It wasn't long ago that Joan Rivers' career seemed to be — as she might have put it, ever so delicately — in the toilet. Banned for decades from "The Tonight Show," younger insult comics like Kathy Griffin and Lisa Lampanelli breathing down her neck, Rivers appeared to be fading into old age and, far worse, irrelevance.
Not anymore. The years continue to roll by, but Rivers, now 81, is more of a fixture of the zeitgeist than ever. "Fashion Police," her outrageously funny weekly show on E!, has bloomed into must-see TV for the 18-24 demographic, while a reality show with her daughter, "Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?" recently wrapped its fourth season on the WE network. An uncensored Internet spinoff, "In Bed With Joan," has become a cult hit on the Web.
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Now Rivers has added books to her ever-expanding comedy empire, scoring a best-seller with "I Hate Everyone ... Starting with Me" (2012) and following it up this month with "Diary of a Mad Diva." In "Diary," Rivers poses as an egotistical monster who spends most of her time skewering celebrities right and left, a self-portrait that's roughly 50 percent accurate. Printers Row Journal recently caught up with Rivers for a phone interview from a hotel in New York; here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: How are you?
A: I'm in a hotel, so we're taking all of the stuff out of the bathroom. Shampoo, shower gel — it doesn't hurt.
Q: Why are you in a hotel? Don't you have an apartment in New York?
A: We're here because I'm doing interviews all day for "Diary of a Mad Diva." It's easier for camera crews to come into a hotel room rather than my apartment, because the people who live in my building aren't thrilled when there are cameras coming in and out.
Q: I've seen your apartment on some of your shows. I think you once said it's how Marie Antoinette would live, if ...
A: If she had money, yes.
Q: Well, I had a dream about you last night.
A: Oh dear.
Q: The dream was that we were doing this interview, but we were doing it on your bed in Melissa's house in L.A., the way you do the interviews on "In Bed With Joan," except that I was interviewing you. In the dream I said, "Joan, you're such a liar. You're not really a diva." And you shrugged your shoulders and said, "We all have our moments, don't we?"
A: (Laughs.) So you're asking me now if I'm a diva?
Q: I guess that's the question, yes.
A: I think we all in our business, especially when we reach a certain age, are divas up to a point. I love when a limousine comes for me, I can't lie about that. I love when you go to a restaurant and they say, "Come this way, Miss Rivers," and you get a good table. I love all that, the perks that come with the business.
Q: Sure. But you're not mean to your staff, that sort of thing.
A: If I were, they wouldn't have hung around so long. My assistants on both coasts have worked for me for 21 and 19 years, so I couldn't have been that mean.
Q: You're not Naomi Campbell.
A: No. My housekeeper's been with me 14 years, my dog sitter's been with me 18 years. So somehow I guess I'm OK.
Q: We'll keep that between us. On the first page of your book you say, "Anyone who takes anything in this book seriously is an idiot." But of course there are plenty of idiots in the world.
A: True. But if you don't know that I'm going to be outrageous, that I'm going to laugh at everything — everything — then you should buy a Marie Osmond doll and talk to it. Choose how you want to enjoy yourself, you know what I mean?
Q: Have you ever come across anything you wanted to make a joke about, but thought, "No, that's really beyond the pale"?
A: No. Life is very tough, you know. You sit at a dinner party and talk to the person on your right or your left, you're going to hear something terribly sad, or horrible, or awful. And you just laugh at everything. I think it was Winston Churchill who said something like, any time you get someone to laugh, you're giving them a little vacation. It's so true. You laugh for one second, you're happy. I find in negotiations, everybody's sitting around looking so serious, I say something funny and it breaks the ice. And it's like, now we can get through this.
Q: Have you ever been accosted by a celebrity you made a joke about?
A: Kristen Stewart is trying to sue me over "Diary of a Mad Diva"! I mention her in the book, something about her knowing how to juggle balls.
Q: Well, OK!
A: Her lawyer called my lawyer and wanted her removed from the book. The Kardashians, I understand, are angry, but I don't know which ones. It's one of the girls: Kim, or Kourtney, or Khloé, or Klutzy, or (expletive). I don't know, there's so many of them.
Q: Or Bruce.
A: Or Bruce, right! It could be any of the girls.
Q: You've had run-ins with celebrities here and there — Johnny Carson, for example, and Jay Leno, who kept your feud with "The Tonight Show" going for several years.
A: What a stupid fool. Tell me one person who came to you the next day and said, "Did you hear what Leno said?" Never. He was very good for what he did, which was very middle-of-the-road, vanilla stuff. Fine. But to carry a vendetta for 26 years? Thank God it's over, and Jimmy Fallon finally did the right thing (by having Rivers as a guest). You hang around long enough, everything works out well.
Q: When David Letterman announced his retirement ...
A: That made me very sad.
Q: People started talking about who would replace him, and your name surfaced in the conversation.
A: That was very sweet, but I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot-pole. There's too many people out there making jokes about the same things, and how many jokes can you make about Benghazi? It's such an overcrowded field at this point. What I'd love to do is a show in the middle of the night. I'd call it "Nobody's Watching, So Let's Have Fun." That would be great, because people tape it anyhow.
Q: That's true. I DVR everything, including "Fashion Police."
A: We're on Friday nights, of course, but on Saturday mornings, we get just as big a number.
Q: In the documentary about you from a few years ago, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," you seemed unhappy with the way your career was going. Kathy Griffin was getting all of your gigs and so forth. But after the documentary came out, things took off again. You have "Fashion Police" and the other shows, you have these books and so on, and you're on a roll now.
A: That's very typical of careers in show business. They go up and they go down. Right now I'm on a strong roll, and it's wonderful. My concerts are going great. I'm doing "In Bed With Joan" on the Internet. Now I'm doing this thing called "Drunken Celebrity Phone Calls," which I love.
Q: You wanted to do the Internet show because you wouldn't be censored. Are you able to tell jokes on the show that you couldn't tell on "Fashion Police"?
A: It's not so much jokes as it is asking the questions that you really want to ask. And then the guests answering truthfully. If there's one more late-night show where you ask, "Was it a happy set?" and they say, "Oh yes," I'll throw up, because you know they all hated each other. On "In Bed With Joan," they tell me the truth, because there's no pressure and they feel nobody's watching.
Q: So what's something somebody told you on that show that ...
A: Margaret Cho gave me a recipe for dog. (Laughs.)
Q: She once said she was walking her dog in the park and somebody said, "That dog gonna end up in a soup."
A: Where do you think she was walking it to? (Laughs.) A soup kitchen, you idiot.
Q: (Laughs.) When "Joan & Melissa" came out, there was a review in the New York Times that said they didn't believe anything in the show was real.
A: Unlike the Kardashians. Unlike the Housewives. Unlike "Jersey Shore." Calm down. The joke on "Joan & Melissa" was that three-quarters of it was real, because we do live a very insane life. Last night, in the middle of signing copies of "Diary of a Mad Diva," somebody's hand went up and they said, "In the diary, you mention that you marry friends. Will you marry us?" So we stopped the book signing and I married them. Now, if you saw that on a reality show, you would not believe it. But it happened. Somebody had brought me flowers, so we had a flower girl, who was a guy. People in the audience sang "Here Comes the Bride," and I married Joe and Joel.
Q: You're an ordained minister?
A: I'm an ordained minister, yes. In New York, you can be an ordained minister; you get the license on the Internet. I can also become a service dog.
Q: Have you tried that?
A: No, because when you sit in first class, you don't need a service dog.
Q: When you do concerts, do people want to hear you do your classic material?
A: With comedians, it's exactly the opposite. They want to hear new stuff. If you go hear Betty Buckley, you want her to sing "Cats." If you go to see Justin Bieber — though who would? — you want him to go, "Baby baby baby baby." But they want me to talk about the new celebrities. And comedy should be new. It should be fresh, it should be exactly what's happening now.
Q: Speaking of what's happening now, what's your list of your top three most irritating celebrities?
A: "Irritating" is the wrong word, because they don't irritate me. You're thrilled when they're stupid. It's more like, you know, the celebrities I can have the most fun with.
Q: And by that definition ...
Q: When you get up in the morning and some celebrity has made an ass of him- or herself, you probably clap your hands.
A: It's like, "Oh my God, did you see ...?" And then that translates right into the act.
Q: You've made a lot of hay with Paula Deen, for example.
A: Well, I don't go out to do it. It's just what's current. And you know, she's already old news. Paula has been replaced by Donald Sterling, and soon somebody else will come along.
Q: There are people who are the gifts that keep on giving, though. Lindsay Lohan never goes out of style.
A: Well, every time you look in the paper, she's doing something.
Q: What do you think of the people who've followed you and do something like your style of comedy — Kathy Griffin, say, or Lisa Lampanelli?
A: I don't care. I'm at the top, top, top of my game now. I'm so happy to be on that stage, I'm in control of it, and I love every minute of it. I walk onstage in rehearsal and I start to smile. And so I just don't care what anyone else is doing. Do what you want, say what you want. Nobody else can do what I do onstage. Nobody. (Pause.) That's a diva remark, huh?
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.
"Diary of a Mad Diva"
By Joan Rivers, Berkley, 289 pages, $26.95
Rivers will appear at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Standard Club, 320 S. Plymouth Court. Email email@example.com for details.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun