Joan Rivers, the garbage-mouthed, Teflon-maned comedy survivor, turned 76 in June. Last week, in Los Angeles, she was subjected to a merciless roast, which will air on Comedy Central on August 9. A few weeks earlier, she’d dropped the latest in a lifetime of offensive cracks when she said of Michael Jackson’s death, “Well, that’s good, my grandson can take a walk alone again.” At the roast, Rivers, who sat center stage, got what was coming to her all these years. Her spiritual heir, Kathy Griffin, who hosted the night, talked about Rivers and Jackson sharing the same dermatologist: “Unfortunately, he only killed your face.” Greg Giraldo said, “You’re like RoboCop: You’re half-human and nobody’s given a fuck about you since 1986.” And Tom Arnold said that when Rivers read the suicide note from her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who killed himself in 1987, “she sent it back for a rewrite.”
Rivers was ready for the thrashing. Ask her when’s the wrong time for humor, and she says: “Never. If a joke comes to you, then that’s the time for humor. When my husband committed suicide, there was nothing funny running through my head. But by the next day, I was already starting with close friends to do terrible black humor. Two nights after 9/11, I was doing I-hate-terrorists-because-they’re-so-blank jokes. That’s how I get through life. God has given us this gift of humor. Animals don’t laugh.”
Rivers has been plying her crass, quick-witted gift for so long — on the Tonight Show, on the red carpet with her daughter, Melissa, for the E! and TV Guide channels, and on QVC, hawking her jewelry — it can be hard to believe that she was once a nice Jewish doctor’s daughter, born Joan Molinsky, who graduated from Barnard and would drive in from Larchmont to gig the Village comedy clubs. “There was a place next door to the Bitter End,” she says. “On any given night, you had Cavett, Woody, me — and Bob Dylan with that stupid scarf.”
An early gig was at the Duplex. “My last line was, ‘It’s a rough business, so I just want you to know that my name is Joan Rivers and I put out.’ I’d had an affair with a married professor, that was part of my act. While he was going out with me, his wife became pregnant, so I figured he wasn’t sincere.” Rim shot!
But, unlike her contemporary, the fright-wigged Phyllis Diller, “I wasn’t trying to look funny. I’d wear a pretty black dress, my dating dress from college, and my circle pin with my hair bleached and done, and makeup. I wanted to be pretty. I went out with a comic named Milt Kamen, who was going places. He didn’t like that I was funny. I remember him saying to me, ‘Are you going to be funny in bed?’”
She didn’t swear in those days. “The early sixties was still the Eisenhower years,” says Rivers. “Then rock and roll came in. When you’re opening for a rock group, you’re going to have to be wilder. They don’t want to hear that your dog died. They want to hear that you ate your fucking dog and you took the fur and made a muff.”
And Rivers is not ready to shut her damn mouth. She still plays the West Bank Cafe on West 42nd Street on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when she’s in town. She’s hosting a new show, How’d You Get So Rich?, where she basically asks rich people that question, on TV Land starting August 5. In late August and September, she’s playing Vegas. She can also be relied upon to regularly say the F-word on live TV. She’s still worth roasting. “I love my success,” she says. “I love that people know me and say hello. Tell me the downside. When people talk about the burdens of success, you want to spit in their fucking face.”