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2010 April 29

The Arc of Joan

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Red carpet insult comic, QVC pitchmaster, plastic surgery punchline… groundbreaking female director? Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work puts the surprisingly vulnerable comedienne in context. She gives The Daily an earful. BY LILY OEI

What made you want to participate in this documentary? Did you have any hesitation when you were asked?

JOAN RIVERS: None at all. I've known the Sterns, Ricki's mother, for a long time. And I've always liked Ricki. I've always thought she was very smart and very talented. And she said, “We should follow you around.” I said fine, but I didn't want biography, a regular biography with a talking head saying, "Aren't you great!" So she said let's do the life of a comedian, and it just worked out -- that was it.

You've been a performer all your life, but did anything about the final product – or the experience – surprise you?

I thought her choices were fascinating. We were together a year and a half.

For instance?

I haven't seen it enough times to remember. I don't like to look at myself.

You don't like to look at yourself?

No, no, no, no, no…. No. If I were to title it, I would have titled it: "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Shit." [Laughs]

In the doc, your former manager Billy Sammeth mentions you've never been embraced by the industry. Why do you think that is?

I don't know. Ask the industry. I've never been embraced. But I'll be very honest with you: By keeping you an outsider, it keeps you a comedian. You can't have lunch with them and then make jokes about them.

So if you had been welcomed, would the trajectory of your career have changed?

I think it would have been a very different life and who knows? I directed "Rabbit Test"; I was one of the first women directors and broke a lot of ground that way. And I'm never mentioned as a woman director. "Rabbit Test" came out the same time as "Airplane." And we were told it was disgusting, it was crude, it was this, it was that. And "Airplane” -- they said it was hilarious. I've never been embraced by the industry. But as I said, it just makes you angrier and keeps you going. That's your fuel.

One thing that I surprised me is how vulnerable you are to reviews. Meanwhile, you took down that heckler in Wisconsin so skillfully. Why are you more sensitive to one sort of criticism over the other?

Oh I don't know -- I'm not very introspective. I don't know and I don't care. I don't sit down and say, "Why do I do this?" or "Hmmm." Everyone is sensitive. We think we're all different, but we're all so the same. And of course you are upset when someone gives you a bad review. Of course that upsets you, it's just that simple. And also your persona on stage is very different then your persona in real life. On stage I'm very different than how I am in real life. Your reactions are different. Also [the hecker] missed the whole point of what my whole career is about, which is: Laugh at everything because life is so tough. He missed that.

Kathy Griffin talks about how you paved the way for female comics. How do you feel about the next generation of comediennes, like Kathy and Sarah Silverman?

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