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The Rivers edge

Can we talk? Of course, and you know she can.

Joan Rivers was filmed for a documentary over about a year starting in 2008. Joan Rivers was filmed for a documentary over about a year starting in 2008. (Seth Keal/IFC Films via Associated Press)
By Janice Page
Globe Staff / June 13, 2010

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NEW YORK — Let’s be honest; I came to get a good look at the face.

Now that Michael Jackson is gone, Joan Rivers stands as the poster child, at 77, for Extreme Celebrity Plastic Surgery. Her open addiction to nips and tucks brings to mind the creepily wrinkle-free women of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.’’

Lately she seems to be everywhere. First as the winner of last season’s “The Celebrity Apprentice,’’ on NBC, and now as the subject of a big-screen documentary called “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,’’ opening here on Friday.

So, what does this sharp-tongued comedy icon look like and sound like up close? Softer than you might think, for starters — much like her offstage personality. Her famously contrived visage is not a complete train wreck. It seems sculpted out of firm mozzarella, with maybe too much forehead and not enough nose, and — most distracting — the smooth-mounded cheeks of an Easter bunny mask. Her jaw and eyeballs move. Everything else just sort of sits there, like a dental mold never intended for display.

In the documentary, which was shot over the course of about a year, beginning in mid-2008, Rivers shows herself to be every bit as vain as we would expect from the woman who popularized, if not invented, red-carpet fashion interviews. She admits to being obsessed with fame and appearance. But she also lets herself be filmed in many unflattering situations, including one startling scene where she’s just come from a round of Botox and collagen injections and has to soothe her swollen face with an ice-filled surgical glove.

Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, previously best known for films about Sudanese genocide (“The Devil Came on Horseback’’) and wrongful imprisonment (“The Trials of Darryl Hunt’’), try to go at Rivers’s life with the same unflinching dedication, if a bit more humor. They follow her backstage in the shabbiest of venues and investigate every corner of her insanely grand New York penthouse. The dark times, including husband Edgar’s suicide, get reexamined. And scenes with her inner circle, including daughter-sidekick Melissa Rivers and 9-year-old grandson Edgar Cooper Endicott, offer poignant and revealing commentary.

Some of us remember when Rivers’s “Tonight Show’’ appearances were must-see TV, offering classic moments like the one where Johnny Carson, playing straight man, suggests that men are attracted to intelligence: “Are you kidding?’’ replies the brassy comedian. “No man has ever put his hand up a woman’s dress looking for a library card.’’

Stern and Sundberg’s documentary covers the full arc of Rivers’s long career as a comedy icon, from stand-up gigs and her public falling out with Carson (she left “The Tonight Show’’ to compete with him on another network) to her many reinventions as a performer, author, fashion designer, and shameless pitchwoman. Today, she hosts a TV Land reality series (“How’d You Get So Rich?’’) and still does about 100 stand-up dates a year, including Wednesdays at New York’s West Bank Cafe whenever she’s home. She candidly defines fear as an empty datebook.

When Rivers sat down for a recent interview in Manhattan, she was impeccably styled, proudly drenched in jewelry from her own QVC-available line. Except for Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, she was surprisingly reluctant to name names when carping about some of her pet peeves. But she had plenty to say in general. And yes, she is a piece of work. So was Phyllis Diller. So was Lenny Bruce.

Q. So you and Betty White are finally hip, huh?

A. Incredible. It’s a whole new group that’s discovering me now, the way they’re discovering Betty. They don’t know what Carson was, they don’t know what my daytime talk show was, they don’t even know me from the red carpet, and that’s great. I love reaching people who ordinarily wouldn’t have come out to know that you’re funny.

Q. But does any part of it feel condescending? Like: She’s old and naughty, how cute!

A. I think there’s more surprise for them, because she’s old but, my God, she’s smart! She’s funny! There’s a great shock value in that.

Q. Have you changed or are you the same person with a different audience?

A. I think I’m the same person I always was. [My comedy] has changed because the times have changed. It’s a very rough time now, so comedy is much rougher. We never sat in a room before and wondered if they’re going to blow up New York right now.

Q. Are there more taboos?

A. Less taboos. The audience is very receptive because everyone is terrified. Comedy at least gives you a release; it is a communal thing. People don’t eat together any more. They don’t even watch TV in the same room. We don’t talk to each other; we Twitter.

Q. What makes you funny enough to engage them?

A. Being an outsider and seeing things that are so terrible that you have to laugh at them. It’s that simple.

Q. So when you’re heckled [as happens in the movie] by a man with a deaf son who doesn’t think your Helen Keller joke is funny, the only answer to that is . . . ?

A. Yes, it is. It is funny. And maybe the horror of going home to a deaf child — which is tough — maybe you should laugh. My mother went blind before she died, and I do so many blind jokes in the act, and she used to sit and laugh at them. What are you going to do?

Q. That moment in the film is pretty intense.

A. Yeah, but that’s very rare. They were lucky to get it in the documentary. That’s once every seven or eight years. You reach a certain level in the business where they have respect for you and they won’t do it.

Q. They won’t heckle you, even though you have a reputation for being so critical?

A. Onstage, yes, I represent everybody’s outrage. But I think that’s why people like it, because I will come out and say this is stupid and this is wrong. And I love when people say, “You get into my head.’’ I tell them I hate children. You had it, you take care of it.

Q. Is there a line?

A. I think it’s wonderful the way children can talk to you and they can say, “I don’t want to play with you,’’ and it’s over. Wouldn’t it be nice to say to a friend, I really don’t want to have dinner with you because you never tell me the truth, so why am I wasting my time? Of course, we don’t say that because of manners and so forth, but it would be lovely to tell the truth a little more often.

Q. Is this movie the truth?

A. I knew these filmmakers would do an honest picture. They’d done a thing on Darfur and on someone being [imprisoned] unfairly, so you knew they weren’t going to just go in and tap-dance around.

Q. You say on camera that you can’t face yourself without makeup. Are you OK with the unflattering moments they captured?

A. I think it’s good to see. It’s a society where looks matter. Everybody wants to look nice. So, if you hate your nose, fix your nose! Because you’re going to wake up and be 76 very fast.

Q. Or in menopause.

A. Oh! Tell me about it. You should never let them know you are going through menopause because you are checked off. To this day I carry a tampon. And when nobody pays attention to me, I open my bag and I drop it on the floor.

Q. What is shocking in comedy now?

A. They’re still very shocked by my saying some people got money for 9/11 and are happy that their relatives died. But I tell them, don’t say anything. Next Thanksgiving, look around your table and think: If it was quick and fast and I got $5 million tax-free, which one would not be here next year?

Q. Is there anything that’s too far?

A. If I’m saying it, it’s not too far. And I’ll very often say it for reasons that you don’t even understand. I will do jokes about Hitler and Auschwitz half the time just to remind them that there was a Hitler and there was an Auschwitz.

Q. But in the movie you scrap a potential joke about Michelle Obama because it’s not well received.

A. I scrap it because I didn’t need to have Al Sharpton and everyone else come down on me. I still think it’s hilarious.

Q. So is there such a thing as racism in comedy?

A. Lenny Bruce went around a room — I was in high school when I saw him — and he said, “You’re a [this], you’re a [that], you’re a [that]. . . . Everybody’s something, so everybody calm down.’’ And truly that’s the way I feel. What I tell my audience is, Don’t worry, we’re going to get everybody.

Q. Who’s the funniest person ever?

A. Me (heh heh heh).

Q. Next?

A. Larry David. Just watch “Seinfeld,’’ which he wrote. Extraordinary. Perfect. . . . Yeah, I’d like to have Larry David’s mind. And his money.

Q. Most overrated?

A. There are so many. It’s a trend in younger comics; they’re taking a lot of things that aren’t that funny as very funny. . . . Leno’s not funny.

Q. What’s your take on the current situation in late-night television?

A. I find it so hypocritical of Conan going boohoo, boohoo, he pushed me out, and then he went over and pushed out [George] Lopez. He did exactly to Lopez what Leno did to him.

Q. Does it strike you as strange that no one gets the level of flak you did when you left “The Tonight Show’’ to star in a competing talk show?

A. It strikes me as a men’s club. I was vilified and blacklisted forever. I guess they don’t care as much now.

Q. Will you go on any late-night shows if asked?

A. I would never go on Leno now. They should have had us meet 10 years ago; it would have made great television. I have no respect for Leno and I don’t think he’s funny. Ugh. What was the last funny thing he said? You’ll go to [David] Letterman or Jon Stewart to see what’s funny, but you don’t go to Leno.

Q. Do you feel like you’re funnier than ever?

A. I’m working at the top of my form now. Age frees you; it’s the only good thing. You can walk into the bakery and say, Use a tissue, please. I thought I’d be old and over, so I am just tap-dancing in my Chanels. Can’t walk, but I’m having a good time.

Q. No retirement in sight, right?

A. Never, never, never. I’m enjoying. When 3,000 people are laughing at the same joke as you are, that’s it. And it’s also it when my daughter calls me up and says things are great, Cooper is fabulous — same level. It makes a happy day.

Q. Do you like the Joan Rivers you see now?

A. I don’t look. I don’t watch myself on television because what I see is a friend of my mother’s: a nice Jewish lady, put together.

Q. There are no mirrors in your house?

A. There are, but I don’t look. And I try not to look at my behavior on film because whatever I’m doing is working.

Q. Since you’ve said you’ll be making jokes until your last breath, what’s the perfect death scenario?

A. For an hour show in Las Vegas, you have to be on stage 31 minutes or you don’t get paid. I would like to drop dead at 32 minutes so Melissa gets the money. What a show for those people. Dinner and a death? And half the show? You can’t beat that.

Interview was condensed and edited. Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.

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