Joan Rivers is talking about chocolate-covered matzah houses. “I was on Martha Stewart’s programme for Passover and we made a gingerbread matzah house,” she says in her distinctively husky New York accent. “It was so fabulous I got more calls on that programme than I ever got in my life. It had chocolate and nuts and dried fruit. I always use it as a centrepiece [for my Seder]. Your readers should go on her website and get the recipe.”
At 75, the grand dame of American comedy is very open about her Jewishness — and any other personal detail, for that matter. Plastic surgery, her miscarriages, her late husband’s suicide and ageing are all up for discussion, and form the material which she uses in her shows.
That she can laugh at her own vulgarity is why her fans love her. She recently attempted to climb the Great Wall of China in aid of breast cancer, wearing “what else? Red Manolo Blahniks.”
“I think it’s still important to wear high heels,” she admits in all seriousness. “My generation is very used to high heels. My daughter will walk a block and say: ‘Ugh these shoes!’ But high heels make your legs look longer.”
Rivers’s salaciousness got her into hot water when she recently got thrown off the live ITV daytime talkshow Loose Women for calling Russell Crowe a piece of “f***ing sh**”. It did wonders for her profile just as she was preparing to bring her latest, autobiographical show, A Work in Progress for a Life in Progress, to the UK.
“Wasn’t that funny on their part?” she says of the Loose Women producers. “That was the same day that your courts allowed Osama Bin Ladin’s second-in-command to go free. You’re worried that I said ‘f**k’? I’m proud of it. The only thing I regret is that it should have been about Mel Gibson.”
Not everyone appreciates her vicious stage persona, but does Rivers care? Hardly. “We want the audience to be shocked,” she says.
“We want them to say: ‘Did she just say that?’ As long as you don’t hurt people, as long as you fulfil your obligations as well as you possibly can. You can swear as long as you help the blind man across the street afterwards.
“I’m not interested if people don’t like me. If that is what you think, don’t come and see me. That is the only good thing about age — you can say, ‘who cares?’. I’ve been in the business for 50 years. I’m doing well. Usually somewhere there are enough people that like me. If they don’t, don’t come! Go see someone else.”
She may try her hardest to fight it, but it appears that everything about getting older makes Rivers more funny, giving her an extra layer of (ever so taut) skin, more perspective and less self-consciousness.
“I think I have gotten funnier absolutely,” she says. “I think you get more secure and you get more confident. You think: ‘I don’t know whether they will laugh at this,’ but you do it anyway. Then at one point you go: ‘This is funny — I’m going to say it.’ I only take something out if they didn’t think it was funny. Otherwise I keep it in. I’m much more physical on stage. I’m playing much bigger places so I run around more to make sure everyone gets included.”
Born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn to Russian immigrant parents, Beatrice and Meyer Molinsky, Rivers grew up in the affluent Westchester County in New York and gained a degree in English from Barnard College.
Her mother and father were vehemently against her plan to go into showbusiness. “My parents never wanted any part of the business at all,” she says.
“They wanted me to be an astronaut or a doctor or anything else, no problem. They lived, thank God, to see that I could make my way in the business.
“My mother died when my gigs in Vegas had just started and I was in my 50s. She always said: ‘I don’t worry about your sister, but I worry about you.’ She didn’t trust [showbusiness] and she’s right. It’s a very fickle business. We live from booking to booking. My dad was a doctor and he felt that when he worked hard you get a practice going and that is what you do. They never thought it was the kind of business that could last. They just didn’t know what to do. But I had no choice. I wanted to do this. Thank God I was smart enough to know you have one life.”
Luckily, Rivers has always been successful. She began appearing on television as a comedian in the 1960s with regular slots on The Tonight Show. By 1983, she had become the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson on the show, she was headlining in Las Vegas and performing sell-out gigs in Carnegie Hall in New York. But when she decided to host her own talk show, Carson was so angry he banned her from his show and wouldn’t let her back on, even after Rivers’s show failed.
Soon after, in 1987, her husband Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide in a Philadelphia hotel room at the age of 62. He had been depressed, Rivers had walked out on him, and he overdosed. She found out the news from her daughter while she was in hospital having liposuction.
In her book, Bouncing Back, Rivers claims she developed bulimia and contemplated suicide after her husband’s. Rivers’s daughter, Melissa — also a TV personality, who co-hosts red-carpet shows with her mother — blamed her for her father’s suicide, and for a year the two were estranged.
This is not the stuff of The Waltons. But Rivers has an enviable ability to turn trauma into a joke. “Thank God my husband said in his will that I should cremate him and then scatter his ashes in Neiman Marcus [a department store]. That way he knew he would see me five times a week,” is one of the outrageous jokes she made about his death.
Her line that she was the one who really caused Rosenberg’s suicide, because, while they were making love, she took the bag off her head, is even more shocking.
Rivers describes the four-character play she is taking to the Edinburgh Festival before coming to the West End as “very very funny”, but adds that there are “a lot of other things going on. There are ideas of a philosophy of life and statements. There’s a moral thing at the end.”
If modern philosophy does not spark your interest, go see it for the Jewish gags. “There’s a lot of Jewish stuff in the show — growing up as a Jew in a Catholic neighbourhood,” she says. “You just don’t think about it, you just do it.”
In fact, Rivers, whose father helped found the Larchmont Synagogue in New York, is not just Jewish for the showbiz value. She has a strong identity. “I always go home for the holidays,” she insists. “I have a friend, who’s wonderful, who lives in Kent, who says: ‘Come and spend Yom Kippur with me’. I’m very observant. I try to light candles on Fridays. I make it to temple when I have to. If I’m out of town, I rush back for Friday night. The family comes to know: ‘We have to go to Aunt Joan’s.’”
A photo of her Seder table was even shown off on the Martha Stewart chocolate-matzah-house episode. But being a New Yorker means this demonstrativeness is pretty run of the mill. “I live in New York. Every third person is Jewish,” she says.
“You walk down the street, you say: ‘Hello, Mr Schwartz,’ and four people turn around. I’m very aware that the comedy goes with it. I think all Jews would agree because we’re such outsiders. That helps with the humour because we think people will accept us if we’re funny.
“But I think it’s all DNA anyhow. It all comes from our ancestors. My whole family is funny. My daughter is funny. There were Jewish women who were funny in the ghetto.”
Joan Alexandra Molinsky in Brooklyn in 1933
New York City
Married to Jimmy Sanger in 1957 for six months before the marriage was annulled. Married British TV producer Edgar Rosenberg in 1965, who committed suicide in 1987. Has one daughter, Melissa
During the 1980s she was a permanent guest host on US TV’s top-rated The Tonight Show, sold out concerts at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York, headlined in Las Vegas, and had hit albums and bestselling books
“I’m very observant. I try to light candles on Fridays. If I’m out of town I rush back for Friday night. The family comes to know: ‘We have to go to Aunt Joan’s’”