Roars of laughter, as loud as a reeling roller coaster, fill the theatre as Joan Rivers discusses her life during the Tribeca Film Festival.
With each question at this Q&A, Joan can not help but make a side splitting response, a talent she credits to DNA.
My father was a doctor and he was so funny people would laugh until they died, Joan says. And my sister is a lawyer but she has great humor. And my grandson is funny and Melissa. You learn to see things crooked. When the whole family laughs at funny things it makes a big difference.
Joan spent her entire life making people laugh and changing the way audiences view female comics.
For her latest project, an IFC Films documentary titled A Piece of Work by renowned filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, Joan reveals the ups and downs, the ins and outs, of a legend’s career. A legend who still believes the best is yet to happen.
I have no choice, Joan says, I have to keep going. From the time I could put two sentences together, and they put a pussycat headband on me, that was it. I didn’t want to do anything else but act.
Acting fuels Joan, yet she never really got a shot for a serious role.
It’s a tough business and you have to have skin of an alligator, Joan says.
I have never been offered a television sitcom or a role in a movie. But I am not going to dwell on it because look what I have had come to me.
Should her career have gone differently, Joan believes she would have made a great Phantom on Broadway.
Jokes thread through every remark, yet Joan did make serious attempts to get more acting gigs. Time after time she wrote letters to theatres who didn’t even take the time to respond.
Shadowlands is a wonderful play and I wrote to them, Joan shares. I always write to everyone and they never answer me.
Do you want to hear something awful? Joan asks. When Edgar had just killed himself, I couldn’t get work and they were looking for someone for Broadway Bound. Neil Simon said don’t bring her in.’ But I came in on my own money, read for it and they gave the part to me right on the spot. That turned my life around. From that, I got my talk show and on and on. My whole life I said ‘Neil Simon changed my life.’ But when I saw him again years later he said, You were a Kate?’
Harsh times also occurred on the comedic side. Since leaving Carson, Joan has been blackballed from NBC. Conan had me on once in twenty years. Leno has never put me on. And I have offered and offered, Joan says. But now there is a new crop. There is Jimmy Fallon who loves me. There is Jimmy Kimmel who loves me. You know what it’s like screw you, your loss.’
You can’t change the past so just move forward. I don’t allow myself to be a poor me person.
Throughout this documentary the movie does what good documentaries should do, Joan says. They entertain you and inform you.
And the number one thing you learn from the flick is that Joan does not stop working.
I can’t afford to stop, Joan shares. If I’m not working, money doesn’t come in. Barbra Streisand said I sit in the bathtub and I’m making money in Hong Kong.’ Well, I figured out that I get $7 a joke, but I love it.
There is nothing I won’t do for publicity. Humiliation does not exist in my vocabulary. I never had the cushion to say, I won’t do that.’
To keep her comedic chops in top shape, Joan reads the Wall Street Journal, The NY Times and The NY Post every morning. You don’t know where comedy comes from, Joan shares.
In preparing her material for stand up, Joan writes down jokes all the time. I think of something and say, oh that’s funny’ and I write it down. So there are bits of paper all over the place, Joan says. And I have a rule that if anyone says anything funny in front of me, it’s mine.
So how do female comedians stay aggressive and feminine at the same time?
I don’t know Joan says. It’s really hard. And all the men that I’ve been seriously involved with have never seen me perform. They’ve never seen me in a night club. I am so tough on a stage. You have to be. You need an audience’s attention.
Tough, honest, and true to her comedic senses, Joan does not worry about what other people think of her style.
Bill Cosby once said to me, if one percent of the entire world likes you, you will fill stadiums,’ Joan shares.
However tough the business has been for Joan, she believes that younger comedians have an even steeper road to climb.
I was so lucky, Joan says. When I did Carson, the world saw you. Now you have a thousand choices so no one knows you. People will say, I have been on Letterman 19 times’ and you’re like ehh.’ You don’t see them. There is no star maker now unless maybe you can dance like Kate Gosselin. I watch her spin and am so scared more kids are going to come out of her.
Always moving forward, Joan is most grateful that her parents got to see her succeed. Thank goodness mine did, Joan shares. When my Mom was near death her friend said to her Joan is a star’ and my Mom said No, she is a superstar.’
Joan plans to keep her star shining for as long as possible.
I want to do everything, Joan says. I’d like to go back to Broadway. I’d like to do a movie. The next thing is always the most exciting.