Last week, I got to sit down with Joan Rivers and directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg about their new film “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” What I found was that Joan Rivers is a really funny lady who curses a lot, and makes amazing jokes about Hitler. Unfortunately Stern and Sundberg didn’t make any jokes about Hitler.
First was Joan.
In the film you say that after doing a sexual joke on TV in the 1960’s a manager told you that you shouldn’t be talking about that kind of thing. You’re response was it was exactly the thing you should be talking about. Why?
Joan Rivers: I just knew he was wrong. If I’m talking about it on stage I know it’s right, but I don’t know why it’s right. But there is an obvious connection with the audience that you know, “Yeah, we should be talking about this.” First of all he was a man, and he doesn’t know what women go through. And the women in the audience were responding to that.
Also in the film you propose a joke about Michelle Obama referring to her lovingly as “Blackie-O.” Do you think she would have responded to that?
Joan Rivers: If I were black and saying it she would have laughed. I stop and say, “If I’m a Jew and you’re going to make a Jew joke, if you’re not Jewish am I going to laugh?” You always have to say, “What is the other factor here.” I meant it truly as a compliment, she’s so chic! But people said, “You can’t say that!” So I didn’t. You certainly don’t want to be taken the wrong way. So I try to say, “If they’re non-Jewish, and they make the joke would I laugh?” Usually I go, “Yeah.”
You say that when you got your late-night show at Fox Johnny Carson never spoke to you again. Why do you think that is?
Joan Rivers: Two reasons – I think because I was a woman he never thought I’d leave him. Every one in that group – David Bremmer left, Bill Cosby left, George Carlon left – he never was angry at anybody. I left and it was like, “You cut off my arms. How can you leave me?!” Also let’s look at the Leno/Conan thing; I left and I became competitive with him. He was out to kill me. He became a tough, smart businessman. And what happened with Leno and Conan. Leno said I want it back, and he got it back. Conan was going around going, “Boo-hoo, boo-hoo,” and then he turns around and does it to George Lopez. I want that spot, push him out. It is a business.
Did you ever talk to any of Johnny and your mutual friends about it?
Joan Rivers: He never had any friends, he was very enclosed. The only one was, God-Bless, Ed McMahon. At one of my terribly low points, I was sitting in the Beverly Hills Hotel – so not that low… a lowish point, looking very chic, but a lowish point – and Ed McMahon came over and talked to me, and I thought, “You are risking your job.”
These days TV is opening up past the networks. If you were to get a show what would it be?
Joan Rivers: My ideal would be another Late-Night show. I love interviewing. I love, love, love it. I would do it on the Internet. I would sit in my living room. That would be ideal. And Melissa [Rivers] and I are doing a new show called “Mother Knows Best.” December 2nd is the airdate on We. I think it will destroy the relationship, but I think it is worth it. It is a reality show. I’m moving back in with her.
What I am worried about is Melissa is so private. When you have children you know that they are only fifty per cent you. The other fifty per cent is my husband. My husband was so English you didn’t know anything. You didn’t know he was going to kill himself until he killed himself, and that was the man I lived with. So Melissa is a very private person, and I don’t think she’s going to be quite as happy as she thinks she’s going to be on the show. I think America wants to see a real mother/daughter relationship. I don’t want to do, “Tori and Dean,” even though they are very successful, I want to do a real show. So think it will real difficult because I’ll say, “Show that!” and she’ll say she doesn’t want to show it.
Your new stand up is still very edgy.
Joan Rivers: You’re damn right the new stuff is f***ing edgy!
In the film when you are playing to a very conservative crowd a heckler reacts badly to a blind children joke you have to get your audience back, and you do with an Osama bin Laden joke. Is that a stock joke that you know would work, or did you pull that out because you knew that audience would really respond to it?
Joan Rivers: I don’t know. I’ve said that joke before, but it wasn’t supposed to be in there then. It was just what came to my head. At that point all you are thinking is, “How do I get them back.” You have to remember that it is three thousand people in that room, one person can’t ruin it for the other two thousand ninety nine. You have to get them back.
How has comedy changed since you started?
Joan Rivers: Oh it is much better now. It is so rough. How wonderful you can get on stage and talk about vaginas dropping, and anything. I was pregnant on Ed Sullivan and I couldn’t say I was pregnant. That’s insane. I was there, eight months gone, and I had to say, “Mr. Sullivan, soon we’re going to hear the pitter-patter of little feet.” So much better now.
You have a card catalog for all the jokes you have ever written. Do you have a back up for that?
Joan Rivers: In theory. We had a poor summer intern to put them into the computer. You see these kids, they came from Brown last year, and his eyes are rolling back in his head, and he’s still on the “A’s,” and it is September. So I’m trying to get them on back up, but it seems like an impossible task.
You are always quoted as saying that you are only happy if you have full calendar. Why?
Joan Rivers: I’m a performer. I was meant to be a performer. And I’m still performing. How great is that? I love what I do. I don’t want to have lunch and take cooking classes. One of my girlfriends told me she spent three weeks in Venice taking cooking classes. I thought, “I’d f***ing kill myself.”
You were on “Celebrity Apprentice.” You may not be able to answer this, but is Donald Trump the same off camera as he is on?
Joan Rivers: I went in very skeptical. He is so smart. He is such a pro. He gets it. He knows what he wants. I walked out of there with so much respect for him. You sit with him for two minutes and you believe everything. “I’ll invest in that. Absolutely!” He’s such a salesman. He must be what P.T. Barnum was like. Totally believes it, and you believe it. I love him for that because he backs it up with smarts. Nothing dumb about that man.
What did you think of the season of “Celebrity Apprentice” that just ended compared to your season?
Joan Rivers: There’s no comparison. We were the perfect storm. Everybody hated each other. Everybody was nasty, and vicious, and backbiting. We were the perfect group for “Celebrity Apprentice.” This group really loved each other. Off camera they were kissing. They were happy to see each other. Holly said, “Brett should win.” What!!! Where are you coming from? It was such a different vibration. They did brilliantly with the money, but ours was a more interesting season. With Melissa, you don’t know how nasty those two bitches treated her.
Annie Duke was my problem. Annie Duke played people like she played poker. It took about four weeks to realize that she was just lying to all of us. It was just amazing. At the end it became a crusade. I swear to God I was a white knight on my horse going into battle. This girl cannot win. I must win.
The documentary makes it seem like you thought she wasn’t Jewish, but she is.
Joan Rivers: She’s not Jewish, she’s whatever she wants you think she is. If she’s Jewish we want no part of her. If Hitler was alive he’d get a note right now, “Did you know Annie Duke is Jewish?”
Next Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg came in.
In the first part of the film there is a lot of attention put on Joan’s manager Billy, and then he disappears without any real explanation, though there is some very dramatic slo-motion shots to indicate something happened. What was the story behind that?
Ricki Stern: Honestly, what you see is what you get. There isn’t anything deeper or darker that Joan knows about. He’s been in her life for over thirty years, and they had this relationship where sometimes his life would get full of other things, and he wasn’t consistent, in her opinion, for work. It got to the point [during the filming] that so much was going on, and she just felt like this was a time that she needed a manager that would return calls, and he wasn’t doing that. They have a long history together, but I think it wasn’t an easy parting.
During those fourteen months of shooting, how much were you with Joan?
Ricki Stern: If we wanted to go we could be there. Joan was like, “Anything you want to do, any time, any place.” We had to say we didn’t want to go and shoot some small little thing. For example that thing that we shot in Wisconsin with the heckler we weren’t going to go. At the last minute I sent Charles [Miller], who shot the whole film. He went and did sound and camera, alone because we didn’t have a budget, and it turned out to be an amazing scene.
Was it hard to cut down all of that footage to the film we see now?
Ricki Stern: I really wanted to make an eighty-four, eighty-five minute film. I think that documentaries, and films too, are too long. I really do think you want to leave your audience wanting more. People fall in love with their subjects so much that most films are too long.
Anne Sundberg: The pacing of the film also dictates the length. If you look at the energy that Joan brings to her own life, the way that she moves through this year, it just feels right. It is a tight film, there’s just not a lot of fat in it.
The film is about Joan Rivers the woman, and not Joan Rivers the plastic surgery junkie. Was that intended from the get-go?
Ricki Stern: It is funny; I swear the one mission that I set out to find out was some deep-rooted reasons that Joan has had so much plastic surgery. It was like, “If I can just nail that.” One day I said, “Talk to me about the plastic surgery.” She said, “Well, I did one face lift when I was forty. I did another ten years later, did tweaks here and there, and it just makes me feel good. I think I look good for seventy-seven. I feel good. Why not do it?” Yes, she says she never felt pretty; she has certain insecurity about the way she looks. It is all there, it’s pretty obvious, but quite honestly it’s not that much deeper and darker. What I do appreciate from her is that she thinks it’s bullshit that everyone in Hollywood is getting work done, little tweaks or whatever, and no one talks about it. They think they’re natural beauties. She says to the everyday woman, “Look, you could look like Angelina Jolie, but don’t feel bad. These women have their hair done, their nails, their face, so there is a reason.”
Joan always seems camera ready. Is she?
Ricki Stern: She actually goes to bed with her make-up on. She doesn’t really wash her face. She washes her face once a week, or twice a week, or something like that. She showers, but she’ll leave a base on. Though she has incredibly nice skin if you look close.
Can you talk about how you two work together?
Ricki Stern: This film is a unique experience as a directing team because of my relationship with Joan. So we wanted to keep it really small, and we were working on other projects, and the film happened very, very quickly.
Anne Sundberg: But in terms of the way we work, in general, often ideas will come, or we make a decision to do a film together, or follow a subject, there is dialogue about the initial story ideas, sometimes music ideas, editing ideas. I’ll bring in Rickie to look at stuff on the Burma film, and be like, “What do you think? Is this working? How is this feeling for you?” Docs are long hauls of projects, and having a partnership in this business makes it a much more doable thing because then people are there to help carry the load.
Ricki Stern: We both typically establish a relationship with the subject so we have our own unique relationship with that person. One person may be better at interviewing them about a particular thing. It allows you to have a certain report with your subject that you end up spending so much time with, and that can be really helpful.
What is your next film about?
Anne Sundberg: It is a real challenge because it isn’t a verite film. It is trying to tell a story, but in retrospect with limited footage. It is basically telling the story of a former Burma army solider who became a pro-democracy activist, and was kind of crucial with some of the uprisings in ’88, and he was imprisoned for his work. His story is in many ways the story of modern Burma. It will be on HBO later this year.
“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is in limited release on June 11 Limited, June 18th wide.
Interview By Paul Myers