June 11, 2012
Guest: Joan Rivers
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Joan Rivers has had her share of ups and downs and comebacks, and now at the age of 79 she's now, well, kind of iconic. A lot of people saw her in a new way after the release of the 2010 documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which showed how obsessive she is about comedy and described the constant obstacles she's had to overcome to stay on or even close to the top in the business.
She was one of the first really successful women comics. She played Greenwich Village cabarets and borscht-belt hotels until becoming best known for appearing on "The Tonight Show," eventually becoming Johnny Carson's guest host until she launched her own late-night talk show.
She's still keeping up an incredible pace, doing standup, shooting reality shows with her daughter Melissa, selling jewelry on QVC, and appearing on the show "Fashion Police." Joan Rivers also has a new book called "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me."
Fortunately, FRESH AIR is not on the long list of things she hates, so I was able to record this interview with her. 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 why did you want to write a book about all the things that you hate, maybe not all the things, there's probably even more things that you didn't have room for.
RIVERS: No, there's a second book coming.
GROSS: "More Things that I Hate"?
RIVERS: This is going to be the "50 Shades of Grey" of hatred.
GROSS: Well, good for you.
RIVERS: I was going to call it, after my legs, "48 Shades of Blue," but I figured I'll stick with - I'll stick with what I have because it's so politically correct now. Everybody is so uptight to say anything. So I started making jokes about everything to my friends, and one of them said: Just jot it down. There's a book in this.
GROSS: Now, aren't you supposed to mellow with age?
RIVERS: Not in this society. Tell me that when they're stripping me down at the airport.
GROSS: 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.
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 did you hate different things when you were young than you hate now?
RIVERS: Oh, I think the hatred grows. It's lucky.
GROSS: That's so reassuring. Thanks for that.
RIVERS: There's always something new to hate. You know, there's always another cab driver, or there's always garbage on the streets. There's always something to hate.
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: Wow, really? I never thought about it that way, that you wanted to be an adult so badly so that you could start doing stand-up.
RIVERS: I used to think - and my term was, I want to play with the big boys. I want to - which meant I want to get out of college. I don't want to stand here in a college production, I went to Barnard, and draw a moustache on my roommate. I want to play opposite a man, you know.
GROSS: Huh. 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.
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?
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.
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.
RIVERS: How old was Myrtle? What size was your wife? My God, I'm the same size as Isabel.
GROSS: Have you spoken at a lot of funerals?
RIVERS: No, nobody asks me to do anything. The last time I was invited to the White House was during the Reagans, and I'm not making a joke. I am never invited to speak at anything. I am never invited to speak at a college commencement. I spoke at one, that was my daughter's, University of Pennsylvania. And people still come up to me and say to me: God, that was a good speech.
I am so out of the loop on both sides, on - I am never honored. It's very - my career is hilarious to me because I am so either under the radar or over the radar, never asked to do anything.
GROSS: That's really odd. I'm shocked.
RIVERS: Yeah, I am shocked too. Never...
GROSS: Do you think people are afraid of - that you're going to say something that they will consider inappropriate and tasteless?
RIVERS: Probably. Meanwhile, I've been invited to the royal weddings, command performances to the Queen of England. It's just so funny where you're embraced and where you're ignored. Haven't been to the White House, as I said, since the Reagans, and I've been to the royal weddings, and I go to Buckingham Palace at least twice a year. And I just say to myself: You know, somewhere they love you, somewhere they don't.
GROSS: So when you did the command performance for the queen, so what does that mean exactly? She's at Royal Albert Hall in the audience...
RIVERS: No, wherever it is. Wherever it is. Sometimes it's in London, sometimes it's outside. I did one outside, in Windsor, and one in England - in London. She comes, and it's always for a great charity, and it's - and I'm sorry you're an American, it doesn't matter. They play "God Save The Queen," and you just melt. You know, it's just oh my God, look where I am. I'm a Jewish girl from Brooklyn.
And then you do your - you do your act, and then afterwards they come down the receiving line, they meet and they chat with you, and they talk to you, and it's just - it's amazing. It's amazing.
GROSS: So did you choose your material knowing that the queen was in the audience?
RIVERS: Yeah, you're a little more careful. I did slip, and I said - and get ready, because you have to believe it. I said the word (bleep), and I said it, and I turned to her in the box, I said: Behead me now.
GROSS: My guest is Joan Rivers. Her new book is called "I Hate Everything" - that is, "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Rivers. She has a new book called "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." And it's a book all about the things that she hates.
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 it's about to start again, the third season.
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?
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, and the show is called "Louie," and Joan Rivers has a new book called "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me."
So Joan Rivers, have you actually given this pep talk to younger comics?
RIVERS: No, because I hate younger comics...
RIVERS: Because they're taking work from me. But I love Louie. I think he's going to be major. I think he should be writing movies. He knows his craft. But it's really true, you do not leave a job. In our business, you do not quit. I told Deborah Norville once, who's a very good friend of mine, when they try to - you're holding on to the ladder. When they cut off your hands, hold on with your elbow.
You know, when they cut off your arms, hold on with your teeth. You don't quit because 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.
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.
GROSS: Did you feel like your time had passed because everybody else was getting known before you were?
RIVERS: I didn't have a choice. I knew this is what I wanted to do, and I would get, like, every tenth show there would be a great audience, and you'd go yeah, I do have what it takes. And then there would be nine audiences that would spit in your face, and you'd see every friend of yours going on.
You know, George Carlin especially, you know, went up, and Bill Cosby, but he's always bitter, Bill - I suffered. He came from Philadelphia to New York. Maybe something terrible happened on the train, because when he landed, he got right into nightclub in New York, and they picked him up immediately. So I don't know where he suffered. Maybe the men's room was blocked. I don't know.
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.
RIVERS: You can - isn't she wonderful, she tries everything. Or she's the biggest whore in the business.
GROSS: So what did Topo Gigio lead to?
RIVERS: It led to my writing for Phyllis Diller and Bob Newhart. And so I was making a living writing one-liners. And then I began, as I said, to go - then I went to Second City, and then I came back to New York, and I worked in - all over the Village, where I met everybody.
So one thing does lead somehow to another.
GROSS: It's great that you wrote for Phyllis Diller because one of her things was, like, her husband Fang, and she'd always tell, like, her husband jokes. And you told a lot of husband jokes. So I imagine a lot of her husband jokes were actually yours?
RIVERS: But the difference was she made fun of her husband, and if anyone ever listened closely to mine, which they did not - because they'd always say to my husband, Edgar, oh, does she make an idiot of you - I was always the idiot in the joke. You know what I'm saying? I was the one. I came out of the bath who had no breasts. I came out of the bathroom on my wedding night, and he said: Let me help you with the buttons. And I said: I'm naked. So I was the idiot.
RIVERS: But poor Edgar, till he died, people would say, boy, does she give it to you. Whoa. (Unintelligible) listen, I'm not giving it to him. I'm doing it to me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Rivers, and she has a new book called "I Hate Everyone: Starting with Me." And it's a really funny book about all the things she hates, and there's plenty of them. 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 father was a funny, funny man, as well as an incredible doctor.
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.
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.
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.
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: Joan Rivers will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "I Hate Everyone: Starting with Me." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Joan Rivers. She has a new book called "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." It's a catalog of all the things she hates. One of those things is getting old. She turned 79 last week. When we left off, we were talking about getting started in show business.
Did coming from a, what did you say, an upper-middle-class suburban...
GROSS: Did coming from that background helped or hurt you in any way as a comic?
RIVERS: It doesn't matter if there was pain in the house or pain in your own mind. And as I said, going back to your first thing that we talked about, I was this lumpy fat child that wanted to be an actress. I stole my picture off the piano when I was eight years old and sent it to MGM.
GROSS: Did you really? Seriously?
RIVERS: Yes. And my mother kept saying, where is the frame with Joan's picture in it? I sent them with the frame.
GROSS: That's so funny because the picture that was framed over the piano of me and my brother when I was growing up, if I was sending a picture to MGM, I certainly wouldn't want them to see that picture, which was your...
GROSS: ...you know, you're kind of like photo house hack, photo, you know what I mean? It was like...
RIVERS: Was it colored in?
GROSS: It was colored in with that fake coloring.
RIVERS: Yes. Of course. Yes. Yes.
GROSS: It was like bad oil colors were something.
RIVERS: Yes. Yes. Yes. Exactly. The lips are a little too pink.
GROSS: Yes. Exactly.
RIVERS: The cheeks are a little too pink.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. It was horrible. I can't believe you sent that. Did you get a response?
RIVERS: Not a word.
GROSS: I'm not surprised.
RIVERS: They didn't even send the frame back. Come on.
GROSS: I can't believe you sent it in the frame.
RIVERS: I was so stupid.
GROSS: Did you write a letter?
RIVERS: Just yeah, like (unintelligible) as much as you could write it eight or nine: I really think I could be a good actress.
GROSS: It's interesting, you sent it directly to MGM and not to an agent.
RIVERS: Yeah, I didn't know - at nine, who's an agent?
RIVERS: I thought they were going to say, look at this little fat pig here. We could use her in a farm movie.
GROSS: So did you at some point say I have to lose weight?
RIVERS: No. Still haven't. Still haven't.
GROSS: Come on.
RIVERS: I try and I'd starve all day and then I'd eat Milk Duds.
GROSS: Yeah, but you are so thin. I mean...
RIVERS: No, I'm not. Truly, I'm not being cute.
GROSS: Oh, no, no. Let's not go there.
RIVERS: No, let's not go there. You know, like you sit with these thin women that say I can't, I don't eat. You want to say, you eat two meals, one going down and one coming up.
GROSS: Right. I hear what you're saying. But you had your issues with food and dieting, didn't you?
RIVERS: Always. Always. And I am a closet bulimic. Right after my husband committed suicide, all I did was throw up, and someone explained to me that was, of course, that was the only control I had over my life at the moment. Maybe. You know, I know I look good.
GROSS: Have you ever wished that you didn't care that much about how you look?
RIVERS: Wrong society.
GROSS: Wrong business too, I guess.
RIVERS: Wrong any business.
GROSS: So let me get back to entertainment. What were the movies or the songs or the acts or the shows that made the biggest impression on you?
RIVERS: Broadway. Anything on Broadway. My mother and father loved the theater and I was taken from a very early age on to see ballet and theater and opera and so - it was always live. Live. And one of the first things I remember, I saw the Ballet Russe at BAM, Brooklyn Academy of Music, we went all the way to see that. And I remember seeing "Where's Charlie" with the Ray Bolger and he did something that I always try to do now. He had all the children come back and he walked them on the stage and it was like going into the temple. It was like being an Inca and climbing up to be a sacrificial virgin. It was...
GROSS: In the good sense.
RIVERS: In the good sense. Well, they only pick pretty girls from virgins. Me, I would say, I'm a virgin. Of course.
RIVERS: The gods don't want you.
GROSS: What about movies?
RIVERS: Movies, not so much. It's always real theater. I love old movies. And I have a hairdresser, God bless him, Raymond, who is Puerto Rican, and where they lived in Puerto Rico they still had outhouses. So he, and he's gay and he has seen nothing. So whenever he comes over I say sit down, you're going to watch "Mrs. Miniver." Sit down. I get a chance to show him all the old movies and it's so much fun.
GROSS: And you talk about them afterwards?
RIVERS: Oh, yes. And you explain who Grier Garson was or Laurence Olivier - to show somebody with new eyes "Wuthering Heights," I mean that's fabulous.
GROSS: And are you showing him this on Turner Classic Movies or do you have the DVDs?
RIVERS: I get the DVDs.
RIVERS: And we'll bleach my hair and watch great movies.
RIVERS: And he sucks it up and it's so much fun.
GROSS: So when you were getting started, what was the balance between feeling a sense of camaraderie with other young performers, like Woody Allen, and who else did you mention?
RIVERS: Oh, Dick Cavett, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, we were all running around. Babsie as I call her behind her back, Babsie S., Barbra Streisand, we were all down there at the same time in the Village. Bob Dylan.
GROSS: So - OK, so you weren't directly competing with Bob Dylan because you were doing different things.
GROSS: But what was the balance between camaraderie and competition that you felt with this circle of people?
RIVERS: Well, first of all, I was the only girl down there, so they didn't really feel they were competitive with me. But what they didn't get was I didn't think of myself as a girl. I just thought of myself as I'm funnier than you, you know, so it was very interesting. So where they perhaps were not as competitive with me, I was beyond competitive with them. But we all were friends and we all had a great sense of not taking each others' material, and that was a wonderful moment because up to then, you know, the generation before us, they stole each other's - if somebody - and there's some people now, I'm not want to mention names, that come down and see young comics and just take their material.
GROSS: It must be hard way not to take other people's material because sometimes - I know with myself sometimes I'll think of something and I'm not really sure, did I come up with that or did I hear it somewhere?
GROSS: I think I came up with it but it sounds a little familiar to me. Maybe I heard it somewhere. And sometimes you honestly don't know.
RIVERS: Oh, you don't know. I very seldom go to comedy clubs because I don't want to have to walk up to somebody after a show and say, you're not going to believe this but I'm doing good joke that is just about the same. They will never believe that. On my reality show, "Joan and Melissa," which is renewed for our third year...
RIVERS: And - thank you. Oh, you have no idea. Thank you. Thank you. I'm so happy. I have a big fight with Lynne Koplitz, who is a friend of mine, very good standup comedian who claimed she was doing a joke and we did it in the reality show. And I said, Lynne, I've been doing this joke for six months and she says, well, I've been doing it for a year. Well, the point is I didn't know. So I'm very careful sometimes not to go and see young comics.
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.
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.
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: Right. Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Rivers. She has a new book called "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Joan Rivers and she has a new book called and it's called "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." And it's lots of really funny stuff about all the things that she hates.
So among the things that you hate, do you hate reality shows? Because you've done your share of them. Your show with Melissa was just renewed.
RIVERS: I hate reality shows that are not reality. I mean I do not believe that all those housewives do is sit down, you spit in each other's face, you slap each other and then you go to a party together. You want to go: c'mon. Those kind of reality shows I just think are so stupid. So stupid. Our show, one of the conditions that we did "Joan and Melissa," was that we would have cameras following us around all the time so that we really - because enough happens in everybody's life that's interesting. And I don't want to stage, all Melissa, you walk over to me and spit in my face. That'll be good. You know, I don't have to worry because somewhere in the 24 hours she will do that.
GROSS: Do you ever regret that you've put your life and your daughter Melissa's life on camera, had fights on camera, you know, exposed things that other people would probably prefer to keep private in their lives?
RIVERS: No. I think it's healthy. I think it's great for people to say it's OK, they do that too. We do that. That's the way my mother and I treat each other. I think it's very good. You know, my husband committed suicide. We did a movie about it and the critics ripped us to shreds. This goes back 20 years ago when you could not talk about suicide and you shouldn't talk about this and this is dirty laundry and this is wrong and blah, blah blah. We got, I'd say, I never saw mail bags like that. We got from all over the country people saying, thank you. My brother killed himself, nobody would listen. My husband killed himself. I had all this anger. Nobody would listen. So I think it's very healthy and good in reality television to show them, it happens here too.
GROSS: So having cameras in your home, showing like your fights and everything for your reality show, do you find that life is more exhilarating as theater, that you enjoy life more when it's in part a performance because there's cameras there?
RIVERS: I enjoy life when things are happening and I don't care if it's good things or bad things. That means you're alive, you know what I'm saying? Things are happening. My husband used to say it is never dull around here. And that's good. We never looked at each other and went...
(SOUNDBITE OF SNORING)
RIVERS: ...I'm so bored.
GROSS: When there's no camera, do you feel less alive?
RIVERS: No. When there's no camera I can let my stomach out.
GROSS: So what is your favorite red carpet moment of the many that you've had?
RIVERS: Dustin Hoffman, when I said I can't get into the Academy Awards and he picked me up and carried me in.
GROSS: Did he really?
RIVERS: On camera. It was hilarious. They're not going to stop Dustin Hoffman, he's carrying this big fatso in. That was, I loved that moment.
GROSS: And when you're doing a red carpet show, how do you think about what you're going to wear? Do you call a designer? Would you do?
RIVERS: I don't even think. I have a wonderful stylist called Cary Fetman and he'll bring in like three dresses and at this age what hides the arm, what hides the thighs, what hides the stomach, what hides, you know, I only wish I were a Muslim and was in a burqa. It would solve everything.
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.
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?
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.
RIVERS: Good for you. Oh.
GROSS: And I said...
GROSS: I was really embarrassed but I said, you know...
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?
GROSS: One of the issues when you get to the age of 79 is that you've outlived a lot of friends.
GROSS: And relatives. So...
RIVERS: It's awful.
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, Hector. 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 it's been so wonderful to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
RIVERS: I love talking to you. Every time they say, you want to talk to her? I go, yes.
GROSS: Well, good. Thank you so much. I'm so glad you came back and congratulations on the book. It's really funny.
RIVERS: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
GROSS: Joan Rivers' new book is called "I Hate Everyone, Starting with Me." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends books for summer reading. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: For some people, the perfect summer getaway involves the beach, the mountains or a trip to far off lands. But for others, the perfect getaway only requires the imagination. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has some early summer recommendations for armchair vacationers.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Summer is a season when people get hyper-social with barbecues and neighborhood fairs, graduations and pool parties. In short, it's an especially trying time for those of us who'd rather stay indoors and read a book. The nonfiction books on this list are filled with such marvelous facts and anecdotes, they'll arm you with a supply of handy conversational tidbits should you have to socialize.
The letter collection and novels I'm recommending are so absorbing they'll give you the moral courage to draw the curtains, crank up the air conditioning, and ignore all unwelcome invitations. One of my happiest dinnertime memories from my 1960s childhood is of those nights when my mother would announce that she was taking a vacation from cooking. Out would pop the TV trays and a defrosted silver foil dinner of breaded haddock cut into two isosceles triangles, neon green peas and a smattering of tater tots. Yum.
The dinner may have been Swanson's but the man to thank is Clarence Birdseye. Birdseye was the father of frozen food and his extraordinary story as an amateur inventor and world traveler is told in a new biography by Mark Kurlansky, who himself might be thought of as the father of the historical food narrative given his bestsellers "Cod" and "Salt."
This biography, called "Birdseye," follows our man as he travels to Labrador in the early 20th century and discovers the trick, long known to the native Inuit population, of deep freezing trout and cabbages in ice and sea water. As Kurlansky points out, these days the locavore movement recoils from food harvested from far away, but Birdseye was a 19th-century foodie, who dreamed of making food industrial and available to America's burgeoning cities.
Cryonic freezers are where Jill Lepore's new book, "The Mansion of Happiness" comes to a dead halt. Lepore, who is a historian at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker where parts of this book have already appeared, has written an offbeat history of American ideas about life and death. Lepore's title, "The Mansion of Happiness," derives from an early 19th century board game that piously represented life as a voyage whose end was a return to heaven.
By the time American game innovator Milton Bradley revamped the game as "Life" in 1860, Lepore says it was no longer imaged as a race to heaven, but rather as a series of hard-nosed economic calculations about the best route to collect the most points fastest. This chapter alone on the history of children's board games speaks volumes about how American ideas about the meaning of life have mutated.
"My Dear Governess" is a surprising literary discovery that charts a life through letters. In 2009, the letters of Anna Bahlmann came up for auction. Bahlmann was an orphaned daughter of German immigrants who served first as a governess and, then, a companion to Edith Wharton for more than 40 years. 135 letters from Wharton turned out to be in Bahlmann's possession and they flesh out our vision of Wharton's life as a debutante, disappointed wife and determined writer.
What's also illuminated here is the anxious, frugal life of a society governess. Bahlmann's clothing ledger for 1898, for instance, details a total expense of $290.24. That was a sizable chunk of change for Bahlmann to give over to dresses, gloves and ribbons in order to make herself presentable in high society parlors. The lonely wise child, who's the heroine of Jane Gardam's newly-reprinted 1986 masterpiece "Crusoe's Daughter," doesn't have to worry much about clothes.
Polly Flint lives with her two maiden aunts in an isolated house near the Irish Sea. "Crusoe's Daughter" is Gardam's own favorite among her novels and Gardam reigns as my personal favorite among off-beat female British writers. She melds the desolate humor of a Stevie Smith and the crumpet-y settings of a Barbara Pym. Who else would dream up these adjectives to describe an odious vicar: pale flabby candlegrease Father Pocock with hands like a seal's flippers and a puffy pink sea-anemone mouth.
Talk about a nightmare of enforced holiday conviviality. Mark Haddon's new novel "The Red House" is a kind of dark, contemporary British version of that cinematic chestnut, "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation." Haddon conjures up the emotional discomforts that ensue when a wealthy surgeon invites his feuding sister, her unemployed husband and their kids to share a vacation house in Wales. Listen to this inspired stream-of-consciousness grumble from one of Haddon's unhappy vacationers.
How strange this yearning for being elsewhere doing nothing. The gift of princes once, its sweet poison spreading. And now you must do nothing for a week and enjoy it. Days of rest long past the point where we've rested, holidays without the holy, pilgrimage become mere travel, the destination handed to us on a plate, the idleness of the empire in its final days. Welcome to summer, everybody.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. We've posted her list of books for summer reading on our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr @nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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