Thanks to Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, rapt audiences are learning that there’s a lot more to Joan Rivers than E! red carpet critiques, QVC jewelry, and plastic surgery punch lines. The critically acclaimed documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg follows a rocky year in the life of and on the road with the caustic comedy icon, including her victory on Celebrity Apprentice last season. As the film expands into theaters nationwide, Rivers, who turned 77 earlier this month, kicks off a summer of intimate Manhattan club appearances with a special two-show gay pride edition June 24. Also starring in the upcoming WE reality series Mother Knows Best with daughter Melissa, Rivers looks back at the lifetime of laughter and tears she’s shared with gay audiences.
The Advocate: Your documentary is officially a hit. Has the success gone straight to your head?
Joan Rivers: Well, I was always an egomaniac, but now it’s gone even further. It’s just so unexpected. We thought we were doing a nice little documentary about show business, age, and how difficult it all is. We took it to Sundance, thinking, Oh, maybe they won’t be snotty. But then it came back with prizes and everybody screaming. It’s been an amazing ride.
I would’ve bet that a gay man would ultimately make a documentary about your life — not two women who, as you’ve noted in another interview, don’t wear makeup. How might the film have turned out with a gay man behind the camera?
It definitely would’ve dealt with different aspects of my life. There would’ve been more about the fashion and fun in my life, but Ricki and Annie went for how difficult it is. They came off of doing a documentary about Darfur, so they really didn’t give a damn that I’d met Judy Garland. I guess that means there’s room for another documentary.
You’re performing a gay pride edition of your stand-up show tonight in New York for gay pride week.
I’m so excited. When I do a show, I usually say, “Where are my gays?” and I make sure they’re down front. Tonight I won’t have to say that.
Are you pulling out some classic gay material from your card catalog of jokes we see in the documentary?
Oh, no. God knows what we’ll talk about, but you do want to give them a very strong show. They’re a great crowd, so you want to make sure they get the cream. You know, my first record album was called Mr. Phyllis & Other Funny Stories. I talked about my gay hairdresser, Mr. Phyllis, and that was very shocking in those days. Everybody went, “Oh, my God!” But that was a long time ago.
Do you tread more cautiously than usual when crafting a gay joke to ensure it won’t offend your loyal gay audience? Because if we’ve learned nothing else, gay people can be as sensitive as they are good-humored.
Oh, please. Let’s calm down here. I talk to the audience like I talk to my friends, and that would be the one crowd I wouldn’t worry about. I expect them to get every single thing I say.
Why? Didn’t you see the documentary? That’s the whole point. Comedy is how you deal with things. If you can laugh at it, you can deal with it.
Did you lose many friends to the AIDS crisis?
A lot, a lot, a lot. I was doing my talk show during part of that, and one day we did a big thing on AIDS. I said, “Let’s put up pictures of my friends who have died.” And it just didn’t stop. I was so upset, because you don’t realize how many you lost until you really start to line it up. It was awful. It was a death sentence back then. When someone called you up and said, “I have AIDS,” it was over. My hairdresser, Jason Dyl, was wild and crazy. The minute he heard about it, he said to me, “That’s the end for me.” And it was. We didn’t know what to do, how to treat it, so he used to put on rubber gloves to do my hair. It was a horrible, black time. Don’t get me started.
My mother had a very dear friend who was gay, but it just wasn’t talked about. When I got out of college, I was asked to come down to Lord & Taylor and help them change the windows on Thursday nights. I didn’t get any money for it, but it was a huge honor, because their windows were the most beautiful in New York and very noticed. I know it sounds stupid, but it was like being picked to be in the inner circle. Anyway, everyone down there was gay, and I had the best time. That began my lifelong affinity with gay people.
Who was your first gay friend?
An amazing man named Dick Eastwood, who worked in the window display department at Lord & Taylor. We’d go through Lord & Taylor — he’d dress me up and send me out on dates in borrowed clothes.
When did you first feel love from the gay community as a comic?
When I got into the business, I started working at night in all the clubs in Greenwich Village like the Duplex. There’d always be these little groups of tables of men that just got it more than the others, so I began to want to make them laugh more than the others. I didn’t seek it, and there was no plan; it was just a natural thing.
Who’s the most important gay person in your life today?
A friend of mine who lives up in Connecticut. There’s one couple and two single men up there that I just adore. You know, Connecticut is the reverse of the Hamptons: You don’t dress up, you don’t wear makeup, and it’s very underplayed. So we’ll say things like, “I come up here to see nobody!” Then we all get together and have dinner.
Fran Drescher recently said she’d been married to a gay man for 21 years. Have you ever unwittingly dated a gay man?
Well, I wittingly dated a gay man named Michael, who was a wonderful writer. We got very angry one night because somebody said to me, “Why are you going out with him? He’s gay.” So we said, “Let’s announce our engagement tonight.” We didn’t really date, but I was engaged to Michael for a while. I adored him, but we all knew, of course.
It’s easy to fall for a gay friend.
It is easy, and there are also many gay men who have fallen in love with me. If you’re together long enough, there’s a moment in almost any friendship when you look at each other and go, “Well, maybe.” And then you go, “That’s stupid. This ain’t gonna last.”
Like Betty White, who sort of outed Cary Grant on The Joy Behar Show last week, you’ve surely encountered some closeted celebrities through the years.
Yes. But it’s a business. If everyone had known that Cary Grant was gay, he wouldn’t have been the great romantic idol, and that would’ve been the end of his career. Same with Rock Hudson, who was a very good friend of mine. He had a partner named Tom for years, and when you invited Rock, you invited Tom — there was no question. But if the world had known, maybe they wouldn’t have wanted to see him make out with Jane Wyman. It makes sense, in a way. If you’re looking at someone who’s your idol, thinking that maybe one day they’ll come ring your doorbell, you don’t want to hear, “There’s no chance in hell, honey, but still buy a ticket to the movie.”
Should young gay performers still keep their sexuality a secret?
It’s part of the game. If you’re going to be a romantic idol and try to get every teenage girl to love you, then you’d be an ass to come out and say you’re gay. That’s why Ricky Martin was so smart — he did what he did, he made his millions, and then he said, “Guess what, everybody? I’m gay, I’m having this life, and here are my children.” It didn’t matter anymore because he didn’t have to bring in 16-year-old girls.
Since we’re getting into Newsweek territory here, did you buy Sean Hayes as a romantic lead in Promises, Promises?
I thought he was adorable. What’s there to buy? It’s a musical, for God’s sake. We already know the plot, we know they get together in the end, and there’s singing and dancing. What, we’re looking for reality here? It’s so stupid.
Betty White is starring in another sitcom at 88. After your reality show, Mother Knows Best, would you like to do a sitcom?
I’d love to do a real sitcom — or a movie. I’m hoping Meryl Streep will get sick somewhere along the line, just for a minute, so they’ll give me her part.
You worked with Ryan Murphy when you played a fictionalized version of yourself on Nip/Tuck. Would you like to appear on Glee?
Ryan is a genius, so I’d do Glee in a second. Anyone who doesn’t want to go on the number 1 show is an idiot. I’ve only seen it once, so I don’t know what I’d play, but it would probably be somebody’s curmudgeon grandmother. I’d leave it to Ryan to come up with something clever. After all, he’s the one who came up with the idea of my wanting to go backwards on plastic surgery.
In the late ’50s you played a lesbian opposite Barbra Streisand in the off-off-Broadway play Driftwood. If you played another lesbian role today, whom would you want cast as your love interest?
My daughter Melissa. Let’s really make it good.
Betty White’s too old for you?
And also not my type. She’s too Midwestern for me.
What do you make of the cadre of female comics who have come out as lesbians later in their careers?
Well, with comedians it doesn’t mean a damn thing, because there’s not the same romantic thing involved there. No single guy ever had Ellen DeGeneres’s or Rosie O’Donnell’s picture up on the wall and thought, Maybe one day I’ll meet her and she’ll marry me. No one cares what a comedian is. All you’re thinking about is if they’re going to make you laugh.
It’s not too late in life for you to come out, Joan.
I’ll probably do it right before my new show comes out. You should only come out when you need the publicity.
Have you ever experimented with another woman?
I always liked men. I wish I could say, “Gee, there was this counselor ... ” But it never happened for me. Will it ever happen? Who knows? If Lily Tomlin had shown up with a ring, who knows what might’ve happened? But it would’ve had to be a big ring.