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Joan Rivers Always Knew She Was Funny

With Edgar Rosenberg, in 1966.  

“They hissed at her,” says Rivers, crippled with laughter. When I remind her that there are six Jewish ladies who now think she is friends with Ruth Madoff, she yells, “I know!” and laughs even harder.

Rivers will take the piss out of anything. Shortly after I had lost a big job, she called, and when I answered the phone a bit too quickly she said, “Really? The first ring? So desperate.” And then she hung up on me. A few days after 9/11, she called and asked me if I wanted to meet her for lunch at Windows on the Ground. She pushes as far as she can as soon as she can. It’s compulsive.

In the film there is a scene where Rivers is playing some lousy casino in Wisconsin, and she does a bit about Helen Keller and a man stands and bellows, “It’s not very funny if you have a deaf son!” Rivers lets him have it. “Oh, you stupid ass, let me tell you what comedy is about … ”

“You go ahead and tell me what,” he says.

“Oh, please,” she says. “You are so stupid. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything, and deal with things, you idiot.”

At Sundance, an interviewer asks her about the moment. “If you laugh at it, you can deal with it, and if you don’t, you can’t deal with it. And don’t start telling me that I shouldn’t be saying it. That’s the way I do it. I would have been laughing at Auschwitz.”

One of the great misconceptions about Rivers is that she is mean-spirited and heartless—that there is nothing more to her than her comedy or her red-carpet patter. To the celebrities who are on the receiving end of some of her sharpest material she can seem cruel, but as a civilian she is surprisingly sensitive, someone who cries as easily as she laughs. At Sundance alone, she is brought to tears a half-dozen times. A journalist interviewing her on camera asks if she could sing a few bars of the song that’s been in her head lately. She demurs for a moment, saying she can’t sing, and then chokes out, in that raspy voice of hers, a few lines from “Send in the Clowns” (“Isn’t it rich / Isn’t it queer … ”). When she starts to cry, the guy asks her why. “Because that’s life. And I’m very tired. Life is very tough. If you don’t laugh, it’s tough. And ‘Send in the Clowns’ is a song that says you need that because it’s all … ” She chokes up again and then says, “Horrible.”

One day at Sundance while we are waiting for a screening to end, Rivers is approached by an older gentleman. “Excuse me,” he says. “I just have to interrupt.” Rivers looks up at him and cautiously smiles. “I want to thank you for bringing me joy in 1960 in Korea.” Her body language changes in an instant. “I was a gay soldier in peacetime Korea who was starved for Broadway,” he continues, “and you were performing with the USO troop.” He pauses to watch the memory dawn on Rivers’s face.

“Sheila … ”

“Sheila Smith! Yes!” says Rivers, stunned.

“Jack … ”

“Jack Edelman! Yes! Yes! Yes!”

“Patience Cleveland,” he says.

Rivers screams, “Patience Cleveland!”

“Richard Nealon.”

“And Jeanne … Jeanne Beauvais,” says Rivers. “The opera singer … How do you remember the names?”

“I was way up above the 38th Parallel in Camp Kaiser, Korea, and will never ever forget all of you.”

“That was my first traveling job that paid,” says Rivers.

“She was an ingenue. A young singer-comedienne. Light comedy,” says the man to Rivers’s entourage, who are hanging on his every word.

When the man leaves, Joan says, “We were on the DMZ line between North and South Korea. It was very scary but it was fabulous. Patience Cleveland was pregnant and was trying to have an abortion. We took hot sea baths in Japan. We got these two crazy marines to ride us over bumpy terrain in Korea. Nothing worked. And she went back to New York, went to a Chinese restaurant on West 46th Street and went down into the basement and got an abortion.”

Michael Stern says, “A Chinese restaurant? Did they do it with MSG?”

Rivers pauses for a nanosecond—wait for it—and finds the line. “Bite down on this egg roll.”

What strikes me as this scene unfolds is just how long Rivers has been this radically modern presence. One of the best things about the documentary is that it reminds you, with great archival footage of Rivers’s early TV performances, that she is the mother of a certain brand of transgressive female comedy. Would there be a Sandra Bernhard or a Roseanne or a Rosie O’Donnell or a Kathy Griffin or a Sarah Silverman, without Joan Rivers? “When I am onstage, I am every woman’s outrage about where they put us,” she says to me one day. “We have no control. And that’s why I am screaming onstage. We have no control! I am furious about everything. All that anger and madness comes out onstage.”