"I'm angry about getting older, about men being morons, about Hollywood being such a use-and-discard business. I'm angry that for women it's all about looks -- when it isn't for men -- and you can tell me 'No,' you can yell and argue, but if you're good in bed with big boobs and looking gorgeous, you're gonna get someplace."
For more than four decades, Rivers has used her rage to carve her niche as comedy's most seething yenta. Whether she is skewering celebrities on the red carpet, doing stand-up or performing one of her autobiographical plays ("Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress" runs Feb. 13 through March 16 at the Geffen Playhouse) her acid tongue deliberately provokes.
What does Rivers claim to have told Mick Jagger? "Iron your face."
Jesus "freaks"?: "If Jesus loved you, he would have given you an f--- chin."
Paris Hilton?: "Memories are precious -- make more home movies."
New Yorkers after Sept. 11?: "So who do you wish had died?"
You'd think she'd be booed off the stage for some of her most vitriolic bits, and audience members do boo, but mostly they relish her shtick, because "I tell the truth," she says. "I say not only what I think, but what everyone thinks."
Rivers' new play, which she calls "a one-woman show with four characters," was spurred by (what else) something that made her livid. She was preparing to work the red carpet at the Academy Awards four years ago when her job was on the line.
"Something horrible, just awful was done to me," she says in her raspy voice. "My response was 'Uch, nobody would believe this; this would make a great play."
Rivers won't divulge specifics about that incident (she wants to surprise audiences), but she will say that the show is set in a dressing room at an awards show where her cheese plate is puny and her producer is "the bigwig's nephew, not the bigwig."
The shabby milieu prompts Rivers to reflect upon her tumultuous life. In 1986 Rivers was perhaps the most successful female comic of her generation when a feud with Johnny Carson, for whom she had been a favored fill-in host, devastated her career. She reinvented herself as a QVC shopping channel diva in order to hawk her own jewelry, then reinvented herself yet again, as a red carpet interviewer, after suddenly finding herself $37 million in debt as the result of a business setback. Along the way, she survived the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, in 1987, and reworked her face with cosmetic surgery because "stretched-looking is better than wrinkled."
Today Rivers is as known for her face-lifts and botox shots as she is for her catty patter.
"I'm a big advocate," she says of nips and tucks. "You redo your car and repaint your house. So if you want to feel better and have a better looking nose, or lift your eyes, what's so terrible?"
Onstage, Rivers ridicules her own vanity, claiming "I wish I had a twin, so I'd know what I look like without plastic surgery."
She also professes to hate old people: "I really do hate them, because they remind me of me," she says in a telephone interview. "Of course it's all self-loathing. I don't know where it comes from, but it's making me a great living."
Some of that self-analysis comes through in her plays, which, she says, are "quite different from my stand-up. They're more controlled and there's much more serious stuff happening. My new play is about survival and starting again, no matter where you are in life. It's about when you do have to go back to the [proverbial] old dressing room, the old dirty dressing room that is waiting for you."
Bart DeLorenzo, who is directing the play, says he was drawn to the piece because "it shows you the Joan Rivers you expect -- the outrageous, manically funny, brutally honest performer -- and also a side she's never presented onstage, which is the story of her life. The stories she tells are funny and embarrassing and they're also heartbreaking. Obviously, there was the huge crisis when the personal and the professional came together, when she was fired by Fox, and her husband died shortly thereafter. But Rivers has been tested throughout her life. The humiliation and the rejection she encountered is overwhelming, yet she endured and was driven to move on."
On a recent afternoon, Rivers is ensconced in digs that seem light years away from that dressing room at the Oscars four years ago. She says she is sitting in her large bathroom-office -- half the sink counter has been transformed into a desk -- gazing out the window at a spectacular view of Central Park. She describes her outfit -- "Chanel-they-should-only-drop-dead-because-they-hate-Jews pants" -- and the Thanksgiving joke she told on "The View:" "Mel Gibson gave me my turkey recipe; it says, 'preheat the oven to 9,000 degrees.'"
"I just like to remind people about Mel Gibson," she says. "He made 'The Passion,' with the Jewish characters and their hook noses, and he says he's not anti-Semitic? Bad, bad, bad. Any Jew who sees a Mel Gibson movie should be ashamed of themselves. I certainly won't."
If Rivers identifies in any way as a Jewish performer, it's in the emphasis she places on survival -- a skill she first learned from her immigrant parents.
"They both had to flee Russia because of the revolution, but my father left because his family was so poor, and my mother left because her family was rich -- 'court Jews' who sold fur and bricks to the czarist army," she says.
"My mother was only 6 years old when she left, but she remembered servants carrying big silver platters with pears stuffed with caviar in for dinner," Rivers adds. "And then when her family came to America they were desperately poor, and my grandfather couldn't take it. He went back to Russia and died of starvation in St. Petersburg. It was my grandmother who made the transition to life in America. And it was only in America that my parents could have met and married."By the time Joan was growing up in Larchmont, N.Y., her father had become a physician and a founder of the town's first synagogue, which initially met in the local firehouse. The young Joan loved to perform but was even more eager to please her parents and pursue "everything a nice Jewish girl was supposed to do." She earned an English degree from Barnard College in 1954 and married a Jewish businessman but was "completely miserable," she says. She divorced him six months later, and then announced that she intended to pursue acting.
"My father truly thought I was mad and threatened to have me committed," she says.
"I left home at that point, and I didn't talk to my parents for a year -- including Yom Kippur, which was awful," Rivers continues. "I was all alone, but I had an Italian boyfriend, and he just drove me around until we found a temple that would let me in without a ticket. God bless this little temple in the Bronx that welcomed me in."
The theater proved less inviting -- which was fortuitous for Rivers. When she couldn't land the dramatic roles she craved, she tried stand-up because it paid $8 a gig, adopting the persona of a callous, spoiled princess.
Feminist activists such as Gloria Steinem still hate aspects of Rivers' routine: "Gloria, go shove it up your bleached-blond head," Rivers says of the critique. "I haven't had a chance to march, honey, because I was too busy working in a man's world."
It was the most powerful man in comedy -- Johnny Carson -- who gave Rivers her big break in 1965 and broke her two decades later. He had named her permanent guest host on "The Tonight Show," and he was reportedly furious when she left to launch a rival program on the Fox network in 1986. After her own show was cancelled, Rivers says no one would hire her; several months later, her husband and producer, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in a hotel room (Rivers had separated from him three days earlier and was undergoing liposuction at the time of his death).
The comic almost immediately began joking about the suicide in her act, claiming that she had scattered Edgar's ashes at Nieman Marcus so he would be certain to see her daily. She says she needed to talk about the suicide to process the pain, but the bits appalled Rivers' then-17-year-old daughter, Melissa, who subsequently refused to speak to her mother for two years.
Mother and daughter eventually reconciled, and, in the 1990s, were hired by E! Entertainment Television to work the Oscars.
"Everyone said it was beneath me," Rivers recalls.
But she was broke again -- courtesy of that $37 million debt -- and she needed the job.
Viewers both relish and revile her gleefully vicious treatment of celebrities -- a gig she says is much harder than it looks.
"It's like preparing for the SATs," she explains. "You have to know a lot about what fashion is during a particular year; you have to read up on dozens of people because you don't know who will be coming through; and you have to know how far you can push someone."
She cites how rival interviewer Isaac Mizrahi grabbed Scarlett Johansson's breasts at the 2006 Golden Globe Awards, causing Scarlett to turn scarlet.
"I love Isaac," she says, "but you've gotta know whose boobs to push."
This year Rivers and her daughter will comment on the Golden Globes, from one of their homes, for VH1 online. "It's going to be a lot easier than in person, because there are many things you just aren't gonna say to someone's face that you will say behind their back, even for me," she says.