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Joan Rivers Always Knew She Was Funny

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With Melissa Rivers.  

But now, in Utah, it is finally sinking in that the movie is good. The premiere is at a synagogue, funnily enough, and after a long wait in a makeshift greenroom there is a silly press conference and photo op, where Rivers, off the top of her head, makes the joke, since repeated, that she should have made a documentary about her life selling jewelry on QVC called Semi-Precious.

Rivers seems nervous on her way in to the theater. It is the first time she is seeing the film on a big screen in front of an audience. As we wait for it to start, she tells me a story about Prince Charles, with whom she has been friends for several years. (Not inner circle, she says. Outer-inner circle.) HRH sends her a Christmas gift every year, which, more than once, has been two very fancy teacups. One year, she says, I took a picture under my Christmas tree with the teacups and wrote, How could you send me two teacups when I’m alone?’ Another time I wrote, I’m enjoying tea with my best friend!’ and I sent a picture of me in a cemetery. And he never acknowledges it! He never says to me when I see himdoing his accent perfectly Ohhhh, funny funny funny!’ So this year I thought, I’m just going to write him a nice thank-you note. And the other day our mutual friend calls and says, Just spoke to Charles! He said, I can’t wait to see Joan’s note this year! ’ 

As the theater fills up, a steady stream of fans and well-wishers stop to chat. A woman in the aisle in front of us turns around and asks, Doesn’t that bother you? Rivers says, Are you kidding? Forty years! Thank God they’re still doing it. I have many friends in the business they don’t bother with anymore, who are asked to step aside on the red carpet, and that’s more embarrassing.

Rivers has always got her nose in a book. She devours them, several at a time. On this trip, there is Game Change. Hillary comes off as furious and rightfully so. And you hate Obama in the end. He’s weak. Michelle is the tough one. Palin is a moron. McCain is an egocentric fool. The other she is reading is George Carlin’s Last Words. It reminds me why I hated him, she says. The arrogance, the self-congratulatory tone, the superior attitude, and then the selling out for any shitty award.

It is a cliché but it is true. Most comedians are dreary bores: neurotic, self-obsessed, competitive, and no fun when they are not onstage. Not Joanie! She is funny in the way that your funniest friend is: aware of everything, well-read, opinionated. She also asks good questions. Who do you hate? is one of her conversation starters, and it always works because there is always someone to hate. At the moment, she hates Oprah, who she thinks is phony. How can I help out Kitty Kelley, she says. Should I throw her a book party?

Her single greatest gift is her ability, in the heat of the moment, to find the funny line. My recent favorite example also highlights the rarefied world in which Rivers sometimes travels. Not long ago she was invited to dinner at Lily Safra’s home at 820 Fifth Avenue. Safra owns the most expensive residence in the world, the $500 million Villa Leopolda in the south of France. Rivers was seated next to Carroll Petrie, a rich society lady who is deaf as a post, and the two of them were marveling over, oh, I don’t know, the dozens of Fabergé clocks in Safra’s house. Petrie said, too loud, Doesn’t it just make you feel poor? To which Rivers replied, Carroll, name me one other person in this room who is playing Cleveland this weekend.

One of the most consistently subversive things about Rivers is her level of commitment to a spur-of-the-moment prank. I have seen her pull off dozens of them over the years. Once, coming out of Pat Wexler’s office, where she goes for her Botox and filler, she crawled on her hands and knees into a waiting room full of socialites and models and, screwing up her face to resemble a stroke victim, moaned out of one side of her mouth, Look what she did to me! Another time, she played a practical joke on Marjorie Stern and some unsuspecting diners at Sarabeth’s: It’s like three weeks into the Bernie Madoff thing, says Rivers. I get there first, and there are two tables to pass before you get to our table. And one was like six Jewish ladies and the other was two Jewish couples. You could just tell. Very New York people. I grabbed the waitress and I say, Please don’t say her name, because Mrs. Madoff doesn’t want people to know it’s her.’ I said it loud enough for the other tables to overhear it. Marjorie, who has a Ruth Madoff aspect, takes the story from here. I walk in and they are all staring at me. And I look over at Joan to see what the problem is and she says, Ruthie! Sit here!’ At which point the entire place is stunned speechless. Forks suspended in midair.


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