Joan Rivers said two words that might seldom pass her lips.
She was gleefully discussing the passage in her latest hilarious but outrageous book, Diary of a Mad Diva, where she says that actress Kristen Stewart owes her career to “being able to juggle a director’s balls.”
Stewart was understandably not amused by the reference to her affair with her Snow White and the Huntsman director, Rupert Sanders. In fact, Hollywood was buzzing with rumours Stewart was planning to sue Rivers.
The 81-year-old comedian, whose raspy voice sounded (as always) like she’d been cheering non-stop for every team playing in the World Cup, gleefully verified the reports.
“It’s true, her lawyer called. I can’t wait to get into a courtroom with her,” she said. “I’m going to bring a Ken doll and I want her to show me on it just where she touched her director.”
But after I inform Rivers that both Stewart and Sanders have just been dropped from the Snow White and the Huntsman sequel, that’s when the hot air momentarily leaked out of her Hindenburg of invective and she blurted out that two-word apology.
“Now you made me feel terrible,” she says. But after only a nanosecond for recovery, she bounds back.
“But hey, how much did she make out of that first movie anyway, 25 million? Baby, that’s a lot of Tim Hortons.”
So maybe she dodged that legal bullet, but Rivers admits that Stewart isn’t the only one displeased with what she says about them in her equal-opportunity diss-fest. “I mock everybody, regardless of race, creed, or colour,” she brays.
“I hear the Kardashians aren’t happy with me either,” she says, “but they should be happy that they’re in the public consciousness. It’s what they want. Look, everybody is fair game if you’re in the public eye and making over $20 million a year.”
But that description doesn’t exactly fit someone else who feels the lash of Rivers’ whiplike tongue: one of the most sacrosanct of all icons, Anne Frank.
In the very first pages of her book, Rivers says that since she’s just beginning a diary, one of her friends compared her to Frank, “the other most famous diarist in history. I’ve written six books, and Anne? She didn’t even complete her one . . . (She) was 15 and that lazy bitch played the shut-in card for almost three years.”
Rivers takes the joke further in our conversation. “Look, she was a complainer and I don’t like complainers. She had an eat-in kitchen. I don’t have one in my apartment. I wish I did.”
OK. Isn’t that going too far? Mocking celebrity trash is one thing, but a Jewish woman deriding one of the most famous Holocaust victims in history?
“Look, honey,” she snaps back, “I’m one of the very few Jews who had a numbered tattoo put on their arm so don’t talk to me about not having respect.”
Earlier this year, she acquired her first tattoo. It’s very small, on the inside of her left arm, and it says, simply “6m.” It doesn’t really need the explanation, but she says, “It stands for the six million Jews who were killed in Auschwitz.”
Then why does she make Frank a subject for comedy?
At last, Rivers clues us in to the purpose behind her potty mouth.
“It’s a way of reminding people,” she affirms. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Don’t forget. Don’t ever forget.’
“Every joke I make, no matter how tasteless, is there to draw attention to something I really care about.”
This may sound like a new Rivers, unexpectedly serious, but it’s a side of her that’s been on display increasingly in recent years.
Perhaps one of the most intense revelations occurred in the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which will be broadcast on CBC News Network’s The Passionate Eye, this Saturday night, July 5, at 10 p.m.
“I was sincerely surprised people liked me in that film,” she says with uncustomary softness. “We shot it for a year and the woman who did it, Ricki Stern, is my best friend’s daughter. I kept saying, ‘I’m not giving you anything,’ and she’d say, ‘Oh Joan, you’re giving me plenty.’”
It reveals a woman who finds an empty page in her calendar the most frightening sight in the world, a woman who lives for the next gig, the next chance to make them laugh.
“Yeah, I still feel that way,” she says, four years later. “I’m terrified if it looks like nobody wants me. How long will that go on? Forever. In our business, you never know. When I was doing my show on Fox, I walked into the office one Thursday and they said, ‘You’re finished.’ I was off the air the next night. You never know. Someone buys a network, it’s game over. Look at what just happened on The View.
“And it’s not the money. I know I joke about that enough but that isn’t what drives me. I love the performing. I love the work.”
To most people under the age of 50 today, they would perceive that work as mostly being her appearances as the Wicked Witch of the Red Carpet or the Valkyrie of the Home Shopping Channel, but she once also had a stunning career in stand-up comedy and on television.
Her appearances as a guest and a regular guest host on The Tonight Show made her truly famous and show-business insiders predicted she would replace Johnny Carson when he retired.
But in 1986, she started her own rival nighttime talk show on Fox TV, The Late Show, and Carson not only never spoke to her again, but she never appeared on The Tonight Show for him, for Jay Leno or for Conan O’Brien.
It might have been worth it if The Late Show had been a hit, but it was a terrible disaster and Fox fired both her and her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, the show’s producer, after only a few months on the air. Rosenberg committed suicide shortly afterwards.
But she kept on working. And she keeps on working.
“Look, Winston Churchill once said making someone laugh is like giving them a little holiday. What’s wrong with that? And if the jokes I make call attention to things that aren’t right in the world, that’s why I do it.”
She caused an uproar in 2012 by tweeting, “Rihanna confessed to Oprah Winfrey that she still loves Chris Brown. Idiot! Now it’s MY turn to slap her,” but she maintains she did it because “domestic violence is a serious issue. I was saying, ‘You should not go back to him, Rihanna. Believe me!”
And a tongue-in-cheek sequence in her current book imagines Natalie Portman on an L.A.-to-New York flight, complaining that Anne Hathaway is taking so much time purging in the restroom that “I’m going to have to puke in my purse.”
Rivers defends that by saying, “Eating disorders are a serious problem and they’ve reached epidemic proportions in Hollywood. If I call attention to them with a joke, then I’m doing some good.”
It wouldn’t be like Rivers, however, to end on a serious note and so she finished our conversation with the traditional comedian’s trick of making an ingratiating local reference.
“I love performing in Canada. It’s so cold it keeps my skin tighter. If I’d lived there all my life, I would have needed less work done.”