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Jewish Journal

Joan Rivers’ ‘Life’—audacious, as always

by Naomi Pfefferman

December 27, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Joan Rivers. Photo by Charles William Bush

Joan Rivers. Photo by Charles William Bush

"I'm angry about everything," comedian Joan Rivers says.

"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."

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