Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the riveting new documentary that takes the mask off Joan Rivers the woman and Joan Rivers the brand, didn't get so much as a nod from the Academy Awards. Instead, according to a Daily Beast report, an Academy insider told Rivers that the doc — which covers a yearlong slog in Rivers' life as she navigates the fame machine, management troubles and even one very hostile audience member — didn't have enough social significance to merit Best Feature Documentary consideration. Her response was caustic enough to peel paint.
"Next time I'll carry around a crippled child from Africa," she said.
It's that fearless wit, born from a half-century of bold, trailblazing jokes — and the subsequent occasional blowback of firings and network bans — that has freed Rivers to be fiercer than ever at 77, while turning her into a household name and a Hollywood institution. Though her assiduous attention to her looks has made her a target for barbs — you know, because male comics are immune to vanity — she clearly has mockery's upper hand. The original tell-it-like-it-is queen, she's exploited her husband's suicide as easily as she called her daughter a cunt for not taking a $400,000 payoff to pose for Playboy. All for laughs, of course.
The Scene caught up with Rivers by phone, at a time when the grand dame has a new reality TV show on WE, Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, a fresh slot of episodes with E!'s Fashion Police, and a slew of comedy dates — including 8 p.m. Friday at TPAC's Jackson Hall.
A Piece of Work is really fascinating. Why do you think an honest woman pisses everyone off so much?
Because still women are supposed to be beautiful and mysterious and not a threat. Nobody goes after the woman who's going to make them feel insecure.
Last year you told The Onion you like to cover everything with a joke. Is comedy a survival skill for you?
Totally, for everybody. I never met a happy comedian. We're all — as I say in the documentary, which is now out on DVD and Blu-ray — we're all tortured souls.
So I guess that takes care of the need for any therapy?
Totally, and it's a great question. You talk to your audience and you get it out of your system, which means it's not that bad after all. And then you go home. And you feel very good.
You're known for pushing buttons — how do you navigate the line between being funny and too offensive? Is there a process or test for your jokes?
No, I just say what I think. And we're such a repressed country and so politically correct and uptight, that I think they love when someone comes out and says, this is ridiculous. It's the emperor's new clothes. Somebody has to say the emperor's not wearing anything.
Do you ever feel like you've joked about something too soon?
No, I go right at it, because that's how I get past it. I was in New York for 9/11 and I was in a nightclub two days later making jokes. I took it personally because it was something done to my city. My mother's death was horrible — right away I was onstage doing jokes about it. My husband's suicide. Everything really terrible, I go right for.
At this point in my life, [the audience] knows who I am. They know I'm going to be irreverent and outrageous, screaming about everything inside. They shouldn't be there if they don't want that.
Is anything off limits in comedy?
If I don't want to talk about it then it's off limits. But there's nothing that I'm like, oh my God, I want to laugh about that, but I can't. If I can't, then I won't. There was that 9-year-old child killed in Arizona? That's not funny at the moment. Not funny.
Ever surprised by the response to your jokes?
Well, people shouldn't go if they — take Ricky Gervais on the Golden Globes. They hired this outrageous comedian — if you watch his shows, they're outrageous, and then you're shocked that he said something? It's ridiculous.
And I'm guessing that if you had hosted?
Oh, my jokes would have been much worse. I do the Fashion Police now, it's every Friday on E! and it's totally outrageous, and the numbers are just through the roof. Actors just take themselves and their craft very seriously. You want to say, "Calm down, you were selling pizza two months ago."
You still perform all the time. Do you prefer the red carpet to the nightclubs?
I love live performing, that's why I keep on doing it. And that's why I will be in your city on Friday. There's nothing like a live audience, the immediacy is just staggering, and our Fashion Police now, if you listen, I make them get an audience. We tape at 8 in the morning, so we have this little tiny exhausted audience that wants coffee, but it's still better than no audience.
With all your storied accomplishments, is there anything you feel like you haven't achieved?
Oh sure. I've never been in a real situation comedy. My new reality show Joan & Melissa is on WE tv. Someone says it's a cross between Kardashians and Larry David, which is exactly right. But I've never done a straight sitcom. This is as close as we're getting to it and we're having such a great time.
The last time you shared the same roof?When she moved out for college.
The show Joan & Melissa: Mother Knows Best? has a question mark after the title, which I take it means we might discover mother doesn't know best.
How old are you, dear?
Well then, you know. What if your mother moved in with you?
Uh ... it would be a nightmare?
Exactly, but who knows more now? Everyone can relate to this.
Is this your first visit in Nashville?
Well, I was there about seven years ago and distinctly remember I bought cowboy boots. But I think it's just hilarious that Nicole Kidman is living there. If anyone doesn't fit into Nashville it would be Nicole, but obviously she does.
And why is that?
She's just so Hollywood and dressed so beautifully. There must be another side to her.
Do you incorporate anything about the city you're in in your jokes or do you just roll with it?
I roll with it. It's awful – there used to be this comedian called Bob Hope. And he'd say, "Well, Nashville, take that mayor of yours." And he didn't know one goddamn thing about the mayor. I find that so condescending to your audience. Obviously I'll be there the whole day and something will come up and then I'll talk about, but only if it's something truthful.
As a young comic, did you want to pave the way for any other women by pushing boundaries, or were you just carving out your own path?
My darling, are you kidding? All you want to do in this business is survive. Let the other women worry about themselves — I've got bills to pay here.
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