WORKING GIRL The lady herself in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers is having a moment. At 77, the raunchy comedy icon is coming off one of the biggest years of her career, what with The Celebrity Apprentice, her string of sold-out stand-up shows, and her new TV Land series, How’d You Get So Rich? Now, as you may have heard, she’s the subject of a terrific new documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. We spoke to the lightning-quick comedienne about her fondness for plastic surgery, how to deal with hecklers, and what she thinks about seeing her life on the big screen.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is surprisingly honest about your ups and downs. What did you think of it when you first saw it?

JOAN RIVERS: I’m too close to it. When I first saw it I thought, Why did you leave out this or that? But the directors did a great job. It was a year and a half of my life! To find 85 minutes out of all that they shot…

I liked how unvarnished and honest it was…

That was me…she said humbly. I thought, if we’re doing a biography with talking heads saying, “I love you Joan,” then I don’t want to do it. The deal is you have total access and put in what you want. I’m not going to name names, but there were two documentary biographies last year where at the end you didn’t know a damn thing about the subjects. What am I wasting my time sitting in a theater? I could have seen Avatar instead!

One of the highlights of the film — and your career — was the night that Johnny Carson told you were going to be a big star.

You have to understand, it was after seven years of being told, “You’re too wild, you’re too crazy, a girl can’t say those kinds of things.” Three weeks before I was on the Carson show, my own agent said to me, “Everybody’s seen you, it ain’t gonna happen.” And not in a mean way. Just, “Sweetheart, go to law school.” And the night before I went on Carson, a comic bombed and Bill Cosby — who was white hot at that moment — he had seen me in the Village and he said to them, you might as well use Joan, she can’t be any worse than the guy you had on last night! I was brought on in the last ten minutes of the show — the worst slot. And God bless Johnny Carson, he said right there on the air, “You’re going to be a big star.” And I looked behind me — I thought he was talking to the person behind me. And my life changed the next morning. The next morning I went into the bank to kite a check — which means I asked them to hold it for another day — and the girl behind the teller said, “I saw you last night! “And I knew my life was going to be different.

What were some of your more humiliating jobs before that?

I was working for Alan Funt on Candid Camera as a writer and I went in to quit after the Carson thing happened. He was so mean. And I said, “I’m leaving Alan.” And he said, “You’ll be sorry, Jill.” He didn’t even know my name!

Why was it such an uphill battle for you in the early days?

Because I was, like I am now, outrageous. Jack Lemmon walked out when I was on stage because I said I was having an affair with a married man. You didn’t say that!

The movie shows how much you hustle even in your 70s. You’ll fly to Minnesota overnight for an unglamorous gig.

You’re damn right! Look at my career. Truly. I haven’t been allowed back on late night since I did a show opposite Carson. Naughty, naughty, naughty. And also, you a–holes! I’m such a good guest. You fools! I always have to hustle. I’ve never been first place. I got my daytime talk show because Nell Carter didn’t want it.

Is part of the reason you work so much because deep-down you need that love from the audience?

I’m an addict. It’s my drug. I love my work. And I think we say in the movie, this is where I’m happiest. I’m in my 70s and I still walk out onstage like a prize fighter. This is my arena. I’m still hungry.

Is there any town you won’t play or gig you won’t do or product you won’t endorse?

No. Maybe something anti-Jewish. Maybe if Mel Gibson called.

Tell me a clean dirty joke that we can run…

They say that sex peters off after you’ve been married a couple of years. So one night I wrapped myself up for my husband in saran wrap. And he comes home and opens the door and looks at me and says, Leftovers again?

Anything you regret in the movie?

A couple of things make me…Kathy Griffin, who is such a good friend, I think I say something mean about her in the film. But she’s my best friend. I adore Kathy. I wish they had made my love of her stronger. If anyone deserves the success she’s getting, it’s her. She hasn’t had an easy road either.

How did your catchphrase “Can We Talk” start?

In Vegas in the ’80s. It was probably about Elizabeth Taylor being fat and people gasped and I went, “Can we talk here?” What you’re really saying is, “Come on, are we going to talk the truth?”

The opening scene of the film shows you putting on your makeup. That seems pretty brave…

That’s the director. And that’s a brilliant way to start. Brilliant.

You’re pretty upfront about all the plastic surgery you’ve had done…

I just hosted the Miss USA Pageant and, let me tell you, beautiful gets you everywhere. The New York Times had an article maybe six months ago: Babies respond to pretty faces. So stop telling everyone it’s okay not to be pretty! If you can fix it, fix it! If it makes you happier. I love to look in the mirror and say, “For 77, you look good.” That’s all. I don’t care what anyone says. Not bad for 77.

You say anger fuels comedy and the conventional wisdom is that all comedians are clowns crying on the inside. Do you think that’s true?

Totally. I don’t know why. I think we see things…you just see the injustices more and it’s a great way to go after the emperor wearing no clothes. Comedy — you should walk out feeling better.

You deal with a pretty vocal heckler in the movie. What is the best way to deal with one when you’re doing stand up?

You never include them in the act. The audience came to see you, not them. By including them, one person is having a great time, and 3,999 people aren’t. So you cannot include them. You’ve got to slap them down hard and you’ve got to get them removed, because it’s going to ruin the evening for everybody. I don’t have a standard comeback line. The one in the movie is the probably the first one I’ve had in seven years. I was shocked!

When people say you’re being mean…

Bill Cosby once said, If you make one percent of the entire world laugh, you’ll fill stadiums. If you think I’m being mean, if that’s what you get out of my humor, when I talk about people being fat, it’s because I feel fat. I’m never mean. I’m only critical when they’re making $20 million a movie. I don’t think Demi Moore is going to be terribly upset. I would never make fun of a civilian sitting in the audience. It’s not fair. They don’t have the comeback. They don’t have the f-you money. But celebrities are open game.

How big was The Celebrity Apprentice for you?

That’s why I do everything. I didn’t want to do it, I bitched. What’s fascinating about this business is, you don’t know which one it’s going to be. You don’t know what will hit. If you don’t appreciate the ups, you’re an idiot. That’s what you want to tell these kids, these Jersey Shore people — you a–es, enjoy it now! I think that one of them will probably survive. So enjoy it now while they want you.

What did you learn about yourself from the film?

That I look fat. That I need a little lift under my chin. There’s a big scene in a taxi where I’m hearing the review of my show and I’m looking at my chin the whole time. That’s how I watch the movie. I think, Oh god, do I need to fix my chin.

What do you think you’ve meant to younger generation comics like Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman? Do you have a sense of what a trailblazer you were?

Are! Not were, are! I think I’m working better now than ever. Seriously. No, I never felt that way. I just talk about things I want to talk about. It never occurred to me that I was the first person to do this.