The devastating news of Joan Rivers’ passing reminded us of an interview we conducted with the comedy icon in 2012. We’d just seen her hysterical nightclub act at the Laurie Beechman Theater near Times Square and we wanted to talk about how she gets away with such insanely risqué jokes. Over the course of an hour-long set she tore into Mexicans, Haitians and just about every celebrity you can imagine. Not a lot of comedians find ways to rib June Allyson, Kirk Douglas and Angelina Jolie’s children in a single act, but Joan was unique. Tiny bits of this piece ran in print in 2012, but the vast majority has never been posted until now.
Where are you calling from?
I’m in a car somewhere in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. God knows where.
What brings you there?
I wanna see New Jersey. I’m going to a shower for Snooki! No, I’m about to do QVC.
I saw you play a nightclub in New York the other week. It was pretty amazing. What makes you play such small places so frequently?
Because it’s fun. Tomorrow I’m playing in San Bernardino to 5,000 people. That’s wonderful, too. Don’t misunderstand me. But it’s a different thing and you really have to give them a show. When you go into someplace like the West Bank Cafe you can say what you want. There’s such an immediacy to it. It’s like getting up at a friend’s party. That’s where all the new stuff comes from.
Right, it’s sort of a training ground.
It’s two things. It’s improvisational and that’s great, but the other part is that I just want to have fun. Girls just want to have fun. Well, so do old ladies!
I think a lot of entertainers have fun by taking nights off, but that doesn’t seem to be your thing.
I just get such a connection from an audience. You play with them. I get mad at them. I yell at them. They yell at me. It’s just fun. Trust me, there’s not one night a week I’m not in a theater somewhere. I adore theater and I go out with friends, so I do have some nights off.
I take it you save some of your more risqué material for nightclubs.
I just do what I do. It all comes out. Comedy is a very rough beat. It’s no holds barred, as it should be. Our lives are no holds barred now. The gentler time is gone. My God, every time I get on an airplane I figure it’s gonna get blown up. You live on the edge.
I loved every second of the show, but I got the sense that a small minority of the audience was really shocked and offended by some of the jokes.
Great! Great! Do you what that means, darling? It means I’m current. I’m on track. I’m 2012.
I guess some of the crowd just knows you from E! and Fashion Police.
If they know me from E! and fashion, they love me. If they know me from Carson or the Sullivan days, these are different times, guys. If you like Louis CK, you’re gonna like me. If you like, “Hello Mother, Hello Father” you’re not going to like me. But I don’t care.
Are there any jokes or subject matter you shy away from because they are too controversial?
No. Part of my act is meant to shake you up. It looks like I’m being funny, but I’m reminding you of other things. Life is tough, darling. Life is hard. And we better laugh at everything, otherwise we’re going down the tube.
I was roaring the whole time. I can’t be offended.
I don’t mean you. I meant the audience. I mean, I get so angry when they say that Michael J. Fox was never happier. Are you out of your mind? I get so mad at that sort of stupidity. Don’t be offended, but a lot of what the press says is ridiculous. C’mon! Use your heads!
There were parts of the show, like the bits about Haiti or Auschwitz, where I couldn’t help but think they might become a mini scandal if someone posted them on YouTube out of context.
Well, people shouldn’t see me if that stuff bothers them. Bill Cosby, who does a very family oriented act, once said to me, “If one percent of the entire world thought you were funny, you can fill stadiums.” So I just say what I think is funny and is the truth and that’s it.
Do you think that a lot of comedians hold back because they’re afraid of offending people?
Not the ones that I love. Not the Chris Rocks or the Louis CKs or the Kathy Griffins. Not the ones that are relevant now. Not the ones that talk about what’s happening.
Your schedule is pretty nuts, flying back and forth to California every single week.
It is, but I love it. This is what I do. It’s also the captain’s paradise. I spent half the week in California with my daughter and grandson, which is fabulous. And then half the week in New York, running around and going to openings and museums and theaters and designing jewelry. What could be better?
On the five hours on the plane each way, I read and sleep. How many people get to spend 10 hours a week, and I’m not making a joke, reading and just doing what they want? I love the way my life has fallen into place.
Do you think you could enjoy taking two months off to just do nothing?
I take three different weeks in the summer and I go to places with [her grandson] Cooper. I take a week in the winter and we go away. Trust me, I have a good life. It’s balanced.
Do you miss doing the red carpet interviews?
Not at all. When Melissa and I were doing it originally, we were able to ask the fun questions. Now it’s been taken over by publicists. I’m making this up now, but it’s like if you said something negative about Cate Blanchett her publicist won’t let you talk to, say, Michael J. Fox. Suddenly you’re at the whim of publicists. There are a lot of things they won’t let you discuss.
I didn’t like the lengths of the interviews we were doing. We weren’t allowed to ask anything relevant. I hated it. You’re sucking up to publicists! At the last Oscars I did I was begging a girl from [publicity firm] PMK, pleading with her! I remember saying, “Come on, you’re Jewish. Give me a Passover gift.” It was so stupid.
Do you feel competitive with other comedians?
I’m right there. When someone says, “Oh, you’re broke” I want to say, “Excuse me? Broke? Out of the way!” I could still take them all on with one hand behind my back.
No matter happens to your career, you always come back.
My career has ended three or four times. I just won’t acknowledge it.
And you clawed your way back.
That’s just it. Winston Churchill said, and this is where my ten hours a week of reading comes in, he said that falling down doesn’t make you a loser. It’s not getting back up that makes you a loser.
Yeah, they booted him out of office right after World War II, and he still came back.
Right back to being Prime Minister again, still smoking and drinking and whoring. And eating! What a fatso!
Why do you think that so few late-night talk shows are hosted by women?
It’s a very tough field, a very strong field. You just need a tough woman, that’s all. She’ll come along. Nobody is there now that doesn’t deserve to be there. But somebody will come along.
It is a tough gig.
I think it’s boring. My God, when I hosted my own daytime show, ugh! I used to call them Heathers. If you get one more beautiful, young woman coming along and telling me how happy they were on the set of their movie…You wanna throw up.
Do you think that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are changing the game with their shows?
No. Not at all. I think they’re funny and political and smart. And I love them. I will always turn to Colbert and watch him immediately.
Do you like Chelsea Handler?
I’m not allowed to discuss it. I can’t talk about her. We both work for E!, so we’ve been asked not to talk about each other. I have yet to quote a line of hers, but I respect E! and we’ve been asked not to talk about it.
Do you think that Obama is doing a good job?
I think they’re all a bunch of fools. All I know is, I’m learning Chinese.
Do you think he’s going to beat Romney?
I don’t know and I don’t care. Whether or Obama stays or Romney comes in, it’s a fucking disaster. And I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the solution. I think it should be a woman. I want to kick myself for not voting for Hillary.
She just comes out now looking the best. I think she would have been the best. She’s smart. Also, I think you need a woman. Enough with all the stupidity. Enough with two years of campaigning. Never mind with your fucking fundraising dinners…I really think in four years time we’ll all probably talk in Chinese.
Switching back to talk shows, I always enjoy you on Howard Stern.
I adore him. I love him. I knew him when he was in a closet on NBC, this ittty bitty studio. He’s the best. I love him.
Doing four or five hours a morning off the top of his head…
He’s tough and he’s brilliant. I love him. I also love Louis CK. He’s just good, good, good.
Do you have any desire to host another talk show on TV?
I’d kill to do a late night talk show. It would have to be a late, late, late, late, late night show. We’d call it Nobody’s Watching, So Who Gives a Fuck? I would kill to do it.
Do you see yourself still working like this in ten years?
I look at Betty White and think how lucky I am. Here’s a woman in her 90s that is starring in a TV show. Think about George Burns. As long as you have your marbles, you can do it.
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Staying this active must keep you healthy.
That’s right. I exercise a lot. I take vitamins by the bucketload. So far, so good. My parents died in their late Eighties. We have good Russian blood. Something in my family ate a lot of borscht and ate a lot of potatoes.
All right, thanks for doing this Joan. It was a pleasure.
And you! I read Rolling Stone. I love Rolling Stone. It was a pleasure.