“Did you know that Annie Duke is Jewish?” a reporter asked at the Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work press conference. Duke, the diva’s hated rival on Celebrity Apprentice, was famously told by Joan to kiss her “old Jewish ass.” “Oh no, she’s not!” Rivers shot back, outraged. “Even if her mother’s Jewish, we don’t want anything to do with her.” A roomful of magazine writers tittered nervously, but Joan pushed even further. “If Hitler were alive today, I’d be writing him a letter right now, ‘Did you hear that Annie Duke is Jewish?’” Past discomfort to a volcanic eruption of laughter. She has that effect on people.
For some 50-odd years, that’s been Rivers’s stock-in-trade: shock the pants off the crowd while you bring them to tears with laughter. To promote A Piece of Work, the iconic red carpet bitch and comedy trailblazer let her hilarious show biz tales fly, starting with The Ed Sullivan show, where she wasn’t allowed to talk about being pregnant. “I had to say, ‘I’ll be hearing the pitter-patter of little feet soon,’ I wasn’t allowed to say ‘pregnant’. Fucking crazy.” Today, the 76-year old is free to speak about her vagina dropping and the advantages of anal sex. (“You can do the laundry or check your blackberry while bent over.”)
A Piece of Work isn’t quite a biography or tell-all. It’s a “direct cinema” year in the life of Joan, and as always, nothing’s too personal. Even her husband’s suicide pops up at odd moments: “My daughter is half of both parents, but she’s very much like my husband; very English, very private. You don’t know what she’s going to do do until she does it. I didn’t know my husband was going to kill himself until he killed himself, and this was the man I lived with for twenty years!” This was in response to a very general question about a new reality series with daughter Melissa.
Younger audiences might only know Rivers as a fashion harpy and plastic surgery freak — a bionic joke that imploded on herself decades ago — but after seeing filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s (The Trials of Darryl Hunt) new release, they’ll bow to her comedic dominance. The only woman ever to host a network late night television show, Rivers even sat in for Carson on The Tonight Show, before her success alienated the talk show king forever. “Edgar died, and nothing. [Johnny] introduced us! He didn’t call, he didn’t send flowers. Nothing.” Ever the survivor, she still got a laugh out of the story: “God bless Ed McMahon.”
Of course, Judaism remains the comic legend’s favorite topic, though it’s rarely the butt of her jokes. More like the icing on a sour cake. “The New York Times said you can have deep love six times. Isn’t that fabulous? We’re talking deep love. I’ve got three more old Jewish men waiting for me!” Another example: When Rivers first walked in the room of a dozen writers, she burst with surprise, “Oh my goodness, it’s like Passover in here!” These Hebraic flourishes are what make Joan Joan — forever the risque bubbe.
Even in the age of Sarah Silverman and Lisa Lampanelli, Rivers still surprises. On Michelle Obama: “She’s elegant just like Jackie-O; she’s Black-i-o.” At the press conference, she defended her racy material, saying she always imagines Jew-jokes from non-Jewish comics: “Do I laugh? Nine times out of ten, yeah, I laugh. It’s funny.” Oddly, she only worried non-Jews might find her humor anti-Semitic. (Heebs, of course, being in on the joke.) The bit that concerned Rivers the most was about how Germans find her the “funniest woman not in the ovens.” Luckily, the directors convinced their muse and the moment made it in. “Come on,” Rivers says now to anyone who bristles at the Holocaust reference. “It’s funny!”
With this film and her recent television appearances, the queen of mean is back in the spotlight, even almost at her Carson-endorsed level. But what keeps her going after all these years? “Because I love performing. I’m a performer. A girlfriend of mine just told me she spent three weeks in Venice taking cooking classes. I thought, ‘I’d fucking kill myself.’ I’d rather go and perform.” After a few laughs and a gentle nudge from the publicist, it was time for photos. While flashbulbs popped, someone noticed that she was performing, mugging it up for the camera. “This is not performing!” she insisted. “This is your mother’s old Jewish friend on camera.” Yes. Yes it is.
Catch Heeb‘s advanced screening of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work this Tuesday, June 8, at 92Y Tribeca in New York City. Click here for tickets. To find out more about the film, visit the official website.