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At 78, Joan Rivers connects with a new generation of fans

Comedian and fashion critic brings her pop-culture-infused act to the Hippodrome Theatre

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

3:43 PM EDT, March 16, 2012

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Joan Rivers is having a manicure and a pedicure in her hotel room while juggling a phone.

"I'm in Indianapolis," she says. "I just learned how to spell it, and now I'm leaving. What a waste."

This week, between gigs in Florida and Ohio, she'll stop by the Hippodrome to dispense her trademark observations on her own world and anyone, anything that catches her attention.

"When I go onstage, I just talk about what's happening," Rivers says. "My life is an open book. The other day we were stuck in Milwaukee, and they lost our luggage. That provided the first five minutes of the show. Comics are very lucky. We let it out. It's fabulous. And it saves a lot of psychoanalysis."

The 78-year-old comedian, a serial cosmetic surgery seeker and subject of an engrossing, well-received documentary in 2010, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," seems as fresh and dynamic as in her earlier years.

"The longevity of my career is astonishing," she says. "It's wonderful that I'm still around. I am the luckiest woman in the world."

Young people who have never heard of Johnny Carson, let alone how his long friendship with Rivers ended when she got her own late-night TV chat show, flock to her performances.

"It makes me feel great," Rivers says. "It means you're current. Carson was 20 years ago. Who cares?"

That younger fan base developed as Rivers ensured that she remained current, branching into various television enterprises along the way, including "Fashion Police" on E.

With her daughter, she has her own reality show "Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best" on WE. A recent episode found a very giggly Rivers in a California parking lot trying marijuana.

"I took it for nerves," she says. "I did have a wonderful time. And remember, in California marijuana is legal for medical reasons. But I don't really want to do marijuana. You get hungry. And I don't want to end up eating Twinkies."

An unsparing commentator on celebrities for years, Rivers gradually become a target herself. Not surprisingly, she doesn't mind. It only confirms her status.

"You have to be in the limelight to have them making jokes about you," she says. "After my husband's suicide, and being fired by Fox and all that, I couldn't get arrested for about two years. Then the National Enquirer came out with an article about my dating Brian Wilson, and Melissa said, 'You're back in the game.'"

When it comes to making comic gain from the behavior of others, Rivers is not likely to run out of ammunition any time soon. The recent Academy Awards, for example, were easy manna, thanks to Angelina Jolie and a dress designed for an easy leg view.

"When she walked out and started posing, I just said, 'Thank you, God,'" Rivers says. "It was the arrogance of the gesture, the 'I am so beautiful, I can pose this way.' She has changed her image from slut to a wonderful woman who saves children and works for the United Nations. It's all another pose."

The current political scene easily fuels Rivers, too.

"When Snooki [from 'Jersey Shore'] said she was pregnant, Rick Santorum said he now believed in abortion," Rivers jokes. "That really threw me. I thought, this is a big man who can change his views."

Rivers is on a roll.

"Things are awful in this country," she says. "It's time to move to Canada. I think I'll take the whole audience in Baltimore with me. It will be like on 'Oprah,' only we'll have to go by bus. 'Everybody! We got a bus and a sandwich!'"

Although Rivers may be most associated with stand-up (or perhaps selling her jewelry product line on QVC), she started out in the business, like so many others, with an eye on the theater.

"Acting was my first love," she says. "It still is. I go back to acting whenever I can. I was nominated for a Tony [for 'Sally Marr … And Her Escorts' in 1994], and I am so proud of that."

Rivers, who also has several film credits, including a role in "The Swimmer" (1968) starring Burt Lancaster, is disarmingly honest about her acting talents.

"Anything Meryl Streep does, I could do better," she says. "She knows it. That's why she walks right past me if we're at the same parties. The bitch is just plain jealous. She knows I'm just waiting. Is that a cough, Meryl? 'Tonight the role of Mother Courage will be played by Joan Rivers.' You'd never see an audience exit like that."

Although some American comedians don't translate well across the Atlantic, Rivers had no trouble building up a following in England.

"For a while, I was bigger in the U.K. than here," she says. "I never for a moment thought they wouldn't understand me. I've performed for Prince Charles and for the Queen. I do tone it down for them. But I did say 'f— —' in front of the Queen of England one time. I didn't mean to. It slipped out. I just turned to her and said, 'Behead me here.'"

In Baltimore, Rivers won't be watching her language, but she might reveal a slightly softer side.

"Before I was born [in New York], my father was an immigrant kid who got his medical degree at Johns Hopkins and taught there," Rivers says. "So the family has always had a very warm spot for Baltimore. I think he got fired, though. He killed too many patients. 'Oh, nurse, does this look right?'"

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Joan Rivers performs at 8 p.m. Friday at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $42 to $62. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com

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