December 27, 2007
Joan Rivers’ ‘Life’—audacious, as always
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.
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