Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed. This is the mantra of the pessimist and the persecuted alike, the preemptive strike of those who tend to paint the picture a little blacker than it is. And then there is Joan Rivers, the orneriest creature ever to darken Hollywood’s door. She once told me that her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who killed himself in 1987, lived by the heartwarming motto “Fuck them over before they fuck you over first.”
I have known Rivers for 22 years, long enough to know that she does not exactly share this view of the world, even if she likes to muck around in it from time to time. In fact, she considers it a flaw in her late husband’s character, one that set in motion the chain reaction that almost destroyed her career: In the mid-eighties, Rivers was one of the most successful comedians in the world. She was the highest-paid entertainer on the Vegas Strip and Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host on the Tonight Show, until she was lured away to Fox to host her own late-night talk show. Edgar, she says, was a toxic presence on the set of her show, fighting bitterly with Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch over everything from office furniture to money. Joan and Edgar were fired after only seven months, and the fallout was devastating. She was excommunicated by Carson, her mentor, for leaving; she was effectively banned from late night, hardly ever invited to appear on Letterman, Leno, Conan. Her marriage fell apart and then Edgar swallowed a bottle of pills. Her daughter, Melissa, stopped speaking to her. Rivers fell into a deep depression, became bulimic, and considered suicide herself.
When I first met Rivers it was 1988, just a year after Edgar had killed himself. She was moving back to New York after fourteen years in Los Angeles and taking over Linda Lavin’s role in Broadway Bound, a gig that she says pulled her life out of its nosedive. It wouldn’t be the last time she found redemption through her work.
On a recent morning in early May, we are sitting in her study eating cake. It has been served to us by Kevin and Debbie, her butler and housekeeper, who have been living with her for twenty years in their own quarters in her grand apartment, a mini-Versailles on East 62nd Street. (“Marie Antoinette would have lived here,” Rivers likes to say, “if she had money.”) Joan loves cake, loves anything sweet. The Joan Rivers diet: You can eat anything you want before 3 p.m. and then nothing for the rest of the day. When she goes out to dinner, she puts a small pile of Altoids on the table next to her plate, which she eats one after another while barely touching her food.
We are talking about the peculiar turn of events her life has taken recently, how she is suddenly squarely at the center of the culture again—something that has escaped her since her Fox debacle. At the age of 76, it seems, she has been rediscovered. Much of it has to do with a new documentary about her life, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which opens in theaters on June 11. Roger Ebert wrote, in one of the film’s many rave reviews, that it is “one of the most truthful documentaries about show business I’ve seen. Also maybe the funniest.” The film comes at the end of a remarkable year for Rivers, one that began when she won The Celebrity Apprentice (after one of the uglier reality-TV showdowns), outfoxing all those bimbos, has-beens, and two-bit poker players to emerge—somehow—as the sympathetic character. At long last, not fired! It’s unfamiliar territory for Rivers: to be the one people root for.
“It’s amazing,” says Rivers, shaking her head in disbelief. But then this: “People who have seen the film come up to me and say, ‘I never liked you until now.’ TV interviewers say, right in front of me, ‘Even if you have always hated Joan Rivers … you are going to love her and be mesmerized by this film.’ They spit right in my face and then spend the next ten minutes wiping it dry.” That is when she shows me the pillow she has embroidered that sits on a leather couch in her study: DON’T EXPECT PRAISE WITHOUT ENVY UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD.
If Joan Rivers has a hard time taking a compliment, she has an even tougher time handing one out. “I will only praise someone who can’t take anything away from me,” she says with a mordant laugh. “People ask me all the time: ‘What do you think about Sarah Silverman?’ ” She switches into a comically polite-insincere voice. “Hmmm. She’s nice, I guess. I really haven’t seen her.”