It’s easy to forget that veteran comedienne Joan Rivers — who passed away on Sept 4, 2014, from complications after throat surgery — was, for much of her life, in a class of her own. One only needs to read this 1986 interview to get a sense, from the woman herself, of her place in comedy’s pantheon.
She’s been called the funniest lady in America. She’s also been called the most tasteless and grating comedienne in the country. With her fast, broadsword wit, she inspires epithets and rage in viewers — though these same people will avidly tune her in to see which poor movie star or princess is going to be skewered next. And now, after a bumpy career in the high-risk world of stand-up comedy and sit-down talk shows, Joan Rivers is headed for the confrontation of her life: a shoot-out with mentor Johnny Carson.
It may not be Gorbachev and Reagan, but it’s as close as we’re going to get to a TV-superpower face-off — Carson, frayed but still champion of late-evening television, challenged by a tough, snarling underdog whom people don’t know whether to cheer or to boo. Much of civilized America knows by now of the celebrated departure of Joan Rivers from The Tonight Show, where she was the permanent guest host. Indeed, there are undoubtedly fewer people who follow the U.S.-Soviet summit talks than who know that Rivers accepted an offer from the new Fox network to start her own talk show in the same time slot without — gasp! — even calling Carson to tell him about it.
Whatever the outcome of the talk-show wars, no one is neutral about Joan Rivers. Newsweek calls her TV’s “most outrageous funny woman,” TV critic Ron Powers in Gentlemen’s Quarterly says her comedy is that of “aging-airhead affluence,” while Ms. magazine praises her as a woman of “febrile tenacity,” whatever that means. She herself told Time that she was “the meanest woman in America,” no doubt reflecting on some of the more memorable shots she has taken through the years at her favorite targets: Liz Taylor in her plumper days (“Mosquitoes see her and scream ‘Buffet!’ ”), the queen of England (“gowns by Helen Keller”) and even lovable Willie Nelson (“wears a Roach Motel around his neck”). The question now is whether a woman whose reputation has been one of abrasive humor, whose talk-show stints have been limited to a few weeks a year, can be credible competition for Carson, who has been a wry, soothing TV presence in America’s bedrooms for 24 years — or whether she will wear out her welcome and burn out.
Born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn in 1933, Rivers is the daughter of Russian immigrants, Dr. Meyer Molinsky and his elegant, if dissatisfied, wife, Beatrice. Both parents were obsessed with money — she with spending it, he with not. The strong-minded Beatrice generally won; and, as a result, Joan and her sister, Barbara, were raised in an atmosphere of finger bowls and private schools. A self-proclaimed fatty as a child, Joan escaped into the world of make-believe, planning to emerge one day as a serious dramatic actress. She went to Barnard College, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1954, and then, at her parents’ insistence, became a fashion coordinator for the Bond department-store chain.
It was then that she met and married Jimmy Sanger, son of the store’s merchandise manager. Six months later, they were divorced. Having tried things her parents’ way, Rivers then decided to go for what she really wanted: show business. She paid her early dues by working in Greenwich Village “discovery” clubs while supporting herself with temporary secretarial work. By 1959, she was honing her comedic craft by performing in seedy burlesque joints up and down the East Coast. In 1960, she was booked on The Jack Paar Show, the predecessor to The Tonight Show, and she felt she’d gotten her big break. But Paar hated her and her career stalled. Four years later, after a short stint as one third of a comedy team billed as Jim, Jake and Joan, she was on her own again, a well-known face among the Village cast of aspiring young comics — Richard Pryor, Dick Cavett, Bill Cosby — looking for their big break in such night clubs as The Bitter End and The Duplex. Her day job was as a comedy writer for TV shows, including Candid Camera.
By 1965, seven years after she had begun her elusive show-business journey, success was still nowhere in sight. Even Rivers’ close advisor told her she was through: “You’re too old,” she says he told her. “If you were going to make it, you’d have done it by now.” A month later, she was booked onto The Tonight Show, which had turned her down seven times. After her appearance, Carson wiped tears of laughter from his eyes and proclaimed, “God, you’re funny. You’re going to be a star.”
Rivers’ career then took off — though she insists it was at the speed of a turtle. She began a prosperous career traveling around the night-club circuit and by late 1965 had recorded her first comedy album.
That was also when she met the other most important man in her life: producer Edgar Rosenberg, whom she married after a four-day courtship. Edgar went on to become a foil in Rivers’ routines and, in real life, her chief advisor and supporter. (Their daughter, Melissa, was born in January 1969.) In 1968, she hosted a morning talk show on NBC, and the following year, she made her Las Vegas debut. But it was not until 1983 that she became a world-beater: After years of being one of several guest hosts for Carson, she was named permanent guest host, guaranteeing her the exclusive right to eight weeks a year of host duties while Carson vacationed.
When Rivers sat in Carson’s seat, the ratings soared, but NBC, apparently, was not so enthusiastic; when time came to renew Rivers’ contract last spring, the network told her, “We’ll get back to you.” In the meantime, Rupert Murdoch’s new Fox Broadcasting Company, under chairman Barry Diller, got to her first, offering her her very own late-night show to rival Carson’s. Interviewer Nancy Collins, who has conducted several major magazine interviews with Rivers, exhausted herself with one final grilling, which Rivers claims is the last she’ll undergo — “for a couple of years, at least.” Here is Collins’ report:
Playboy: So — Joan Rivers, linchpin of a whole new network. Is it heady, having so much responsibility?
Rivers: Oh, it is! The king of France said, “L'état, c'est moi!” Right now, “Le network, c'est moi!”
Playboy: We’ve seen a lot of Joan Rivers this past year — the huge controversy over your leaving the Carson show, a best-selling book, your new show. Aren’t you flirting with overexposure?
Rivers: We didn’t mean this Tonight thing to blow up the way it did. It happened during a slow media week, so I became a media star for a second. I felt like Madonna. This kind of thing seems to happen every three or four years in my career; then it calms down. I don’t feel overexposed, but certainly, the public has had enough of me — I’ve had enough of me.
Playboy: The way you left The Tonight Show has become one of the most celebrated departures in show business. Clear it up for us. Why didn’t you talk with Carson before you signed with the new Fox network? Why didn’t you postpone the press conference for a day until you had time to reach him and tell him the news?
Rivers: In our business, until a contract is signed, there is no contract. I defy anybody in any job who’s making more than $30 a week to jeopardize that job by walking away from it until the next job is secure. We couldn’t tell anybody about the deal until all the I’s were dotted and the Ts crossed — which happened on Monday, the day before the press conference. As soon as that happened, I called Johnny — I went through my hotel switchboard in Las Vegas, so I have my bill — and reached his secretary, who said, “Hold on. I’ll put him on.” And then the phone went, “Click.” Tuesday morning, I called him from the make-up room at Fox, through the Fox switchboard. I got him on the line and then he hung up on me.
As for the press conference, it was Fox that wanted to have it right away. There were so many rumors on the street, not just about me but about who was going to be president of Fox, etc., that Fox wanted to make the announcements as soon as possible so the news wouldn’t dribble out. In fact, no formal announcement had even been made saying there would be a network, so it was to he a two-pronged press conference, like Hungary and Austria, a two-headed empire — me and Fox.
But I had no idea there would be the hysteria. I don’t know why NBC is so angry with me. I have done nothing. I was Johnny’s guest host; they didn’t renew my contract; I went someplace else. I didn’t owe him. I didn’t ask him for money when I left him. I didn’t do anything.
Playboy: When Fox offered you the deal, why didn’t you go to NBC or to Carson and say, “Look, I’ve been offered this deal; do you want to meet or better it?”
Rivers: That’s tacky. That’s groveling, coming hat in hand. I would never have done that. I have too much pride. If they wanted me, they should have sent me a Christmas card last year.
Playboy: Freddie De Cordova, the executive producer of The Tonight Show, said that during the previous week, while you were hosting The Tonight Show, he had chatted with you frequently and you never mentioned a thing about your plans.
Rivers: Nor had Freddie told me his secrets. We sat for a week in the dressing room talking, true, but the deal hadn’t been completed. I wasn’t going to tell Johnny’s producer, “Hey, I’m thinking of leaving and going to another network and doing my own talk show.” I would have been out the same day — which was just what happened to David Brenner. [Brenner, a frequent Carson guest host, announced his own syndicated late-night show and was reportedly taken off The Tonight Show guest list.] Did Freddie confide to me whether or not Johnny was renewing his contract? We never knew that Johnny renewed his contract with NBC until the day it was signed. We were never told. These are not my buddies.
Playboy: How do you feel about Carson now?
Rivers: I always adored him and I still adore him. He was the one who said, “You’re funny.” I adored him for that and always fantasized this big, wonderful, warm relationship. I think he’s tender, very feeling, very caring; but I also think he doesn’t let anybody in anymore — except one or two people — to find that out. He’s the money-maker for NBC, so they keep him wrapped in cotton.
The Tonight Show meant everything to me. I really did grow up through that show. I came on as a single woman. I got my fame from that show, I met my husband out of that show, I got pregnant on that show, had Melissa on that show, and America watched the whole thing evolve. But Johnny and I were never personally close. We were a little closer in New York, in the sense that his second wife, Joanne, had two big parties and my husband and I were asked to those. One was his 40th birthday, which was one of the most memorable evenings of my life. It was the first big star-studded party I ever went to. But we never sat down, the four of us, in the kitchen over a bowl of spaghetti.
Playboy: You’ve said before that you and Carson weren’t really close, and when you did, Joanne was quoted in People magazine denying your version of the relationship, citing examples when you and your husband had gotten together socially with the Carsons. She also told the Los Angeles Times that you were totally ambitious — “all career.”
Rivers: Joanne Carson has upwardly mobile intentions. This is her little renaissance, because nobody has interviewed her or cared to mention her since Truman Capote’s death — which was lucky for her because it happened in her house. I had a feeling she pulled the body in. But this is now her little moment in the sun to say, “Look at me, Joanne Carson. Remember me?”
And, of course, she wants Johnny back. She made a big mistake. She hasn’t seen me in 15 years. She faults me for being ambitious? I am, indeed, half career, but I’ve certainly built a private life. I certainly have a relationship, which is a lot more than the person slinging the mud. It’s very sad. She’s just an old airline stewardess whose legs have gone.
Playboy: You dedicated your book, Enter Talking, to Edgar and Carson. Did you get any feedback from Carson on it?
Rivers: You talk about hurt! I spent seven years writing that book. The first copy that came off the press, I didn’t keep for myself, I had it hand-carried to Malibu to Johnny. Along with it, I sent a long handwritten note telling him how much I thought of him, how much I owed him. He never acknowledged it. Three weeks later, I was going on the show to promote it. The day before the show, they called and said, “Johnny wants another book for the table.” So we sent it.
When I sat down with him on the air, we chatted about the first time I was ever on the show, and he said, “Oh, your stand-up was wonderful.” I’d never done a stand-up. He didn’t even know what I’d done. Suddenly, you realize how little you mean in somebody’s life. Then Freddie, from off camera, said to him, “Read the dedication. It’s dedicated to you.” And then you realize he hadn’t even opened the book. They had blown up photographs from it for Johnny to hold up and he asked, “Are these in the book?” Seven years’ work and he hadn’t even opened the book!
Playboy: Is Carson as cold as you imply?
Rivers: He’s very cool. You don’t jump at him at a party and tickle him and say, “Guess who?” But no, underneath it all, there is a very warm person. Like I said, he’s just so wrapped in cotton by everyone around him. For instance, his staff hid my ratings from him. My big advantage over him — and the reason I was bought by Fox — was that my ratings were higher and my demographics were younger than his. [NBC denies this.] You see, it’s a business. All this emotion, this hysteria and hurt come down to money, because if the ratings slip on the Carson show, the money slips, so he can’t get a $40,000,000 deal next year.
There was trouble from the moment they brought me in. They were thrilled to have me and yet didn’t really want me to succeed at the same time. It was a double-edged sword at NBC. They would have loved it if I had done just a little less than Johnny — which I can understand. When I started to do better than he, all the critics suddenly said, “Joanie’s here. Goodbye, Johnny.” That was in Newsweek, Time, the L.A. Times. When all that started, they got worried that it would affect him and his ratings, because people were saying, “She’s more fun to watch; she’s doing better.”
Playboy: It doesn’t sound as if there’s any love lost between you and NBC, even though you’d been guest-hosting The Tonight Show since 1971. Why?
Rivers: I thought NBC was my college. I was wearing NBC T-shirts. But it wasn’t as if they’d discovered me or singled me out. Guest-hosting for The Tonight Show was not a sentimental thing: In the early days, they’d have George Carlin, Bill Cosby, me — almost anybody. If you could talk, they’d put you on. Even Peter Bogdanovich hosted once! Then they decided to have a black woman, so they found Della Reese. Toward the end, it got down to David Brenner, Carlin, Cosby and me. And it was Bill who finally called to suggest I be the permanent guest host.
Playboy: Cosby did that before he had the clout of his own show?
Rivers: Yeah, Bill is an incredible guy. When this last episode was happening, he called me in Las Vegas and said, “Go for it. Don’t listen to them. Don’t read what the press is going to do to you, because they’ve done it to all of us.” He’s terribly loyal to people; he’s been through a lot of fire, too, which everyone forgets. Anyway, about 1981, NBC decided I wasn’t right for them, so there was a two-year period when I didn’t guest-host at all — just went in and did my spots. When they gave it back to me, that’s when it all took off fast, fast, fast. But nobody was doing it out of kindness or love or “Let’s give Joanie a break.” It’s a cold, hard business, and my numbers were better than any other guest host’s. There’s never been any love for me at any network. I’ve always been a person of the people. Nobody likes you — but you fill up 10,000-seat auditoriums.
Playboy: You’ve intimated that another network during that period was willing to offer you the moon. Do you want to say now which one?
Rivers: ABC. It was two years ago. They came to me and offered me a full-time daytime show, as many specials as I wanted and the hour before or after the Oscars or Emmys, depending. They said, “We’ll make you queen of the network.” We had a good laugh about that for a year. The money they offered was phenomenal. We had to hold secret meetings with them at hotels. It was always raining when we met. I wore lots of capes and Edgar disguised himself as a gentile. [Laughs] I finally said no, because I am not a daytime person and because I felt loyalty to NBC.
Playboy: Some critics have said you don’t wear well; your style is too aggressive. They say it’s one thing to do eight weeks a year on Carson, another to do five nights a week all year long. In fact, you once said that yourself, didn’t you?
Rivers: When I was starting out and wasn’t as secure as I am now, I may have said that. But, I’m sorry to tell everybody, I may not be the best, but I’m as good an interviewer as anybody else. I can take a show and run it for 52 weeks with no problem. As for my abrasiveness, it obviously worked for three years, five times a week. And when we did a version of The Tonight Show in London, we were number one. If it doesn’t do well, so what? I’ve got Las Vegas, concerts, another book, a movie.
Playboy: Why has your leaving The Tonight Show caused such a controversy?
Rivers: Because The Tonight Show and Johnny for an institution. I looked like I was challenging him, which nobody’s ever done before. It also had something to do with the child rising up to smite the father, which is not at all what my leaving was about. If I had been a man, if it had been a John Wayne movie, they would have said, “Well, he did his job on The Tonight Show and now he’s going off to do his new job and God bless him.” It’s because a woman dares to leave a subservient position.
Playboy: The press has been tough on you since the Carson episode. How do you react to some of the stronger criticism?
Rivers: The press will continue doing that until I die — at which time, The New York Times will do what it did to Lenny Bruce. He was vilified by everybody, all the media. The day after he died, The New York Times’ obituary included comparison to Swift, Rabelais and Twain. And I said, “This poor slob couldn’t get a cabaret card” — which you needed in those days.
Playboy: What is the format for The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers — four guests and an opening monolog?
Rivers: I will come out and, obviously, do something, but it won’t be the monolog. Johnny is king of the monolog. Besides, I don’t want to tell boobie jokes anymore. What I’m good at is really talking with somebody; that’s where the emphasis will be. Fox bought The Tonight Show, and so that’s basically what I’ll be delivering. Our show will have a younger, more contemporary look, though. I am more interested in having a David Lee Roth than Johnny would be, because I know he’s bright, articulate, weird and crazed, which makes for a good interview.
Playboy: Will you be asking your friend Elizabeth Taylor to drop by?
Rivers: I would never ask Elizabeth to come on the show. I have too much pride for that. But maybe she’ll just pop on the show, look smashing and leave.
Playboy: Do you think she’ll get married again?
Rivers: I see another two or three husbands for Liz in my crystal ball. The men still love her. But she’s having a hard time in Hollywood. All the men over 40 have girls of 20. Even though she’s spectacular, she’s a bundle. When a man takes Elizabeth Taylor out, he’s taking someone he must cater to, and they’re not used to that.
Playboy: Still, Bob Dylan raked up the courage to ask Elizabeth out.
Rivers: Bob Dylan always makes me laugh. I go way back to the Village with him, when he was Bobby Zimmerman. He was serious then, too. He never wore a coat, always a jacket and scarf — that meant you were serious in the Sixties. Now he may write poetry to Liz and sit at her feet, but I don’t think we have anything to really worry about as far as Liz and Bobby’s making an announcement. She’s not interested in a man who says he’ll make something for her: “Look here, look at this serape jewel case Bob made for me.”
Playboy: What do you think men have done for your life — for your self-esteem?
Rivers: They’ve destroyed it. [Laughs] Men have taken my self-esteem and flushed it away; it’s somewhere in the mid-Atlantic right now. No man, except for my husband, has ever said anything nice about me or backed me up or come to my rescue. I’ve never been one of those women whom men helped. Nevertheless, I was crazed for men from the minute I saw them. I had my first serious romance when I was four. I apparently went crazy for a boy named Jack who was 16. I would make my parents get into the car and drive past the drugstore where Jack hung out.
Playboy: You have a stock character, Heidi Abramowitz, who was such a tramp in high school that when she took off her braces, the football team sent a thank-you note to her dentist. But in real life, how old were you when you first made love?
Rivers: Very old. Twenty-one.
Playboy: Who was the guy?
Rivers: David Titelson. He was a history student at Columbia and a poet.
Playboy: Did you have qualms about taking such a big step?
Rivers: Of course you had qualms. You couldn’t go home and tell your mother; you couldn’t go to your doctor and get a diaphragm. You really lived on the edge, counting 28 days.
Playboy: Did you feel when you slept with David that you’d marry him?
Rivers: Oh, yeah. Whenever you slept with a man, that was saying, “I pledge my troth.” That was it. However, if we had gotten married, we would’ve killed each other. Also, I think I was lousy in bed then. In fact, I’m sure I was. I hadn’t heard of two-thirds of the things you do automatically now.
Playboy: How many lovers do you think it takes for a woman to get good in bed?
Rivers: About five. At least it took five for me before I wised up and learned that “Roll over” isn’t just an expression you say to a dog. Finally, I got my information from reading books; girls didn’t talk to one another. Going down? I never knew what men were talking about.
Playboy: Weren’t the men in your life willing to help you improve sexually?
Rivers: Not at all. What I didn’t know, no one taught me. Did you know that not one man has ever told me I’m beautiful — in my entire life? Not one man.
Playboy: Not even Edgar?
Rivers: Not even Edgar — in any circumstance — even with the lights off. [Laughs] They’ve said other things, like “You’re perky” or “You’re fun” or “You’re good in bed,” but nobody has ever said to me, “You’re beautiful. I love you and you’re beautiful.” Never.
Playboy: Does that hurt your feelings?
Rivers: Oh, I think that’s what’s made me the aggressive wreck that I am today.
Playboy: You’re also very bright, a Barnard grad. Are men intimidated by smart women?
Rivers: Not when you’re in bed, because then you’re down to basics. You’re not doing jokes. And they still never said anything until after sex; then they said, “Honey, you’d better tighten up your thighs.”
Playboy: Has success made you feel sexier?
Rivers: I got sexier as I had more money to change myself. We don’t like that nose? Let’s fix it. We don’t like these teeth? Let’s get them capped. Anybody who doesn’t keep working on herself is a fool. If you get fat, a man will say, “That’s OK, I love you for yourself”; but if you’re in a restaurant, his eye will go to the thinnest girl there.
Playboy: What, exactly, have you had done in terms of plastic surgery?
Rivers: I’ve had my face lifted, my nose thinned; my eyes were done a long time ago, and now I just had a tummy tuck, but that was because I had a hysterectomy. I figured, If you’re going to close it up, close and tighten. It’s silly to put all that blubber back. And, oh, yes, I also had my thighs vacuumed this time around. I figured, If they’re going to operate, I want to come out looking better than when I went in.
Playboy: Do you understand why some people find your obsession with plastic surgery, with changing yourself, an indication that perhaps you don’t like yourself enough, despite all your success?
Rivers: Right. But you must look at yourself objectively and say, “These old things don’t look good.” If you can make yourself look better and feel better about yourself, that’s wonderful. And now that I’ve discovered vacuuming, it’s just the beginning. When I look at my thighs, my arms are now screaming, “What about us?”
As for self-esteem, I certainly have more now than when I started, though that’s not saying much. I still never feel I belong. I still never feel I have the credentials to work. Very low self-esteem.
Rivers: Because of my own childhood. And the long road of getting to where I am now. They’re out to shoot you down. They’re out to shoot my show down already. The show is not getting a lift from anybody. By the time we go on the air, all the critics will say, “Johnny’s still the king.” So I can’t have any self-esteem, because the press refuses to allow me to have it — the press, the powers that be, the inner circle, the chic-os. They would do the same thing to me on The Tonight Show. After a show, Peter Lassally would walk up to me and say, “You lost Detroit last night.” He’d forget to mention that I’d won 14 other cities, 14 out of 15 cities in the overnights. And won them when all that Chernobyl business was heating up!
Playboy: You’ve been married twice — once, at 23, to Jimmy Sanger, which ended in divorce six months later. You met your second husband, Edgar, when you were 32 and married him four days later. How did that happen so fast?
Rivers: Edgar was Peter Sellers’ best friend. He was looking for a person to rewrite a script that Peter and he were going to produce, starring Peter. Edgar knew The Tonight Show producer and asked him if he knew a good comedy writer. The producer said, “We just had a girl on last night who’s very funny. Call her.” So Edgar called and gave me the script to rewrite. We went to Jamaica to do the rewrite, and four days later, we got married.
Playboy: Marrying a man after only four days was a very risky thing to do, particularly given your ideas about marriage.
Rivers: Yes, but I just knew he was absolutely correct for me. He was a businessman, in the business but at the good end of it. He was smarter than I was; I must have a smarter man. And, outwardly, he also had what I wanted: manners, the façade, the credentials to walk into any room. I didn’t have to say, “Please take off those theatrical cuff links. Get rid of that 24-kt.-gold chain.” He was just right for me.
Playboy: Did you have a big wedding?
Rivers: We had no wedding. I was working at The Bitter End, and we went to the Bronx, because our lawyer found a judge who would marry us. The Filipino navy had arrived the same day and were getting married en masse, so it was the only time that Edgar and I ever walked into a room and were the tallest couple. [Laughs] I’m 5'2" and Edgar’s 5'5". Anyway, we got married that night and I went back to work.
We led two lives, his business and mine. I went to the Village to keep honing my craft, and at the same time, we’d be going out to dinner with the Rockefellers. They’d say, “What do you do?” and I’d say, “I’m a comedienne.” Peter Sellers would call up and ask Edgar to please take some chocolate mousse over to Princess Margaret in London. After Carson, I was the hot girl in town. The career moved ahead but much more slowly than people realized. That’s why, when I finally got to host the Carson show, Edgar went to Van Cleef & Arpels and had a little diamond turtle made up for me, because my whole career is like a turtle — it moves very slowly and carefully.
Playboy: In your act, you joke a lot about Edgar and your sex life — or your lack of one. Is that the truth or just a routine?
Rivers: Well, things diminish a great deal in 20 years. You settle in with each other and you get to be too comfortable.
Playboy: Don’t you miss the passion?
Rivers: Of course you miss the passion. But then you also turn around and say, “Here is someone who has stayed downstairs until two o'clock in the morning reading and rereading all the lawyer’s contracts.” And that’s OK with me. I’m lying in bed reading about Louis XIV and he’s downstairs taking care of my business, saying, “I don’t want to worry you. I’ll call the lawyer tomorrow and take care of this.” And we have the same tastes.
Playboy: Such as?
Rivers: We’re both terrible snobs. We both love the formality of life. If we could afford livery, we’d have it. If we had made Star Wars — if my husband were John Edgar Lucas — you’d be talking to me right now at Versailles. I would’ve bought it and lived my fantasy. We also both read. Our drugs are books: Bookstores love us; we go in and buy, buy, buy. We like and dislike the same people. The only big bone of contention we have is that I like to travel and he doesn’t. I don’t want to go without him, but I will.
Playboy: You have an agent and a manager, but you and Edgar effectively run your career together. How much control does he have over you?
Rivers: I’d say 60 percent. He can control me easily. But I think totally for myself. I weigh everything he tells me and, although it’s tremendously influencing, in the long run, I decide. We weigh everything. Nothing is done spur of the moment. With the new show, each talent coordinator’s name, each secretary that we decide to put on staff is mutually decided. Nothing is “Oh, what the hell; let’s go.” That’s why it’s working. With Edgar, I’ve got someone protecting me all the time. I wouldn’t know what to do without him — though when he had his heart attack, there was a good six-month period when I had to run things.
Playboy: Did you enjoy that?
Rivers: It was terrific. I found it very heady, exhilarating. I made the decisions, but it was twice the work. I had to be at those meetings. I made a lot of mistakes, because I’m not really a businesswoman. Just the other day, Edgar said to me, “If I die now, at least I know I left you with a great contract at Fox.” And he really has. I wake up at night and think, God, I love my husband. I wouldn’t know what to do without him. Now, he never pays me any compliments, never tells he, “You’re beautiful.” But that’s his English reserve. Yet he’ll turn to me and say, “I love you.” And I’ll say to him, “I love you,” and he’ll say, “Then make me a cup of coffee.” [Laughs] It’s not mushy-gushy, it’s just “You’re part of my life.” I couldn’t have an affair and come home, nor could I have a husband who was doing that.
Playboy: What would you do if you discovered Edgar was having an affair?
Rivers: It depends. If I found out she was 21 and just a boopy-doop who was making him happy, listening wide-eyed to all the tales I’ve heard for years and am tired of, I’d say, “Well, that’s great. That’s like Franz Josef. Have your little European-type fling.” But if I found out he was making my friend, I’d be furious: “Don’t come into our group with your fly open!”
Playboy: Do you think Edgar ever has had an affair?
Rivers: No, I think I got the last honest man in America. I’ve seen people come on to him. We had a little masseuse in Malibu who just had to swim in the ocean — in her bikini — after she’d massaged him. I came home one day and said, “What is she doing out there?” And he said, “She just loves the ocean. Would you mind?” And I said, “You know what she gets when she gets you? She gets you.” He likes long, leggy women. He doesn’t know how he got Miss Dumpo here. But I don’t want to be divorced. I don’t want to be out there.
Playboy: If something happened to Edgar, would you remarry?
Rivers: No, I would live with someone. I wouldn’t believe that at my age, someone was going to marry me because he fell madly in love with me. He’d be marrying me because of what I have. If it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t want 50 percent of what Edgar had earned to end up going to some Chippendale dancer.
Playboy: What kind of men do you like?
Rivers: I don’t like old-looking men. I can’t lie. I can’t say, “Oh, he’s 65; isn’t that just great?” You know everything’s hanging out under that shirt. I love men in their prime — which is 40 to 55. That’s when they’re self-assured; their face is craggy, without that piece of rooster skin hanging. I don’t like blonds; I like dark men who look a little beaten-up. He could be the Mafia, hut he does own Standard Oil.
Playboy: No blonds, eh? How about Don Johnson?
Rivers: I had him on The Tonight Show before he was [deep voice] Don Johnson. He was just [nasal voice] Don Johnson. He was OK … a nice, slim man on a new program called Miami Vice. But nothing radiated. The eyes did not lock. Johnny Carson used to have a name he used every time one of these guys — the hot one for that year — came on. Someone told me that when Don was on The Tonight Show, Johnny turned to somebody afterward and said, as he walked away, “Erik Estrada.”
Playboy: How about Sting?
Rivers: He’s terrific. But if he had two names, he’d be a much bigger star. People don’t take him as seriously as they should. To have one name, it has to come from the public’s love of you. Bernhardt became Bernhardt — she didn’t say, “Call me Sarah.” Poor Sting; he should be called Charley Sting. Or, better yet, Sting Bromberg.
Playboy: Are you a fan of Mick Jagger’s?
Rivers: I would love to meet him. He’s fabulously interesting just because of the time span. The first time I met him, we were both doing The Ed Sullivan Show. The Stones were in the next dressing room and, for no reason, they ripped apart a piano, broke it and destroyed it. I got so incensed that anyone would destroy a musical instrument that I ran in there and yelled at them that they shouldn’t do this. Rough, arrogant English kids. How dare they destroy a $35,000 Steinway? “Who the hell are you?”
Playboy: What men do you find attractive?
Rivers: Richard Gere, 10 years older. John Travolta, if he ages well; Rock Hudson. I know he was gay, but he was a big, good-looking, powerful man. I like all that. I find Merv Adelson, Barbara Walters’ husband, attractive — as I do Barry Diller. If I were single, I could easily see myself signing my name Joan Diller. “Barry, honey, your pancakes are getting cold.” I also find Ed Koch attractive, because he’s funny and smart. I do a joke and Koch knows that I’m doing a joke and laughs at it. Joan Koch, no question about it. “Ed, pancakes.”
Playboy: Ronald Reagan?
Rivers: He’s too old. Turkey neck. Now, Neil Simon is a very interesting man. Funny, good-looking enough, successful, and he gets every joke I make. I love that.
Playboy: How about Sylvester Stallone? He’s dark and rugged-looking.
Rivers: I love him. I love him because he’s vulnerable. When I had him on The Tonight Show, he sat there, with $36,000,000 in the bank, and said, “I don’t think I own my house. No matter what they tell me, I don’t think I own it.” And I know what he means.
Playboy: Let’s stick with the ladies. Meryl Streep?
Rivers: An incredible actress but no pizzazz there. When she was pregnant, Cher brought her to meet me. And here was this very quiet, mousy lady. Still, she’s the best thing in films today.
Playboy: Sally Field?
Rivers: A good little actress. I’d heard she was very hurt by a joke I’d made about her on The Tonight Show, and I finally saw her at a party one night. So I went over to her and I said, “I like you, I really like you.” She laughed.
Playboy: How about Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek — are they stars to you?
Rivers: No, though I do wish Sissy would start wearing some eye make-up. They seem so serious. We all know that acting is an art, not just something you stand in front of the camera and do; but come on, girls, lighten up. Enjoy the other part; enjoy the limos; enjoy it.
Playboy: Where does Joan Collins rank on your list of great living tarts?
Rivers: Oh, she’s the greatest of them all. And having the time of her life — going to Ascot, yet, mixing with the royals, wearing long black gloves with a bracelet over one glove at a dinner party. It just screamed Rita Hayworth and old Hollywood!
Playboy: Burt Reynolds has said some pretty uncomplimentary things about you. How did this feud start, anyway?
Rivers: He hates me, and I don’t know why. He has said the most evil, vicious, horrendous things about me, but I’ve always liked him. I like anyone with humor, and he has a great sense of humor. I just figured he had a bad day because his toupee was twisted or his caps might have fallen out or the heels on his boots could’ve been broken or his dildo may have been pinching. He could have just looked at himself in direct sunlight and realized how old he really is. But, look, I have nothing against him. [Laughs] Another one I don’t get is Shirley MacLaine. She’s very liberal and worked hard for women’s liberation. Yet in Las Vegas, she once headlined and I opened for her. It was a first, a woman opening and a woman closing. But when they offered us four more weeks, she said no, she’d rather have a man open — and this was at the height of her marching for NOW. See, she’s a businesswoman at heart and believed it was better business to have a man open her act. I think she’s very smart, but I don’t trust anyone who talks to people at the bottom of the sea.
Playboy: Jack Gould, former television critic of The New York Times, called you “quite possibly the most intuitively funny woman alive.” So whom does America’s most intuitively funny woman find funny?
Rivers: I change; but at the moment, my favorite is Robin Williams. There’s nobody like him. His mind is just wonderful. I respect him because he does what I do. I’ve seen him get up at The Comedy Store, work out a whole Carson shot and then come on Carson and make it look like it’s easy. He takes nothing for granted. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Robin Williams is one of those people I’ll wait in the rain to see. Richard Pryor is another, and I’ll also wait for Bill Murray. And Lily [Tomlin], of course. I also adore Eddie Murphy, mainly because he has respect for his elders; he knows I’m going to die. One day we pull into a parking lot and another car screeches to a halt. Eddie, one of the major kings of comedy, jumps out, runs over, picks me up, spins me around, says, “Come over and meet my girl,” takes me to the car, introduces me to the girl — and this kid has just made Beverly Hills Cop and has 72 retainers.
Playboy: Do male or female comics respond to you better?
Rivers: Male comics come in large groups to watch me work — not because the work is inspired but because they are encouraged by me. Female comics seldom come to see me. They don’t think that what I’m talking about is pertinent to their lives today. And it isn’t. It’s pertinent to my life; that’s why I’m talking about it. They’re not a 53-year-old woman with a daughter in college and a hysterectomy. I’m not going to talk about the drug scene, because I’m not into the drug scene.
Playboy: How do you keep track of jokes?
Rivers: On stage, I just try to let it happen. In that respect, I learned a lot from Lenny Bruce. I know what I’m going to talk about, the areas, but I don’t know how it’s going to come out. It’s like a deck of cards. You throw it up, you may catch this or that one, but you’ve got to get them all caught before they land. And that’s how it comes out. You can’t organize it. That’s on stage. Off stage, I’m very methodical. I have every joke worked out and written down. Then I cross-index and cross-file them. I have lists all over the place of new jokes I want to try and files of jokes that I’ve tried in night clubs but not on television, for instance. Most of us are that way. David Brenner’s file is on video tapes. Garry Shandling has notebooks. Bob Hope, they say, has a vault you walk into that is full of cross-indexed material divided into subject matter and when and where it was done. For a while I was very angry with Bob Hope. He was saying things about me that were not funny. But now he’s mellowed out, so you say, “He’s 83 years old and still doing specials, so, by God, that’s OK. And doesn’t he look great!”
Playboy: Hope said he found your humor nasty. You do realize that many people find it mean-spirited, don’t you?
Rivers: I know, and I stare at them when I hear that, because I don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I do not pick on someone who can’t defend himself. That’s mean-spiritedness.
Playboy: So all public figures are fair game?
Rivers: You don’t think so? Jackie Onassis, with her eyes on either side of her head like E.T., is not fair game? With her $38,000,000?
Playboy: How about the Karen Carpenter jokes?
Rivers: All I said was she was skinny enough for David Brenner. The point I always made with Karen Carpenter was how everyone suddenly loved her the minute she died; but for two years before she died, not one person bought an album or went to see her. So why are we all so bereft over this poor girl?
Playboy: Don’t you think people eventually get turned off? Don Rickles was once the king of insult comedy, but many people think his career is practically over.
Rivers: I don’t think it’s over. I think he’s hysterically funny. The problem is, at the end of his act, he apologizes. He says, “I’m sorry. I’m not here to hurt you; I’m really a nice guy, this is all in fun.” What I used to say at the end of my act was “If I’ve offended one person or made one person cry — sob — or upset someone … well, tough.” And that’s it. Don shouldn’t cop out. I’ll never cop out. But tell me one person I’ve been mean to that cared.
Playboy: You also know that many people find your humor vulgar and dirty.
Rivers: They’re telling me I’m dirty when they’re lining up to see Ruthless People. I watch George Carlin, who’s brilliant, and every other word is fuck, piss, suck, and nobody says this man is dirty. I walk on stage and say one fuck and the whole review the next day is dedicated to “this filthy woman.” You want to say, “Excuse me, let’s watch Carlin or Robin or Pryor. What the hell are you talking about?” But that’s because I am a woman. People don’t want to hear it from a woman.
Playboy: You’ve always been the only woman in the club, the only really commercially successful woman in the man’s world of stand-up comedy. Do you consider yourself a pioneer, a feminist?
Rivers: I didn’t realize what a liberated lady I was. I always said, “My life is liberated. Leave me alone. I have no time to join a movement, because I am the movement.” I didn’t have time to go up to anyone and say, “Go out and make it in a man’s world.” I just said, “Look at me and you can see what I’m doing.” I never wanted to say that because I was a woman, things were harder for me or I was judged separately. It took two incidents — my book and this business about leaving the Carson show — to turn me around. With my book, as I said, women seem to understand it more than men. And when I left The Tonight Show, I got such good wishes, such support from women. I didn’t realize how nice it was that women were behind what I did. It’s wonderful.
I’m absolutely a feminist. When I started doing stand-up, I played these strip joints, these dives all over the country. At Barnard, I had taken a class with Margaret Mead. She was so smart — not a dresser, but so smart. [Laughs] She was married three times, so there was obviously something going on under that grass skirt. Anyway, I called her and told her I was going to play these crummy clubs and said, “Maybe we can find something out for women from this.” So she said, “Let’s do a little survey.” She made up a list of questions that I passed out during each of my performances. Then I’d send Mead back the questionnaires with glass marks on them. [Laughs] The questions were “Who do you think should control the income in your family? Who brings in the income? Who stays with the children? Who makes the big decisions? Do you think women should work? Do you think women should have equal say in money investments in the family?” Very basic things. This was the early Sixties. Anyway, when Mead tabulated all the answers, she said, “There’s something happening out there, because ladies in Kansas City are saying, 'Even though I do work, I don’t think I should tell him how to invest the money — or wait a minute. Maybe I should tell him.’ ”
Playboy: Despite what you say about feminism, some people think you don’t really like women, that that comes through in your jokes about how a woman should do anything — including undergoing plastic surgery — to get a husband. They say you turn women into objects and therefore degrade them.
Rivers: But we are objects. We’re on earth for one reason — to procreate, which means we are sexual objects. The only reason you and I were born is to continue the species. Once we’ve done that, it’s all over and we can wither and die. So we are objects, and there’s nothing wrong in saying that. Any woman who’s intelligent knows it’s true. These women who say I make objects out of them — don’t they watch their weight? Are they getting their hair done? You can say I degrade women if you’re a woman who’s never exercised, never had her hair cut, never worried about how she looks in an outfit. But the only woman who could say that to me and mean it is Mother Teresa — preferably on my new show.