year-old, you know,
size three little-girl princess stuff, and I took it out of the package
and mussed it up and put it in a trash bag and brought it over. It's the
little pleasures.

GROSS: Sarah Silverman, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so
much.

Ms. SILVERMAN: Thank you so much. It's always exciting to be on FRESH
AIR with Terry Gross because I'm an avid listener and fan.

BIANCULLI: Sarah Silverman's memoir is called "The Bedwetter: Stories of
Courage, Redemption and Pee." Next up after a break, comic Joan Rivers.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Comedian Joan Rivers, Still A 'Piece Of Work'

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Our next guest, Joan Rivers, is the subject of the documentary called
"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." Rivers was one of the first really
successful female stand-up acts, subbed for Johnny Carson on "The
Tonight Show" and paved the way for many women comics. The documentary,
though, is largely about what her life is like now, why she's driven to
keep performing and how she's had to reinvent herself in order to do it.

The movie was shot over about 14 months during 2008 and 2009. Let's
start with a clip from the documentary.

(Soundbite of film, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work")

Ms. JOAN RIVERS (Comedian): 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.

BIANCULLI: That's Joan Rivers, from the documentary about her called
"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." It's out now on DVD. Terry Gross spoke
to Joan Rivers last June, when it was Joan's birthday.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Joan Rivers, welcome to FRESH AIR, and happy birthday. We're recording
this on your birthday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah. Thank you very much. Yes, we are.

GROSS: And you've just turned 77.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah, I know.

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

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of 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, and some of the
doors that you opened earlier in your career, I mean, 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.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: You may have been the first famous woman comic to tell vagina
jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Probably. Yes, I'm sure I did. I'm sure I am.

GROSS: So what was it like early on, when you were telling the kind of
blue jokes that other women weren't saying?

Ms. 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...

GROSS: Now, wait, wait, wait, I'm going to stop you because I thought
you said that because no one would say they had an abortion. People were
always going away for, like, mysterious oh, you know, she needed a
vacation, or she had to get some minor surgery done.

Ms. RIVERS: Right, she had an appendectomy.

GROSS: She had an appendectomy, exactly.

Ms. RIVERS: Everybody went to Cuba to get appendectomies or went to
Puerto Rico to get appendectomies. So 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?

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how did this kind of material go over?

Ms. RIVERS: Half the people would laugh, obviously, because and half the
people would go - oh.

I had another joke. I was having an affair with a married professor, and
one of the jokes early on in my act is while he was engaged to me, his
wife became pregnant. So I figured he wasn't sincere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: And I'd get half the people laughing, but it was you just
didn't talk about things like that. It was never discussed. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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 were 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?

Ms. 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. And I talk much more freely now than I ever dared to talk
before.

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

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, I talk about terrorism. I talk about - I was talking
about 9/11 on 9/12 and talking about it, making jokes about it, how
horrible it was but making people laugh about it at the same time.

I talk about how I truly, I hate whiners. 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...

Ms. RIVERS: Northern Wisconsin.

GROSS: Thank you.

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

(Soundbite of 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")

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: That isn't very funny.

Ms. RIVERS: It's just yes it is, and if you don't, then leave...

Unidentified Man: It isn't funny if you have a deaf son.

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

Unidentified Man: Go ahead and tell me about it.

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

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. 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. Okay, 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 never went back to get it because that's (BEEP) littering.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. 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.

Ms. 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.

Ms. RIVERS: A deaf son.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. 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 okay. 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.

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers, speaking to Terry Gross last June. We'll hear
more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David
Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli sitting in for Terry
Gross.

Let’s get back to Terry’s interview with Joan Rivers. She the subject of
the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," now out on DVD and Blu-
Ray. It follows her through a year of her life as she tries to get as
many comedy and TV dates as possible in spite of her age. She turns 77
this year.

When we left off, Rivers was talking about why she often finds comedy in
life’s painful events.

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

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

GROSS: Right.

Ms. 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 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.

GROSS: Now in the documentary about you, we see you booking as many
dates as possible. Your schedule is just astoundingly complicated.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: You're always traveling from one place to another. You have,
like, four things lined up in a day.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: I mean, I don't know how you deal with that amount of travel and
work. I mean, most people would be trying to decrease that a little bit,
yeah.

Ms. RIVERS: Go look at, over the years, who you've spoken to and see who
has survived and who hasn't, and it's the ones that work and keep on
working and take whatever there is to take that's - I will look at some
of the people that were on my late night shows, that were on my daytime
talk show, and you say whatever happened to? You can't rest on your
laurels.

I hate to tell you, but Snooki from whatever that is, "Jersey Shore,"
better get busy because Snooki ain't going to be around in 15 years
unless Snooki understands she's got to work. She can't sit around and
expect a white limo to pick her up in four years.

GROSS: Now, there seems to be, like, two things really driving you, one
you know, driving you to, like, keep working extra-super-hard. One is
that you love performing and you love being on stage and you want to
keep being there.

And the other is money. You want to maintain your lifestyle, and that
requires plenty of money. So, does either of those two things take
priority in terms of what's driving you to work so hard?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Yes, unfortunately, I give up the lifestyle for the art,
whatever the art is. I have always they'll say to me, come do they did
come do a play in San Francisco for three weeks in a little, tiny
theatre called the Magic Theatre that holds 90 people. Off and gone and
running.

I love the art. I love whether it's the writing of a show or performing
something. So that takes priority. But do I like my creature comforts?
Love my creature comforts. Have I ever asked anybody for a nickel? No.
So if I want to buy a nice pair of shoes, I buy me a nice pair of shoes.

If I want to live well, if that's my joy, and I would rather go to
Wisconsin and work for that weekend and live well and be able to pick up
a check for some friends, that's my priority, and I'm delighted to do
it.

So it's two-way, but art comes or whatever you want to call it the
profession, the performing comes first.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that you had gone bankrupt. So that's one
nightmare you've already lived through.

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: When did that happen?

Ms. RIVERS: That was I never declared bankruptcy because I thought that
was very naughty, and I hate these ads now that you see all the time:
Bankruptcy is a new beginning. Oh, come off it. You owe everybody. Pay
up, you idiot.

But after Edgar committed suicide and I was fired from Fox, I couldn't
get work for a year and a half. And, you know, the bills continue. And
there's no money coming in, and you're selling stuff, and you're cutting
back, and it got very, very hairy there for a while.

So you sell stuff. You go to Sotheby's and you sell. You kiss a couple
of Faberge frames goodbye, which killed me because they were my
husband's, and you say so long even though your (unintelligible),
beautiful and his art touched you.

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers speaking with Terry Gross last June. She's the
subject of the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let’s get back to Terry’s interview with Joan Rivers recorded
last June. The documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” is now out
on DVD and Blu-Ray.

GROSS: So for you who want to perform all the time, does life not
measure up to performing?

Ms. RIVERS: No, life does not measure up to performing, and that's a
brilliant question. No, no, performing is perfect. Isn't it a perfect
hour? You go on stage, they love you, they want to be there, you want to
be there, you all work together to have a great evening. That's Lawrence
Olivier, the great English actor, once said: That is my space.

I met him once at a party. He said: That is where I belong. Sinatra once
said to me: You see - he pointed at the stage in Vegas. See that center
spot? That's my life. And I get it. It's perfect.

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

Ms. 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.

Ms. 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 tickets, 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: Now 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? Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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...

(Soundbite of starting a car)

Ms. RIVERS: ...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.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you on stage?

Ms. 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?

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. 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 – they 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.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: Did it get on you?

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, no.

Ms. RIVERS: It was awful.

GROSS: So what happened?

Ms. 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: So what was the bill?

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

GROSS: Oh, gosh, wow.

Ms. 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?

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

GROSS: That's my motto.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Have at least three Mackie gowns.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Ms. 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 just - 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Joan Rivers. There’s a new
documentary about her and it’s called "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."

In the movie, I think it's you who say and I'm trying to remember
whether you say it, or somebody else says it - but I think you say that
you were perceived as an advocate for plastic surgery, then the poster
girl and then the joke.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: When did it cross over into joke?

Ms. RIVERS: Probably with my first bad plastic surgery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Probably when I talked about it too much. I should have been
like everybody else and not said a word and deny it, which is what they
all do.

GROSS: So why did you talk about it?

Ms. RIVERS: I talked about it from the very beginning. But I'm a
comedian, so of course you walk out on stage and say: I just had my eyes
done, and let me tell you, the doctor, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And
you start doing jokes.

And it was, in those days, shocking to talk about it. And like
everything else, things have evolved, and that was a very shocking thing
to discuss. And then it became - because I talked about it so much -that
people thought that's all I did.

But I was very glad I talked about it. It's goes back to what we started
out talking about, which is by talking about it, maybe there's some
woman somewhere in North Dakota who hates her nose, and she's saying
should I get it fixed? And all her friends are lying to her and saying
don't do it, Betty. And I was saying: Betty, do it. If you want to feel
better about yourself, do it.

GROSS: So I want to play a clip from when you were on "Nip/Tuck." And
"Nip/Tuck" is the FX series...

Ms. RIVERS: Yes.

GROSS: ...about two plastic two very, like, high-end plastic surgeons
who do a lot of, like famous people. And so you play yourself on this.
And you come in, and you're sitting with the plastic surgeons, and they
ask you their standard question, which is: What don't you like about
yourself?

And then you explain to them that you have a very kind of special,
unusual request to make of them, and that you're not even going to tell
them what that request is until they sign a confidentiality agreement in
which they promise not to divulge what the surgery is until after you're
ready to reveal it. And I'm going to play the clip in which you explain
what the surgery is that you're going to request they do.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Nip/Tuck")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIVERS: (as herself) I'm not just my career. It's also my grandson,
Cooper. We have the most amazing relationship. It's probably the most
honest relationship I've ever had with anybody in my whole life. He
loves me exactly the way I am.

Mr. DYLAN WALSH (Actor): (As Dr. Sean McNamara) So why change?

Ms. RIVERS: (as herself) Because it's a goddamn lie.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RIVERS: (as herself) Look, I know I'm the one that brought plastic
surgery into the mainstream. I know I'm the one that convinced all those
thousands of housewives out there that if you don't like your face, then
do something about it. Change it. But now I want to send out a different
message.

My grandson is so pure. He's so happy with himself the way he is, and I
want him to stay that way. I don't want him to grow up hating the
thought that he's going to get older. I don't want him to care if he
gets acne at 20 or if his hair starts to recede at 40. I just want him
to know there's nothing to be ashamed of. It's the natural order of
things.

Oh, boy. It'll get me some magazine cover. People - oh, my god. Before?
After? No one's ever done something like that. It's gold, and I could
use a cover. I haven't had one since 1994, those sons of (beep).

Come on, what about it? I am offering you the mother of all plastic
surgeries. Will you do it?

GROSS: That's Joan Rivers from - a scene from "Nip/Tuck."

Ms. RIVERS: "Nip/Tuck."

GROSS: So, you know, I watched that scene, and it made me wonder: Did
you ever feel that way? Feel like, you know, maybe it's sending the
wrong message to my grandson, you know, all the plastic surgery.

Ms. RIVERS: Are you kidding? The message to my grandson would be to get
plugs for your hair, and quick, get to a dermatologist and fix your
skin. No, no, no, get it planed. No, no, it's pure fiction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, who...

Ms. RIVERS: But I do worry that I will get I will die and go to heaven,
God won't recognize me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Who are you?

GROSS: I think a lot of performers are this amazing mix of ego and
insecurity, and I'm wondering if you feel that you are.

Ms. RIVERS: I think I'm much more insecure than ego, but at this age,
the ego is beginning. At this age, I really feel, in my 70s now, that
I'm performing at the top of my game, that when you come to see me live
- and I don't mean to sound so egotistical I think you're seeing the
best you can see in women's comedy today, or in comedy today.

I think I'm performing just great live. I wouldn't have said that
probably six years ago. Age frees you. So there is ego with that, but
the insecurity never stops, never stops.

I won't walk into a room if I don't know somebody, I ain't going in
there. Uh-uh. I will never go anyplace alone. And as I said in some
article recently, I am the hostesses' nemesis, because they always think
Joan will be funny at that end of the table. And Joan, if she doesn't
know you, is the world's biggest bore at the end of the table.

GROSS: You're a big bore if you don't know the person next to you?

Ms. RIVERS: If I don't know the people next to you, I'm not going to do
a joke. I'm just not going to say anything.

GROSS: Right, right.

Ms. RIVERS: I don't know who you are, and I'm not going to sit there and
confide in you.

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers speaking with Terry Gross last June. She's the
subject of the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."

More in a minute.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let’s get back to Terry's interview with Joan Rivers recorded
last June. The documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," is now out
on DVD and Blu-Ray.

GROSS: In the documentary, you say about your late husband Edgar - who
had also been your manager and producer - you say: Was I madly in love
with him? No. Was it a good marriage? Yes. And I guess I was surprised
to hear you confess that, that you weren't madly in love with him.

Ms. RIVERS: Well, it's also 20 years, and you can look back. I thought
he was wonderful. I thought he was very funny. I thought he was so
smart. I just knew he was right for me. I met him, and I married him
four days later.

GROSS: Four days later?

Ms. RIVERS: Four days later. He was crazy about me. I just knew he was
perfect for me, and he was.

GROSS: Perfect in what way?

Ms. RIVERS: Perfect in every - smart, funny, terrific, got the business,
got me, had a great time together, both wanted the same things. We had a
great marriage, a great marriage. Was I madly in love with him, thumpy,
thumpy, thumpy, thumpy, thumpy? No. But as my mother always said: They
should like you more than you like them. They worry where you are. Don't
you have to worry so much where he is.

GROSS: So was he thumpy-thumpy over you? Is that what you're saying?

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah. Oh, he thought I was the cutest chickie walking
around. But he had very bad eyesight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I think most people know that, you know, he took his life
after...

Ms. RIVERS: Killed himself, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah - and this was not long - it was, like, a few months after
your late-night show, which he was producing, on Fox was canceled. And
apparently, the network asked him to leave. You opposed that, and then
the whole show got canceled.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: And you, in the movie, say that you blame Fox for his death.

Ms. RIVERS: Totally.

GROSS: But I guess I'm wondering if maybe he wasn't, like, depressed
before that and if maybe...

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, of course.

GROSS: ...depression wasn't interfering with his relationship with the
network, and if it all kind of...

Ms. RIVERS: If you're tap-dancing, everything is wonderful, and
something bad happens, you're not going to kill yourself. But this was
the big thing. And he was producing the show. And they said to me, you
can stay, he can go, he has to go. And he, I had that choice on a
Thursday, and I said no. Then I go with my husband. And we were off on
Friday.

And he knew what it did to my career. So he had not only gotten us out
of a job, my whole career was smashed. It was - everything was just
very, very bad. And he had had a major heart attack and he had a four-
way bypass and he was coming out of that. And he was depressed over
that. And he just couldn't continue. Couldn't do it.

GROSS: In the movie, you say that he left you high and dry and left you
with a lot of debts, because he wasn't a good businessman.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah.

GROSS: So it sounds like you were, you know, horrified that he killed
himself, but also angry with him.

Ms. RIVERS: Beyond angry. Still I'm angry. I work very hard for suicide
survivors - with suicide survivors, as does Missy, because what it does
to you the anger never leaves you. There's the sadness. There's that
ennui that sets in.

You know, when Melissa walked down the aisle, and it was 10 years after
her father killed himself, we both cried because Daddy wasn't there to
walk her down. I mean, you never get over that - missing that part of
it.

But you're still so furious. What you did to us, what you did to your
daughter, the selfishness of a suicide and what you've done. You've just
left all the pieces and gone. You took the easy way. And it's not an
easy way. They're very brave to do it, but it's a terrible, terrible,
terrible thing, what it does to a family. Terrible thing what it does to
a family.

GROSS: Do you feel like it sends a knowing message to the family?

Ms. RIVERS: It sends a bad message to the family, but it sends a lot of
jokes if Mommy's a comedian.

GROSS: Right. Yeah.

Ms. RIVERS: My first joke was: My husband killed himself and left a
message that I have to visit him every day, so I had him cremated and
sprinkled him in Neiman Marcus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIVERS: Haven't missed a day. And that's how I get through life,
Terry.

GROSS: Oh, god. Now, how do you think of something like that?

Ms. RIVERS: Because it's so - life in the - in the documentary, there's
one scene where they show this girl that I bring a meal to from God's
Love We Deliver that's sitting there in a chair with MS or - you never
ask what it is. It's either MS or something very bad.

And then we do a flashback where we show her on television as a hip,
sharp New York reporter. And you realize life is so difficult and so
cruel that you better laugh at it because you don't know what's going to
hit you next.

GROSS: Now, do you ever get senior moments on stage where you just kind
of blank out for a second?

Ms. RIVERS: No. And that's a great question and that terrifies me. The
only time - I adlib so much on stage and I mix my act around so much
that sometimes I worry terribly, have I said that already?

Because I am so free form onstage that I wonder when I do two shows in
one night? Have I already talked about death? Have I already talked
about Melissa's giving birth and me being in the operating room? That's
the only - I worry about things like that.

GROSS: So one more thing. You said that you think you're at the top of
your game right now.

Ms. RIVERS: Yeah, in comedy, yeah.

GROSS: In comedy. So if we took like second best, like, what's another,
like, favorite part of your career?

GROSS: Anytime I've done a Broadway play, anytime I'm on the stage
acting, it's just glorious. Whether it's doing a joke and you're all
laughing with 5,000 people, that's a great moment. When you're all
laughing, including me, that's just great.

And the same thing - when I did, say, "Broadway Bound" and I was - or
Sally Marr that I was nominated for a Tony for, a few years ago. When
you do a moment where the whole audience is silent with you and you know
you're all experiencing that, oh, this is why I was born.

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

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

BIANCULLI: Joan Rivers speaking with Terry Gross last June. She’s the
subject of the documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which is now
out on DVD and Blu-Ray.

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And
you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a Happy New Year.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Allen Shawn, author of new memoir “Twin,”
about how it’s affected his life to have a twin sister who’s autistic
and was institutionalized at the age of eight. The book is also about
growing up in an unusual family. He's the son of William Shawn, the
former editor of The New Yorker.

Also, your digital afterlife.

Join for the next FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
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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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