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TERRY GROSS, HOST: On this final day of the decade, we're continuing our series featuring some favorite interviews of the decade as selected by our staff. We start today with an interview from this year - Howard Stern. I spoke with him last May after the publication of his book, "Howard Stern Comes Again," collecting some of his favorite interviews.
He's become a really good interviewer. At the age of 65, he says he's changed over the years and has moved away from some of the crude sex talk and sexism of his earlier years and has been emphasizing empathy over outrageousness in his interviews. But he admits his show still contains a fair amount of what he calls second-grade humor. His show became nationally syndicated in 1986 and moved to Sirius Satellite Radio in 2006. Here's our interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Howard Stern, welcome to FRESH AIR. I am so excited this is happening. You know, like, some of our listeners - I think just a few - but some of our listeners are outraged that Howard Stern's going to be on our show. And some of your listeners probably think - public radio's so incredibly boring; why are you wasting your time on public radio?
HOWARD STERN: No, I actually got a really great reaction when I said on my show that I'm coming on the Terry Gross show. Everyone was like, oh, she's the best interviewer in the world. To hear you two guys together, it's going to be awesome, blah, blah, blah. And I was like - oh, this is great. So no, no, I - I don't know about your listeners. But certainly mine, we seem to be pretty jacked up about it.
GROSS: A lot of our listeners are, too. I just know some of them are like, what? (Laughter) But...
STERN: Yeah, well...
GROSS: For those of us...
STERN: Can I tell you one thing? This...
STERN: ...I woke up.
STERN: And I said to my wife, I'm going on the Terry Gross show. I'm going to go learn about her. And the first thing I learned was that you had written a book.
STERN: And so - yeah - so I went on my Kindle account, you know? And here you have written a book on interviewing, which is why I'm here talking to you. And I went - oh, wow, I should have read this.
STERN: So I - on my Kindle, you get a little chapter for free. You know?
STERN: So I began reading it. And the first thing, like, literally that you wrote is, hey, when I was writing a book about interviews, I didn't know if they'd be good to read because, you know, people have heard them on the radio. And that was my whole dilemma. That's why I almost didn't write the book. It was as if you were talking to me.
And then I read a little further along. And you said something about when you interview people that you cut them off quickly if they're boring or going on too long. And then I got filled with dread because I don't know that I'm a really good interview, to be honest. And I go on. I'm verbose. So I said, oh, she's going to be cutting me off every minute.
STERN: And when she cuts me off, my ego is going to be destroyed 'cause I think I'm a pretty good broadcaster. But I don't know if I'm a good interview. So you know, I'm...
GROSS: It's funny 'cause I was thinking, like, is Howard going to give long answers? And I thought, no. I mean, Howard knows what good radio is, so he's not going to go on too long. He knows exactly what timing is. So listen. I'm in a studio in Philadelphia. You're in a studio in New York.
STERN: I didn't know if you admitted that or not, so I didn't bring it up.
GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I usually don't get to see my guests 'cause they're not in Philly, so we just connect via high-tech stuff. But...
STERN: But I was shocked. In your book - the little part I read today, you said you like that. And I would dread that. That would be the worst thing in the world not to look someone in the eye while I'm interviewing them. I don't think I - you know, I'm not comfortable with that.
GROSS: Oh, I'm surprised to hear that because - well, let me describe your set a little bit or maybe ask you to describe it. I mean, you're on a desk that almost looks like a barricade (laughter). Like...
STERN: That's right (laughter).
GROSS: You're in this big desk that has this - like, big, like, almost half-oval rim around it that really looks like you're barricaded in. And then your guest is, like, a bunch of feet away from you...
GROSS: ...On a couch. And it's...
GROSS: ...A pretty big distance. Like, it's not a distance you would typically sit from someone. You'd sit much closer if you were having a conversation that wasn't on the radio, if you were just talking to each other in a room. Why do you have the barricade and the distance from your guest?
STERN: Wow. That is really interesting that you say that, and I hadn't really considered it. Part of it is that I work my own equipment. And I say this in my book - that if anyone is serious about radio, that I think they should work their own equipment. They should learn how to run a board, as we say in radio.
And I - for me, I'm such - maybe it's the control freak in me, but I like to control every microphone, the volume, the sound effects going on, whatever it might be. So all of that equipment in front of me and that big barricade has a lot to do with the physical equipment. I'm running the show.
GROSS: So anyways, a question for you - your interviewing approach has changed over the years. It's - you go deeper. You have more empathy. And you've said when you think of the interviews you did during the first couple of decades on your show that you cringe. You say, I was an absolute maniac. My narcissism was so strong, I was incapable of appreciating what somebody else might be feeling.
In your introduction to your interview with Gwyneth Paltrow in your book, you write, that on terrestrial radio, my interviewing technique was like bashing someone in the face with a sledgehammer. I treated my guests as props. All I wanted was to cause chaos.
And you've said that, you know, therapy was a turning point for you. You started therapy - what? - 20 years ago.
GROSS: Is it too personal to ask you what the therapy approach is that you use?
STERN: No, not personal at all. I'm happy to talk about it. And I hope something that comes out of this book - that people aren't afraid of therapy. I think it is the most useful tool in the world. And I talk to people who are really uptight about it, and I understand that. It took me five years before I called this guy that I go to see.
And it's psychoanalysis. It's - I want to say it's more Freudian. But you know, I don't get that sense. I don't lay on a couch, although he suggested that I do. But I was not comfortable with it. I couldn't get used to it. Even the thought of laying down on a couch and not being able to look at a person - speaking of what we just spoke about...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
STERN: I need to look the person in the eye. And I think it's my own insecurity. I'm afraid they'd fall asleep on me...
STERN: ...Or they weren't really paying attention. I really - I have a lot of issues. I didn't go there thinking that it would affect my radio show so much. I went there because, you know, I wanted to examine my relationships, how I related to the world and the people around me. And I felt that I was in a bit of a crisis, having gone through a divorce. And with all of that going on - and I had three young children, so I really wanted to be the best father I could be. I had a lot of lofty ambitions. I was...
GROSS: So what kind of analysis is it? How does it work?
STERN: Well, what was so profound for me and why I signed on - I sat there with the psychoanalyst, the psychiatrist. And I said, oh, I guess I'll tell you about myself. And I started to go into a fabulous routine that I'd done many times on the radio. I would start talking about my parents and - with - complete with impressions. I was like, listen. My son - this is my mother talking - my son was raised to please me, and then he knew how to behave. And I taught my son how to respect people. And I told him every day to dress like he was meeting the governor.
And I'm going into these routines, and then I bring my father into it. I told you, you're very stupid. You're going to make a million dollars on the radio. You don't even know how to speak properly. You don't even know how to speak properly. Why are you two yelling at each other?
So I would start to do this routine, and I'm going into this elaborate thing. And he stops me. He stops me cold, looks at me. And he says, I don't find any of this funny. Now, I was like, hey, what the hell is he talking about? What do you mean, it's not funny? I get paid a lot of money to do this stuff. He goes, no, I find it rather sad. And why are you telling me stories? Why are you not talking to me about anything real?
I had no clue what he was talking about. I had never sat alone in a room with any human being on this planet and been listened to in a real way. Everything with me was shtick and funny. And that's how my family related. We didn't sit and ask about feelings. This took me years to get used to. It wasn't like, all of a sudden, I had an epiphany. I was freaking out.
STERN: I was like, man. I'd go like, this guy wants me to talk. What does he mean he doesn't want me to be funny? I'm funny. You know, as I was going through therapy, I was also making a transition from terrestrial radio - commercial radio - to satellite radio. On satellite, they were giving me the time to do whatever I want.
And, Terry, I mean by whatever I want, I had no government restrictions. I could be as dirty as I wanted to be. I could be as outrageous as I wanted to be. And I realized rather quickly, that's so boring on satellite radio. You have to rail against someone. All of the outrageousness that I was about was because the government hated it. Religious groups hated it. And now suddenly, I'm in the Wild West. I can talk about anything I want. It's paid subscription radio.
So with that, I started to not only get turned on by how I was being heard in that psychiatrist's office, but I began to contemplate what would really be interesting now that I have this format - how about bringing in a guest here and there and really having a real conversation? And what that meant for me - and this was mind-blowing to me - not to you, but to me - what if I could let the other person shine? What if I could shut my big yap and not make it about me?
GROSS: Was that hard for you - to not make it about you?
STERN: Oh, my God. The inner child - you know, look. The reason I - you quoted my book. The reason that this was so difficult - when I was on commercial radio, I couldn't allow a guest to even say five words in a row. I'm looking at the clock. I need high ratings.
When you're doing an act like mine, you need high ratings. They're not keeping you around for the joy of it. They want to be No. 1 because they're putting up with a lot of government fines, a lot of religious groups complaining, people complaining to get me off the air. So I had to deliver the goods.
And so when a Robin Williams walked in or a Gilda Radner - people I love and adore - I'm like, I've got to keep this going. So I'm blurting out jackhammer-like questions. Robin Williams, I hear you're having sex with your nanny. Gilda, what's it like to - you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, rah (ph), rah, blah, blah, blah.
Well, the audience is cheering me on because it sounds outrageous, and it sounds wild. And it sounds like, oh, my God, did he just say that to Robin Williams? But there's no dialogue. There's - you know, I'm not learning anything.
GROSS: So I have to ask you about this. So much of your show over the years, especially earlier in your career, has been about sex in ways that have been interesting and enlightening and ways that seemed really kind of gross or intrusive or, you know, just sexist. So I want to ask you just a couple of things about that. So you told Jonah Hill in an interview that you envied young men who can have women as friends and not just want to have sex with them. And you said that's something you had to learn later in life. So how much later (laughter) and...
STERN: A lot later. You know - I mean, I always had friends - women friends - growing up, but it wasn't by choice. Nobody wanted to have sex with me. But no, I really did have friendships with women, and some of my best working relationships have been with women.
STERN: In fact - well, Robin, for sure; Fran Shea of the E! Network, who gave me my first interview show; Denise Oliver, who was my program director who put Robin and I together. And yet there's this - as you say, on my radio show, there was so much sex and so much wild behavior. And in my mind, I was also a guy - you know, listen; I was in my 20s, my 30s, my 40s, and this was all fascinating to me. But what was really great about it was it was like punk rock. It was like, what can I do that will freak everyone out? Oh, everyone's uptight about sex - sex, sex, sex.
Now, in my family, my mother got me a subscription to Playboy at 13. And she sat me down and said, I want you to know something. First of all, real women don't look like this. These women in Playboy are freaks. No one looks like that. They look more like me and your sister and your aunt and all these women. You can have Playboy, and I don't care. You want to talk about sex, you want to show your friends, blah, blah, blah, - I don't care. But just keep in mind there's no reality to this.
My friends - their parents wouldn't even mention sex. And to me, going on "The Tonight Show" and talking about lesbianism, bringing out two lesbians and having Jay Leno walk out or having these hypocritical religious jerks who raise money, you know, ripping people off, telling them all kinds of garbage - and what's the one thing they can't handle? Sex, sex, sex, sex. I wanted to go on and celebrate sex and say, who cares? We're talking about sex. We're all animals, and we all have sex.
GROSS: OK. So I really like the idea of celebrating sex. The part I didn't like about your show was talking about the size of women's breasts and how much you'd like to have sex with them and rating women 1 to 10...
GROSS: ...Or asking guests to. And you had such a large following of young men. And I'm specifically referring here to the '90s, the early aughts.
GROSS: And it's like you were teaching young men how to leer at women and be really crude and judge women according to their breast size. And that always really troubled me. And I know you cringe about a lot of things when you look back at your early career. Do you...
GROSS: ...Cringe about that?
STERN: Yeah, I do. But, you know, in one sense, I could get defensive and tell you that we would also do this to men. It wasn't just - it was a show that was super judgmental and, you know, again, unleashed id. My evaluation was, hey, I am not going to hide what men are really thinking. This was my thinking back then. I'm not going to BS the women in my audience. By the way, my audience is 40% female. So that might shock you, but it was like, let women hear what real guys sound like.
Now, this was my thinking. I didn't know that that isn't what real guys think. This is what my perception was. So I thought I was performing a public service. Now, I mean, I thought I was like, hey, guys are jerks, and you need to know it. But hey, I'm a jerk, too. And I was a jerk.
GROSS: Yeah, but I felt like you were going, like...
GROSS: ...I'm a - you know, this is how - if you want to be cool, if you want to be like Howard Stern, this is...
GROSS: ...How you treat women.
STERN: This is how you behave. Yeah.
GROSS: This is how you talk to women. And that...
GROSS: I found that really upsetting.
STERN: I don't think I had the wherewithal to really analyze it. I just was doing my thing. And then, you know, as I got older and wiser, I started to look at that. And I said, well, it troubles me. That's not who I am anymore. I don't really care about any of that. And it's not to say I wouldn't be on the radio today, commenting on somebody who wore an outrageous outfit to the Met Gala or something, but it's done in a different way with a different approach.
And if I hadn't changed, if I had become a 65-year-old guy fawning over women, it would have been pathetic and sad. If I hadn't grown and evolved and changed and really had a profound kind of new approach to radio, I don't know that I could still be on the radio, and I don't know that that would be interesting to my audience. I think where I'm at now is the perfect place.
GROSS: I want to play an example of how you draw on your life for your interviews. So what we've just been talking about, your mother's depression, her need to be cheered up - this comes into play in one of my favorite moments of your interviews, and this is with Stephen Colbert from 2015. And you're talking to him about how he lost his father and two of his siblings, two brothers, in a plane crash. And I forget how old he was - 9 maybe? I forget his age.
STERN: Yeah, something like that. Yeah.
GROSS: And so you're asking him about that and what it was like for his mother. So I just want to play a short excerpt of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE HOWARD STERN SHOW")
STERN: How did it change...
STEPHEN COLBERT: But the thing...
STERN: ...Your mother? Did she - was she able to have a strong face in front of you, or would she break down a lot?
COLBERT: Both. You know, a little mix of everything. It wasn't - there's no clean description of what life was like.
STERN: Is it difficult for you to be around a crying woman now because of your mother?
COLBERT: Wow, that's deep, man.
STERN: Well, seriously.
COLBERT: Yeah. Deep, Howard.
COLBERT: You're getting deep. No, seriously, that's a very deep question, Howard.
STERN: But when women are difficult - because your mom had to be difficult. She was going through a crisis.
COLBERT: Not difficult. But you know...
COLBERT: I think there's no doubt that I do what I do because I wanted to make her happy - no doubt.
STERN: You're used to cheering up a woman.
STERN: I know of this.
ROBIN QUIVERS: Did you cry? Were you...
COLBERT: Really? Did you cheer up - what?
QUIVERS: Were you able to cry?
COLBERT: No, not publicly.
STERN: Well, speaking of...
COLBERT: But hold on. Wait a second.
COLBERT: How do you know to ask that question?
STERN: Because I spent many years cheering up your mother, as well. I didn't want to tell you this.
STERN: No, no. What happened - my mother lost her mother when she was 9. And my mother became very depressed when her sister died, and I spent a lot of years trying to cheer up my mother. And I became quite proficient at making her laugh and doing impressions and doing impressions of all the people in her neighborhood. It made her feel - so I - I wonder - and even to this day, when I see a woman in distress, I feel like I have to...
STERN: ...Jump in and solve her problem.
COLBERT: That's not a bad impulse, though.
STERN: Well, it certainly makes for a career. But I mean...
GROSS: I just love hearing how stunned Colbert is when you ask him about, you know, having to cheer up his mother, and if it's hard for him to see women cry because his mother had cried so much.
STERN: Well, I love that moment. I'm so glad you pulled it because I'm proud of that moment. Because only someone who had to cheer up a mother would know to ask that question.
GROSS: Exactly, exactly.
STERN: And, you know, again, I've explored the fact that this is a terrible burden on a kid, to have to cheer up a mother. I remember doing, you know, very, very elaborate impressions of all the mothers in the neighborhood. And what I was doing is not only was I doing impressions of them, but I was also ripping them apart, and my mother loved it. Because what it meant was she was the best mother. It meant that when I would sit there and make fun of these other mothers, it meant not only was it funny and not only did it make her cheered up, but what was really cheering her up was, you see? I'm the best mother. And I knew that on some level.
Now, that's too much for a kid to know. So when Colbert - I had to go there with Colbert, and I think what really shocked him is, well, wait a second. Here is Fartman, and all of a sudden, maybe there's something a little deeper behind Fartman, you know? Maybe this guy gets me. And so that's a real moment.
GROSS: Well, I'm going to let you go 'cause I know you got to go. It's been...
STERN: Well, a pleasure.
GROSS: ...Really, really wonderful to talk with you. Listen. I want to thank you for staying in radio all of these years and not using radio just as a stepping stone to TV or movies. You've turned down so many offers, and you've stayed in radio. You've done a lot of, like, kind of pioneering work in radio. thank you. As a radio person, thank you for staying in radio...
STERN: Oh, thank you for saying that.
GROSS: ...And for acknowledging, like, the greatness of radio.
STERN: I love radio. Radio is the best. And that's it. We'll end on that. Radio is great.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, thank...
STERN: And thank you.
GROSS: Thank you so much.
STERN: I think you're a terrific interviewer. And thank you for giving me access to your audience, which, you know - like I said, that's a good audience.
GROSS: Howard Stern recorded last May after the publication of his collection of interviews called "Howard Stern Comes Again." After a break, we'll hear my 2010 interview with Joan Rivers as we continue our series of some favorite interviews of the decade. After Rivers died in 2014, Howard Stern gave her eulogy at the request of her daughter, Melissa. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's continue our end-of-the-decade series of interviews featuring some favorite interviews of the decade as chosen by our staff. Up next, Joan Rivers - one of the first really successful female comics. Even now after her death, she continues to have a big influence on comedy. Just consider the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." Rivers broken to comedy in the 1960s. She became a popular guest on "The Tonight Show," then a regular guest host, subbing for Johnny Carson. Her love of fashion and her snarky humor made her a popular host of red carpet shows.
The interview we're going to hear was recorded in 2010, after the release of a documentary about her called "Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work," which was about how driven she was, how she had to keep reinventing herself and how she was determined to keep performing. Four years after our interview, Rivers died at the age of 81. We started our interview with a clip from the documentary.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "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 [expletive] yourself. I'm still opening the doors.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: And that's Joan Rivers from the new documentary about her, which is called "Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work." Joan Rivers, welcome to FRESH AIR. And happy birthday. We're recording this on your birthday.
RIVERS: Ugh (ph).
RIVERS: Thank you very much. Yes, we are.
GROSS: And you've just turned 77.
RIVERS: Yeah, I know. And as I said today...
GROSS: Ugh - you said ugh because that's how you're feeling about it (laughter).
RIVERS: Well, no. I just don't believe that 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.
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. So what are the - some of the doors that you feel you're still opening?
RIVERS: Oh, I don't think - I never thought about it till the documentary came out. But I think I'm opening doors not just for women comedians. I never think about women. I think just always trying to push - for myself, push the boundaries. Make them listen. Make them listen to the truth, and laugh about it.
GROSS: 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.
GROSS: You may have been the first famous woman comic to tell vagina jokes (laughter).
RIVERS: Probably. Yes, I'm sure I did.
GROSS: So 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.
GROSS: No, 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...
GROSS: She needed a vacation or she had to get some minor surgery done.
RIVERS: She had - right. She had an appendectomy down in Cuba.
GROSS: She had an appendectomy, exactly.
RIVERS: Everybody went to Cuba to get appendectomies or went to Puerto Rico to get appendectomies.
GROSS: So anyways...
RIVERS: That was a big thing.
GROSS: So I interrupted your thought there, so continue with what you were saying.
RIVERS: No. 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 can 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.
RIVERS: 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.
RIVERS: They ended up happy - for her mother - my daughter married a doctor.
GROSS: So how did this kind of material go over?
RIVERS: Half the people would laugh, obviously 'cause - and half the people would go, (gasping). 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.
RIVERS: And again, (laughter) half the people laughed. But it was...
RIVERS: 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.
RIVERS: And people said, you can't say that. You can't talk about things like that.
GROSS: Has what you think is funny or what you want to talk about on stage changed with age?
RIVERS: Good question - 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. It's 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?
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 and how horrible it was but making people laugh about it at the same time. I talk about how I truly - I hate whiners. If - 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 term purposely - cripples. And if you're crippled, just get out of the room right now 'cause 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 OK.
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.
GROSS: And you're making a joke, and...
RIVERS: Well, northern Wisconsin.
GROSS: Thank you (laughter).
RIVERS: You know what I mean? Wisconsin with fir trees.
GROSS: Oh (laughter).
RIVERS: Yeah, so northern Wisconsin. Go ahead.
GROSS: All right. So anyways - so you're talking about children here, and I'll just let the clip play.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RIVERS: I hate children. The only child that I think I would have liked ever was Helen Keller 'cause she didn't talk. It is just...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It is very funny.
RIVERS: Yes, it is. And if you don't believe...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's not very funny if you have a deaf son.
RIVERS: I happen to have a deaf mother.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).
RIVERS: Oh, you stupid ass.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: F*** you.
RIVERS: Let me tell you what comedy is about.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Go ahead and tell me.
RIVERS: Oh, please. You are so stupid. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot. My mother is deaf, you stupid son of a b****. Don't tell me.
RIVERS: And just in case you can hear me in the hallway, I lived for nine years with a man with one leg, OK, you [expletive]? Now we're 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 [expletive] littering.
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, you know...
GROSS: 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.
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 at 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 onstage?
RIVERS: Oh, where do you start? My husband's suicide.
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 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.
GROSS: So for you, who want to perform all the time, does life not measure up to performing?
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 - Laurence 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. Now...
RIVERS: 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?
RIVERS: I live 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 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. I've not - I'm disappointing them. I have one friend who's a very good - very, very famous comedian - comic, who once said to me, I give them five minutes. 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 there's a deaf son and nobody should deal with it. But there were also - it was a 4,000-seat house. There were 3,999 other people that I did not want them to walk 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.
RIVERS: Oh, my darling.
GROSS: So where do you go from there? Yeah.
RIVERS: You just talking fast. And you start finding, where will they start to relax and laugh again? And it's always like, you know, you start a car - (imitating car turning over). 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. Boy, that guy at the beginning, wasn't he something? And that's what I did. 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 I've had happen 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...
RIVERS: ...Clean the stage? And the audience said, let's continue. And I said, no, let's clean the stage.
GROSS: Did it get on you?
RIVERS: Oh, God. It got on everything. The orchestra was gagging. When somebody starts to vomit, you know, everybody joins in.
GROSS: Oh, no.
RIVERS: It was awful.
GROSS: So what happened?
RIVERS: They - 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.
RIVERS: And everybody had a drink on Ms. Rivers (laughter).
GROSS: So what was the bill?
RIVERS: Oh, that was a couple of thousand dollars.
GROSS: Oh, gosh. 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.
RIVERS: Have at least three Mackie gowns.
GROSS: So what's the first thing you said when you came back on stage?
RIVERS: I said - I brought out matches. I was lighting matches. We had to get the smell out of the place. And then we just - I - 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.
RIVERS: And I probably said, the b**** just lost four pounds. I'm so jealous.
RIVERS: And then we just went on. But it's - you never know what's going to happen in a live show.
GROSS: Now, the film explores, among other things, your relationship with your daughter Melissa when she was young and you were establishing yourself in show business. Did you have a conflict between career and motherhood, which so many women go through now trying to balance the two? But not that many women were going through it when you were 'cause many more women were full-time, you know, mothers and homemakers then.
RIVERS: I did something from the very beginning because I had been sitting when I was pregnant with a very famous comedian. And her little girl was in the park. And the little girl fell down and cut her knee and ran to the nanny. And I said right then and then, my child will run to me. And I, from the beginning - we stopped everything at 6 o'clock. We always had a family dinner, even if we went out afterwards and had another dinner with friends. Everything stopped at 6. I was a Brownie Scout mother in those uniforms.
RIVERS: You don't know what I sacrificed for my daughter. I mean, Terry, please - a Jewish woman in a khaki dress, not to be believed. No. I think I was as good a working mother as you can possibly be. I was also lucky. I was in a position where I could take my daughter to work. When I was on Broadway, Melissa sat in a dressing room which she now talks about. And she would color and crayon in the dressing room. And she talks about that with such fond memories.
She talks about growing up backstage in Vegas, where - sitting on a stool. We sat around on a stool right offstage and where she could watch me. And every night, she was allowed to write one joke that I would say on the stage, no matter how terrible the joke was. And so she was always included, totally included as much as I could. But I also had to make a living.
GROSS: In the movie, I think it's you who says - 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.
GROSS: When did it cross over into joke?
RIVERS: Probably my first bad plastic surgery (laughter). Probably I - when I talked about it too much. I should have been like everybody else and not said a word and deny it, which they all do.
GROSS: So why did you talk about it?
RIVERS: I talked about it from the very beginning. But I'm a comedian. So of course you walk 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. 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 - people thought that's all I did.
But I was very glad I talked about it. It 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 - should I get it fixed? And all her friends are lying to her and saying, don't do it, Betty. And I'm saying, Betty, do it. You want to feel better about yourself? Do it.
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.
RIVERS: Well, it's also 20 years. And you could 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. I married him four days later.
GROSS: Four days later?
RIVERS: He was crazy - four days later. He was crazy about me. I just knew he was perfect for me.
GROSS: Perfect in what way?
RIVERS: And he was. 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, great marriage. Was I madly in love with him? Thumpy (ph), thumpy, thumpy, thumpy - no. But as my mother always said, they should like you more than you like them.
GROSS: So was he thumpy thumpy over you? Is that what you're saying?
RIVERS: Yeah. Oh, he thought I was the cutest chicky (ph) walking around. But he had very bad eyesight.
GROSS: So I think most people know that, you know, he took his life after...
RIVERS: Killed himself.
GROSS: Yeah, after - 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.
GROSS: And you in the movie say that you blame Fox for...
GROSS: ...His death. But I guess I'm wondering if maybe he wasn't, like, depressed before that and if maybe depression wasn't interfering with his relationship with the network and if it all kind of...
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 say he can go. He has to go. And he - I had the choice on a Thursday. 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. 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 because he wasn't a good businessman.
GROSS: So it sounds like you were, you know, horrified that he killed himself, but also angry with him.
RIVERS: Beyond angry, still am 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 that, 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 - Missy and 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. 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?
RIVERS: It sends a bad message to the family, but it sends a lot of jokes if mommy's a comedian.
GROSS: Right. Yeah.
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.
RIVERS: I 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?
RIVERS: Because it's so - 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: Joan Rivers recorded in 2010. She died at the age of 81 in 2014. Tomorrow, we continue our series of favorite interviews from the decade as selected by our staff. We'll feature highlights of three of our shows with musicians that included interviews and performances. We'll hear from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band that includes Rhiannon Giddens and plays music in the black string band tradition. Katherine Russell - a great jazz singer who does a lot of early jazz songs. Her father was Louis Armstrong's music director in the '40s. And pianist Jon Batiste, who leads the band on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." Great music to start the new year.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross. All of us at FRESH AIR wish you a healthy and fulfilling 2020.