It’s pretty obvious Joan Rivers just doesn’t give a crap.
The comedienne, talk show host, reality star and actress will turn 77 on Tuesday, June 8, but the highlights of her 45-year career up until that point have been documented in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a new movie by filmmakers Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) released three days later.
If you thought you knew everything (or anything) about Rivers, you may be surprised how many new layers the film uncovers as it follows a year in the life of the polarizing comic who hosted “The Tonight Show” long before Leno, Letterman or Conan were fighting over it. The doc opens at a time when Rivers can’t seem to get the number of bookings she likes to keep herself busy, but by the end of the movie, she’s appearing on “Celebrity Apprentice,” being roasted on Comedy Central and finally feeling good about her career. Throughout this year, the movie successfully shows that much of the personality that many have found abrasive is mostly a stage act to entertain her fans.
When ComingSoon.net learned we’d have a chance to talk with Ms. Rivers last week, the first thing that went through our mind was a feeling of fear. After all, the legendary comedienne is notorious for having an extremely acerbic wit, and we weren’t sure whether we would be up to the task of what could have been a challenging interview. Obviously, we hadn’t learned anything from watching the movie, because in fact, Ms. Rivers was incredibly cordial and gracious with her time to talk about the movie and other things.
ComingSoon.net: This is a great movie, I’ve seen it twice already…
Joan Rivers: Oh my God… Why?
CS: I was fascinated by the movie and the way they put it together to tell this story. I haven’t really seen a documentary like this before. How did the filmmakers convince you to let them follow you around with cameras for 14 months?
Rivers: They didn’t convince me. It was all done the way I think a lot of things should be done. I was very friendly with Ricki Stern’s mother and one Thanksgiving, she said, we’d love to do a documentary on you, and I said, “Good.” We shook hands and said “50/50” and it wasn’t until months later, we went to a lawyer to make it legal, whatever, and we just started doing it.
CS: Did they have some sort of pitch or gameplan of what they wanted to do?
Rivers: No, and I didn’t care. The gameplan was I would give them full access and I didn’t want a puff piece. I had just seen that stupid thing with Anna Wintour (“The September Issue”), and you learn nothing about her. What did you learn about that? You learn nothing about anything, so I said, “If you’re going to do it, it’s gotta be real.” I liked what they had done before, they’d done Darfur, they’d done a couple serious things, so I thought they’d certainly be coming at this in a different way.
CS: Once you agreed to do it, were they literally there when you woke up with their cameras?
Rivers: That was it, and I would tell them what I was doing that day, and they’d say, “Okay, we’ll go with you to this and this and this and would you mind if we hung out with you tonight?” “No, fine, whatever you guys want.”
CS: How about everyone else around you? Did they just have to understand that this is what you were doing and that was it?
Rivers: Yeah, we would just walk in and say, “They’re doing a documentary…” (laughs) and my friends know that my life is not simple. They’re used to it.
CS: No one just said “No” ’cause they have to get releases and all that?
Rivers: Yeah, but most people are just so happy to be part of anything. Show business is great, you know that!
CS: Sure, from my limited amount of time in it. They started filming. There are a bunch of interviews in the movie as well, so were those scheduled when you had time?
Rivers: Yeah, over the fourteen months, she’d say, “I want to sit down, I have some more questions I want to ask you.” (I’d say) “Sure, come in this afternoon, come in tomorrow, I’ll do that.”
CS: And you didn’t say anything until they were completely done with everything?
Rivers: No, nothing. They didn’t come around until they showed me the final rough cut. There were certain things I didn’t like I asked them to change, very few. I said something really angry about my husband and Melissa asked for that change so I did. They started Melissa talking negatively about me, and I said, “She can say anything she wants but there’s got to be some positive in there, too, I’m sure.” And they said, “Oh, yeah” but they just chose what they thought would be the more provocative and the more thought-provoking and the more interesting, so they put in things obviously that Melissa said that were nice, not only just knocks.
CS: I talk to a lot of doc filmmakers who make these kinds of movies, when they have to follow subjects around for a long period of time. Most of those subjects aren’t used to cameras being around at all but you’re used to them from being on television for 45 years. Were you able to forget the cameras were there, do what you need to do and live your life as normal?
Rivers: Truly, when they’re on for 14 months, you do forget. You’re tired… also, I loved the cameraman, I loved the soundman, so they became just a part of the family.
CS: So it was just a small crew of four with the two filmmakers and them?
Rivers: No, no, it was just the two of them, the cameraman and the soundguy.
CS: Ricki and Annie weren’t there at all?
Rivers: Ricki popped up now and again and she was looking at what came back and obviously giving the direction but no, it was just the two of them and they just became a part of the family.
CS: That’s pretty amazing. Many actors don’t like watching themselves on playback when they’re doing movies and television. After they showed you the rough cut, have you been able to watch the movie at any of the premieres with an audience?
Rivers: I’ve seen it at a couple of premieres but I usually walk out. I stay in the back. I think people get very uptight if they know you’re in the audience and I think they act differently or they’re scared not to enjoy it or whatever, so I always make a point of saying, “I’m not going to be in the audience, I’ll come in afterwards.”
CS: You’re so used to being on stage and having audiences react both positively and negatively (as we see in the movie)…
Rivers: But then I’m on stage and I can do something about it.
CS: Right, of course. This was an interesting period that the movie captured, because it starts in a period where things weren’t going that well because you weren’t on “Celebrity Apprentice” and before the Comedy Central roast. How did they know the movie was done and they had enough footage to start editing?
Rivers: I don’t know how they figured it out, and they happened to get a good year. I’d already started doing “How’d You Get So Rich?” I had already signed that deal and things were fine, but they really caught a good year. So many things just suddenly popped that year.
CS: I’m amazed by the schedule you keep, especially some of those marathon days which take you all over the country in 24 hours. Is that something you still do very often or was that just in that period?
Rivers: No, no, no, that’s my whole life. I love my work, I’m a workaholic and people put you down for it, and I think how lucky I’m a workaholic. I love the work and I love what I’m doing.
CS: Why would people put you down for working hard? I think that’s one of the things about the movie that I’m not sure a lot of people know about you, that you work so hard.
Rivers: I had one man I was going out with, and he said to me, “You’re just a worker bee, that’s all you are.” And you wanna go, “‘Cause I love what I do. Sorry, I love what I do.” So a lot of people think, “God, you work too hard,” but if that’s what you love. I always say Vincent van Gogh kept painting with candles in his hat, because he loved it.
CS: That’s one of the things that’s really on display in the movie but also that you’re very caring about the people around you, not just Melissa, but also the people you meet on the street, and your fans. It shows a side of you that I don’t think people see very often.
Rivers: No, what they see always is the person on stage, which is great.
CS: That’s what I was curious about, because it’s obviously part of your act and your persona to be tough and cynical so is it hard to let people behind the screen and see this other side of you? Does that detract from the persona you’re trying to create on stage?
Rivers: It doesn’t matter. The point is they come, they pay their money, they have a great time. That’s all I want from that lady on stage is that anyone who pays, has fun.
CS: That’s a good outlook to have. Does a movie like this force you to reflect upon yourself more than anybody might ever want to? Or do you just keep doing what you’re doing and not worry about any of that?
Rivers: When you get to this age, you just do what you do, and I’m thrilled the movie’s out, because I think it’s great that a lot of people who’ve never seen me perform, they now can see what I do, and that makes me very happy. I think Melissa comes out of it great, and I think it makes a couple of points I want to make. I’m always talking about (how) life is not fair so just enjoy the good moments, and age sucks but you can get through it, so I’m very pleased with what they did with the movie.
CS: A few of the doc filmmakers I’ve spoken to are very adamant that they will make the movie they want to make and while they’ll listen to concerns of the subject, they’re not beholden to make changes, but that wasn’t the case here. It sounds like it was a lot more collaborative in a sense.
Rivers: It was collaborative but (Ricki) made all the choices that went into the movie. She took 14 months and put them into 86 minutes.
CS: Was there anything you wanted to change that they convinced you needed to stay in the movie?
Rivers: No, I wish they had shown a little bit more of my private life, because I do have friends and I do have a good time. I would have liked that, but I think they made great choices. I think the movie is a wonderful documentary.
CS: I absolutely agree. We also see in the movie that as a woman comedian, you broke down a lot of boundaries. Do you still feel that it’s hard as a woman doing what you do and that’s part of why you get so much flack or is that something you’ve gotten past?
Rivers: I never felt that it was hard that I was a woman. I mean, funny is funny. Looking back, you think maybe I was the last to be accepted because I was a woman, but it never even occurred to me.
CS: I love the comedy of Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman, because they’re both really funny, but it seems they get the same sort of flack you get where they’re very polarizing, maybe people don’t like the fact they’re so outspoken, which seems similar to what you were dealing with 30-40 years ago…
Rivers: Maybe, and who cares? Then you go see them and they’re funny. If you can make an audience laugh, then you’re successful; if you can’t, you’re not. It’s a very basic business. If my dog had six good minutes, he would be on Letterman. It’s that simple.
CS: One of the things the movie reminds us of is when you would fill in for Johnny Carson once a week, which is something not many people seeing this will remember, and that was before the whole Leno-Letterman and Leno-Conan feuds. Have you had a chance to go back on “The Tonight Show” since you did “Celebrity Apprentice”?
Rivers: No, never. It says it in the movie. I’ve been banned from NBC late night. Done.
CS: Oh, okay, ’cause the movie ends at a certain place and I thought maybe since then…
Rivers: No, no, no…
CS: That’s really surprising.
Rivers: And they’re stupid. I’ll be honest with you. Coming from both sides. When you book a show, you’re so happy to get a guest that produces and if they don’t use me, their loss.
CS: But you’ve been on Letterman and some of the other shows.
Rivers: I was on Letterman once, Conan once, and Conan was NBC and then they found out and that was that. But you know, you find other doors, you go through other ways.
CS: It’s just so surprising because you probably would have taken over “The Tonight Show” instead of Leno if you hadn’t been offered the other show.
Rivers: Yeah, well, I got an internal message slipped to me while I was still doing the Carson show mentioning possible people that would take over for Johnny, and my name wasn’t on the list. And a friend of mine, Jay Michaels, who was Senior Vice President, now dead, wrote across it, “Darling, take a look at this. This is no home for you.” And my husband said, “Time to move.”
CS: I also wanted to ask about your gay fanbase which has really flourished in the last few years… is that something you noticed very early on in your career or just more recently?
Rivers: I noticed them immediately in Greenwich Village, immediately, and they were wonderful. They were the first ones that really laughed and encouraged you and said you were right when so many people were saying you’re wrong, and they’ve been such a pillar, a strength in my whole career. God bless the gay community!
CS: Are you flattered by men doing you in their cross-dressing acts?
Rivers: I think it’s flattering that anyone knows you enough to do an imitation of you, absolutely.
CS: What have you been doing since finishing “Celebrity Apprentice”?
Rivers: I have a new show coming out with Melissa called “Mother Knows Best” which starts in December. We just started taping it. My “How’d You Get So Rich?” is finishing up its second season, going for a third. I do all my concerts, I have QVC, and I’m thinking of starting another book and someone wants to revive the play. So it’s a good busy moment.
CS: Is “Mother Knows Best” going to be similar to this movie where you’re going to have cameras following you around?
Rivers: It’s going to be a reality show where I move in with Melissa.
CS: But you are going to have cameras all around you again.
Rivers: Good, yeah, I’m used to them. I hope it’s the same guys.
CS: Thanks a lot. I’m glad we had a chance to talk and I wish I had a chance to talk to Ricki.
Rivers: Well, I’m thrilled that you liked it and thrilled you’re going to say nice things and I’m thrilled to talk to you.
CS: Gee, thanks, and have a great birthday next week!
Rivers: Thank you.
CS: Is it going to be 77 then?
Rivers: I don’t even give a sh*t!
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, June 11, and then in other cities on June 18 and June 25.