Except for (possibly) James Franco, Joan Rivers, at 77, is still the busiest person in show business. As anyone who watched last year's mesmerizing documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work can attest, the comedy icon hates few things more than an empty page in her agenda.
The veteran comedian, award-winning talk show host, film director, author, Broadway star, jewelry designer, cosmetic company entrepreneur, and fashion commentator has reinvented herself again as a reality TV’s newest star. Besides Fashion Police, her other weekly series, on E! in which she doles out her unbridled style-savvy commentary, Rivers has the hit reality series Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? in which she has moved in with daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper. In the show, airing each Tuesday night on the WE network, Rivers and Rivers go head-to-head as two strong-willed women living under one roof. Rivers dispenses her singular brand of motherly wisdom, advising Melissa, in the first episode, to replace her sexy Swedish nanny with an ugly gay guy.
Rivers is also still courting controversy. She made headlines last month after remarks the comedian made linking Sarah Palin and the Tucson shooting caused Fox to cancel a scheduled interview. Rivers catches us up on the new series, offers strong words for Charlie Sheen, and discusses the one subject she can’t joke about — yet.
The Advocate: Congratulations, Joan, your show is a big hit.
Joan Rivers: Yes, I’m so happy. We got the highest ratings ever in our time slot, and we quadrupled the ratings of the show that had been there before. I just saw some clips from upcoming episodes and had forgotten how funny it is.
I just watched a clip from an upcoming episode, in which you try to scatter the ashes of your dead gay friend in front of Judy Garland’s former home.
[Laughs] You’ll see what happens. The new owner was not happy.
After having the documentary cameras follow you around for a year while making A Piece of Work, why did you decide to put yourself through it again with Joan Knows Best?
Melissa and I wanted to do something together and I hoped we’d do a sitcom, but the new sitcom is a reality show. They kept coming to us with these dumb ideas that didn’t really work. Finally I was moving in with her to do a play at the Geffen Playhouse and thought, My God, two women living under one roof. That’s going to be something. Indeed it was, and that’s how it came about.
What did you learn about Melissa during the filming that most surprised you?
The good things are that she’s an amazing mother. She has a very wonderful life and group of friends away from me. She has a terrific boyfriend. She has her own life and identity, which is terrific. The negative things are she’s become a Californian. It’s all eating out and sending out, and don’t dress up. Nobody makes appointments. “What are you doing Saturday night?” “I don’t know.” “What do you mean you don’t know?” In New York you know six months in advance what you’re doing every minute.
Speaking of becoming a Californian, of all the sights I thought I’d never see, watching you sit on a beach and rub sunscreen on your grandson’s topless Swedish nanny ranks pretty high.
[Laughs] How about that? She handed me that sunscreen and asked me to put it on her.
Level with me — some of these situations have to be staged. How much of your show is actually organic?
All of it! We haven’t had to stage anything. The network would actually call and ask if these things are real or if we made them up. I’m telling you no. Some of these other series are a little planned. I mean, how many times can you walk into your house and find your sister having anal sex with your husband? We haven’t had to do any of that, thank God.
I’m skeptical that you really slept in Melissa’s tiny guest bedroom. Are you sure you didn’t sneak out to the Four Seasons when the cameras weren’t rolling?
Oh, God, no. You can’t, because then the whole thing becomes a sham. As I learned in my documentary, if it’s going to be reality, it had damn well better be reality. Our reality is so wacko. The day we wrapped. Cooper broke his arm. Three days after we wrapped one of the characters found out he’s Jewish and wants to have a bar mitzvah. I was like, Oh, fuck, we just wrapped. Couldn’t you have found out you’re a Jew six weeks ago?
Tell him to postpone the bar mitzvah until season 2.
Season 2! That’s exactly what I said to Melissa. We’ll have the bar mitzvah in season 2.
Melissa comes off as a very grounded person and a great mother to Cooper. How do you feel about second-generation celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, who has children yet is hanging out with porn stars and having briefcases of cocaine delivered to his house?
I think he’s an ass. When you have a child, darling, you’d better start setting an example. Childhood for you is over when you have a child. I find it outrageous to be carrying on like that. I also think that when you get the gold ring you have an obligation. The old studio system made you have an obligation to live a clean life and be the example. What am I going to tell my grandson who watches Two and Half Men? I just think he’s awful.
The last time you spoke to The Advocate you suggested that young gay performers should remain in the closet if they want to play straight romantic characters. Last December Richard Chamberlain spoke with us and agreed with you. Do you stand by that statement?
Yes. You are supposed to be a heartthrob, and you want the little teenage girls’ hearts to go pitter-patter. That’s what brings in the money. You know what? Let them stay in the closet and send a big check to AIDS research. Let them come out like Ricky Martin did, when you want to come out. However, if it isn’t going to affect your career and if you’re not the heartthrob, then shame on you for not coming out.
Last year Carrie Fisher told us that in some cases the public knows a veteran actor is gay and is OK with it. Do you agree?
If it doesn’t affect your career, shame on you, shame on you for not coming out. There are certain people who say, “I’m not gay, I’m not a lesbian,” and you want to scream, “Stop it, stop it!” But if your livelihood is dependent on teenage girls buying your records, then it’s your decision.
As a comic who doesn’t hold back, what’s your take on Ricky Gervais as host of this year’s Golden Globes?
I thought he was great. What did they think he was going to talk about? If you invite Kirstie Alley to your dinner party, she’ll lick your plate. [Laughs] You go to a proctologist, he’ll examine your ass. It’s the same thing. When you invite Ricky Gervais to host, he’s going to do wild jokes. That’s what he does. I hosted the Emmys about 10 years ago and they double- and triple-guessed me. They were like, “You can’t say this and you can say that.” So what’s the point?
How do you think James Franco and Anne Hathaway will fare hosting the Oscars?
I think the producers will get what they deserve. Nothing against these two, but if you want to have a nice ladies-and-gentlemen evening ... Maybe there will be surprises. Maybe Anne Hathaway will wear tassels and twirl them. I’m hoping she’ll rip off her dress and bring out a pole.
Besides being a revered comic, red carpet interviews are a big part of your legacy. Do you think you’ve changed the way celebrities dress?
Melissa and I have, absolutely! The stylists of America should send us a check every week. When we started doing the red carpets everyone dressed themselves. We’ve made it a lot more chic and less fun.
Would you say Hollywood has started playing it too safe out of fear of your comments?
Hollywood has absolutely become safe. This year, if the look is ruffles, they’ll all be in ruffles. At the Globes green was the color and there were six green dresses. Ball gowns! Everyone looked like they were standing on toilet paper.
Do you ever pull punches with your celebrity friends’ fashion choices?
I do give comedians more of a break. We’re not glamorous actresses. You have Tina Fey looking human, so I say good for Tina Fey. You have Sarah Silverman looking good, good for Sarah Silverman. And Kathy Griffin looks good. She’s so into fashion. So I say good for our team.
Speaking of your team, there’s a story that’s been circulating, which may just be a gay urban legend, but I heard that you, Cher, and Kathy Griffin recently had a “girls only” party at Cher’s house.
It’s true and it was great. The rule was no makeup and no hair. We sat there and had wine and sushi and just talked and talked. It was a great, great night. We talked about who’s done what, who’s screwing whom, who’s a liar, just everything. We all had a wonderful time.
Give us the lowdown on your handsome Fashion Police sidekick George Kotsiopoulos.
He is so cute. Go look up the old actor Cornel Wilde. He looks just like him. He’s adorable.
I appreciate how he stands his ground and isn’t afraid to disagree with you.
He’s a stylist and he knows his stuff. And he’s a cutie pie.
The fiancé of Kelly Osbourne, another of your Fashion Police cohorts, recently left her for a transgender model.
Probably, probably ... I adore Kelly, but she runs with a very fast crowd and God knows what’s going on in that set. It’s OK, though. She’s young and needs to get a couple of knocks. You know what I mean? It’s OK. She’s doing just fine.
I have to ask about your movie Rabbit Test [which Rivers directed in 1978], because I think it’s hilarious.
You’ve just made me a friend for life.
It reminded me of Mel Brooks and early Woody Allen, yet it was so poorly received. Why didn’t you direct another film?
It came out too early. It came out before Animal House and before Airplane! The critics were so mean, so universally mean, that I never wanted to direct again. Later came Airplane! and Caddyshack and they thought they were hilarious. We were just too early. We were first, and you should never be the first in anything. You should always be second.
Last month your appearance on Fox was canceled because of comments you made about Sarah Palin. Now Tracy Morgan is getting a lot of mileage out of Palin, and Kathy Griffin certainly has in the past. Do comedians consider Palin the gift that keeps on giving?
Yes. Thank you, thank you, God, for her sending that daughter who can’t dance to Dancing With the Stars. You wait for the Kate Gosselins of the world who don’t know the names of all their children. As a comedian you pray for things like this. Oh, yes! The only thing we’re being careful of is poor Zsa Zsa Gabor and her one leg. I have a great joke, but I just can’t do it yet. [Laughs] But, yes, you pray for things like that.