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Joan Rivers is more than skin-deep

Joan Rivers is more than skin-deep
Joan Rivers at the Magic Theatre Company in San Francisco. (Randi Lynn Beach / For the Times)

Probably the last thing one would expect to hear at the Magic Theatre, long an incubator of groundbreaking theatrical work, is the sound of Joan Rivers throwing it to her daughter Melissa on the red carpet. Yet this unmistakable voice has been reverberating on tape as part of the tech preparations for the comic's imminent arrival.

The occasion is a limited workshop presentation of "The Joan Rivers Theatre Project," and it should come as no surprise that once the Queen Mother of Elizabeth Taylor jokes is in the building, there's no containing that raucous mischief-making rasp.

Sitting in one of the cramped offices at the Magic's Fort Mason location on the magnificent marina, Rivers seems seriously delighted to be involved with a theater that has such a storied track record.

"Everyone forgets that I'm a writer," she says, in her semi-aggrieved, semi-humorous way. "I've done a play called 'Fun City' and another called 'Sally Marr . . . and Her Escorts.' This is my third, and I can't wait to get in front of an audience and find out what's funny and poignant and what isn't."

Mixing classics riffs with candid reflections on her roller-coaster career, Rivers' autobiographical comedy, which runs through Sept. 2, may not yet have an official title, but she's ready to dig in with both hands to turn it into something more than a celebrity's vanity project.

So then why does she look incongruously ready for her big close-up? She has arrived with her face fully done, the effect of which brings to mind a Joan Rivers doll with its eyes and mouth sewn a little too tightly. Fortunately, she can send the hair and makeup bill to CNN, as she'll be appearing on "Larry King Live" later in the day to pay tribute to her friend Merv Griffin, who died over the weekend.

"I was there during the time when Carson and he were big rivals," she recalls. "And there was an unwritten law, which everyone will deny, that if you did Carson you couldn't do Merv, and I was one of the few who broke the law. I loved him. He was dear. Carson was a better interviewer than Merv, but Merv was warmer. And they each brought different things. Merv had better lighting.

Not a minor consideration for a woman who has become an icon -- or is it object lesson? -- of plastic surgery. "I've had two face lifts," she says defiantly. "I don't think that's bad when you're in your 70s. And every now and again I'll do a little nip or a tuck. This is a business where you have to look good, and I find it so distasteful when important women say they've done nothing, that they're proud to be who they are. Don't lie. We all know who's done what."

The first thing that impresses you about Rivers up-close and personal is her fierceness. Patently quick-witted, she's also unusually direct in her replies, which often come with enough profanity to make you forget that she's a Barnard grad with a cultured background and famously expensive taste.

A regular theatergoer in New York, where she lives, Rivers didn't want to add to the store of pointless one-woman shows. "I've seen many of them," she says. Some, like Elaine Stritch's, are so honest that you love them. But I've walked out of others that will remain nameless, and you say, 'How dare you make me come for an hour and a half and tell me nothing."

A piece of friendly advice from John Lahr, the New Yorker theater critic who co-authored "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," has stayed with her. "He said tell them things that they don't know," she says. "And that's what I've tried to do with my two other writers, Denis Markell and Doug Bernstein -- get down to the real nitty-gritty."

Directed by Mark Rucker, "The Joan Rivers Theatre Project" may not be a solo show, but it clearly revolves around its star. Set in her dressing room on the night of a major award ceremony, the play finds the dragon lady of the red carpet none too thrilled about the way she's being treated by the network's new entertainment director.

Insulted by a paltry cheese plate that's offered as a token of welcome and frustrated by her new Rus- sian stylist who seems more accustomed to dealing with bearded women, she doesn't know how she'll summon the strength to get through another year, especially with her new young blond boss, who clearly has it in for her.

The moral of the story -- yes, there's even one of those -- is that despite all that has happened to Rivers, she's still here. The very fact brings her almost to tears.

"I swear to God, it's not fame," she says when asked about what keeps her manically plugging away at 74. "Fame -- you can slap someone on the face and get on the cover of something. It's the work; it's the process. I adore my daughter and I adore my grandson, and I have a wonderful life and wonderful friends. But I am happiest when I'm creating, either writing or performing. That is where I belong."

It's been an uphill climb all the way.

First it was her parents, who discouraged her from getting into showbiz. Then it was being a woman trespassing in the male-dominated worlds of stand-up comedy and late-night talk shows. Eventually personal tragedy struck.

And now she says it's her age that's the biggest hurdle.

All of this has shaped her comic persona. Rivers has always had the last laugh on those who have made her feel unwanted, unpopular and unsexy. By telling of how her mother and father chipped away at her self-esteem, she laughingly consoled the chronically underappreciated. By complaining about the way flight attendants overlooked her, she spoke on behalf of everyone who has been outraged by second-class treatment. And while implicitly making herself the butt of her routines, she took explicit aim at the rich and famous -- and readjusted for a moment the balance of power in a world gaga over glossy looks and superficial graces.

Some will say Rivers' cruelty outstrips her comedy. Her ballistic mockery has been targeted not merely at Hollywood icons and members of the royal family but also at formerfirst kid Amy Carter, the disabled and other innocent bystanders. And her postmortem fashion assessments of the award shows -- though she claims the big- ger stars never complained about her ruthless shtick -- turned her into a gorgon of all that glitters.

Rivers thinks of herself instead as "survivor," and in a literal sense she is one: Her husband Edgar Rosenberg killed himself in 1987. It happened during a low point in her career. Her talk show that helped launch the Fox Broadcasting Co. the previous year was canceled, and Rosenberg, who had clashed with the network's head honchos, Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller, felt responsible.

Perhaps this is why Rivers also speaks of herself as a survivor of the industry. She still hasn't gotten over the fact that Carson never forgave her for starting her own competing show and claims that his anger at her "betrayal" led to her being blackballed from much of late-night television.

"It's been 20 years, and I still can't get on Leno," she says. "Murderers get off, child molesters are out looking at a whole new generation," but, Rivers says, she's still paying the price.

Yet she keeps moving forward with the assurance that the best is yet to come. She says she's "huge" in England ("don't trust me -- look it up!") and has enjoyed her recent guest spots on "The View." She's also done very nicely on QVC ("they won't need to hold a benefit for me when I die") and hopes that her latest theater piece will eventually have a "wonderful and warm" off-Broadway run.

"For a comic, as long as you're funny you can do anything," she says. "And so far, thank God, I'm still funny."

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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